My Seven Day Silent Meditation Retreat – What it’s like to meditate for hours.

I have returned from my seven-day silent meditation retreat. It was hard AND I would do it again. Maybe not for seven days.  For now, I’m leaning toward the shorter stays.

So what was it like? What made it hard?

The first day was challenging for me.  Sitting in the meditation hall and hearing the teacher tell us that we should sit still and breath as if there was nothing else to do, nowhere else to be, triggered an intense to desire to run!  My busy brain wouldn’t accept that it would be okay to slow down and just sit there!  Because it was so quiet and there were no other distractions, I clearly heard a voice saying, “You can’t afford to spend an entire week doing nothing!”  “You don’t have time for this!”

Fortunately, the teachers shared that they too, often experience anxiety at the start of a retreat.  They explained that it takes a day or two for our nervous system to adjust to the drastic decrease in stimulation.  The change from constant access to the world wide web to an abrupt disconnect from so many sources of information, is startling.   I had a hard time getting to sleep the first night.

Going off the grid.

Upon arrival on Sunday afternoon, the 94 “yogis” enrolled for the retreat formally agreed to enter into a period of “noble silence”. This meant no verbal, non-verbal (including eye contact), and written communication (unless absolutely necessary). In addition, no reading or journaling. No contact with the outside world. No news – not even the weather forecast.

On Monday morning there was a ceremony to celebrate the collection of cell phones.  As each yogi placed a phone into the basket at the front of the hall, an instructor rang the bell in recognition of the commitment.

Once everyone was officially off the grid, the peace and quiet began. Instructed to close my eyes, I was encouraged to notice where my attention landed.  And no matter where my attention decided to go, it was okay. Every thought, feeling, and physical sensation was to be welcomed. If painful or problematic, I could explore the experience with curiosity or I could adjust my position, or I could bring my focus back to my “anchor”.

Learning how to use an anchor.

An important part of learning to meditate is learning how to use an anchor to steady your effort.  An anchor is something you can focus on to keep your mind from floating off into the deep waters of the mind’s ocean. Even if you don’t meditate, you may know that many people focus on their breath while practicing.  Paying attention to the in and the out breath brings our mind back from choppy seas. At least for a few seconds, until the next random thought intrudes. If you haven’t tried meditation, you might be surprised by how busy our brains are.

Busy brains and mixed emotions.  

By the second day I was feeling gratitude for the opportunity to engage in this experiment.  As I settled, it occurred to me that this is something I’ve often craved.  Maybe you know what I mean.  Ever have one of those moments when you feel completely overwhelmed with life and everything and everyone gets on your last nerve?  Those times when you just want to  shout, “Just go away”, “Be quiet”, “Leave me alone”.  Those moments when you think to yourself, “I just need a break”.  The gratitude arrived as a wave of calm when I realized a fantasy was coming true.

But then wanting a break and signing up for a retreat aren’t exactly the same. When you meditate for hours, it isn’t all peace and quiet!  As you sit, you become more aware of  your thoughts.  This is a step toward better managing those thoughts.  With recognition and acceptance of, not only a range of thoughts, but also a range of feelings and sensory perceptions, you learn more about yourself.  You also learn about life.  You observe the impermanence of any one thought, feeling, or perception.

The sound of a cough lasts only a few seconds.  There’s a sensory arc as the sound of a car passing by starts out quiet, builds in volume, then subsides completely.  Likewise, you notice that one second you want to scratch an itch behind your right ear, then you feel a twinge in your left leg, and that’s followed by a digestive bubble bursting somewhere in your stomach.  Things you ordinarily don’t notice or usually ignore.  And every minute, there are new sounds and sensations.

The retreat is well organized so you aren’t spending too much time sitting.  You also do walking meditation which is another way to practice being present.

Details about the daily routine.

The day started early. Wake up was at 5:05 with the first sitting meditation scheduled at 5:45. Surprisingly, many of us found this to be one of our favorites. There was something about the quiet, combined with the early morning darkness, that was very special. And it was sometimes easier to quiet the mind when it was just coming out of slumber.

After 45 minutes, we went to breakfast. Everyone filed silently from the meditation hall to the dining hall where huge pots of steaming oatmeal was served every morning.  All of the food was healthy, vegetarian, and simple.  No getting distracted by the menu!  The plain white china and silverware were free from designs and beverages were limited to tea and water.  While the food was simple, it was fresh and delicious and I was grateful to have meals prepared for me threes times a day.

Breakfast ended at 7:15 when the work period began. All of the yogis were assigned jobs to help the center run smoothly. My job was mopping the floors of the yoga room, small exercise room, and the stairs and hallways connecting them. Others chopped vegetables in the kitchen or helped with dishes. There was a task for everyone and there was something about seeing everyone pitch in that warmed my heart.

Lots of sitting and walking.

At 8:15 we had our second sitting meditation of the day. During these 45 minutes, one of the teachers would sit with us and provide guided instruction. This is when we heard directions about using an anchor and were reminded to be patient as we watched our minds wander.

From 9:00 – 9:45 we moved out of the hall and into “walking rooms” or areas outside the building. Walking meditation was the other primary activity of the day. Again, instructions were provided on how to slow down and really notice the experience of walking.

And so the day went on, alternating from sitting to walking meditation with lunch at noon and dinner at 5:00 p.m. The 4:15 sitting included a daily Dharma talk which was a lesson on Buddhist principles and included inspirational stories of how others have become more mindful.  The last sitting was from 8:30 – 9:00 p.m. (unless you wanted to sit longer). The daily schedule included 9 periods of sitting meditations (mostly 45 minutes), six periods of walking meditations, three meals, and one work period.  By 9:00 I was always ready for bed.

If you read my earlier blog In Anticipation of a seven-day silent retreat, you might recall that my husband came with me.  Once again, I asked him to sit with me and answer some questions. 

I began by asking what his overall experience was.

It felt like a very healthy experience for your mind, body, and soul. To me it was like mindfulness boot-camp. I learned a lot more about meditation, how to do it right, using a better technique. I walked away more capable and motivated to engage in a regular practice.  I want to keep going.

What about the technique?

The physical experience of meditating for 6-8 hours a day was difficult. At times, depending on which position you chose, different muscles ached and it was hard to sit still for an entire sitting without something hurting. After 3 days, I finally found a position that worked. One that allowed me to stay alert, without putting too much pressure on my body.

Learn anything else?

Completing the program, I have a new understanding of mindfulness. Going into the week, I thought mindfulness was more about being mindless, trying to have less going on in your mind.  I thought you paid lots of attention to your breathing and less attention to the thoughts that pop into your head. During the week, I came to understand that mindfulness is about being aware of the thoughts AND deciding what to do with them – explore them or let them go.  It’s about having the presence to decide what is more helpful and then find your way back to your home base, your breathing.

What was surprising?

It was a surprise how much hard work goes into trying to concentrate on both your anchor and the constant flooding of thoughts that come through your head. It’s a relentless juggle. The amount of focus and attention can be exhausting.

I was also surprised by how much grieving can happen. With so much time alone, in silence, you find yourself reflecting on lost loved ones. Having this time was helpful.  Again, the key is to notice all thoughts and determine whether it is helpful to let that thought go or to take time to explore or investigate.  If a thought might lead to insight, it can be given some time and attention.  This adds to the development of personal growth.

Did anything stand out?

One of the most valuable lectures was on understanding that everyone is seeking peace and happiness. This gave me a new perspective on how I interpret other people’s words and actions. We benefit by being compassionate with ourselves and with others.

I’d also say that having completed the retreat, I now understand how mindfulness and meditation can help you be a calmer, less reactive, and more sensitive person. I’ve learned how to share my experience in a way that is less harmful and more helpful.  Most importantly, I feel like a wiser person.

Anything else?

Although it wasn’t the same experience as David Thoreau, it was an opportunity to experience a simple and solitary existence. The fact that I couldn’t speak to, or make eye contact with, anyone else, left me feeling isolated and alone. This felt awkward and challenging at times.  But I’m glad I didn’t pass up this opportunity to learn a practice just because it feels foreign or unfamiliar.  I’m glad I had the opportunity to learn about a better way of living.

My final thoughts …

I am grateful that my husband was able to be with me at the retreat.  We can now support one another as we continue to maintain a regular practice.  This is important as I realize that making a commitment to something that seems “optional” isn’t easy.  But we no longer think of this as optional.  We’ve come to recognize that meditation has as much value as any other form of regular health care such as brushing our teeth, getting regular physical exercise, eating healthy, and getting good sleep.

We have a new appreciation for the following:

  • being aware of the level of mental activity that takes place in the brain
  • being equally attentive to our body and all of our sensory perceptions
  • the ever-changing nature of everything and our tendency to resist change
  • the benefits of spending time in silence, in nature, in solitude
  • taking time to practice being in the present moment (versus lost in thought)
  • the connection between insight and loving kindness
  • and how meditation benefits the self and others

Although the experience was hard, I will do it again (and my husband will too!)  Because retreats have become more popular, there are many options available.  You can try a retreat lasting anywhere from one day to three months.  Centers are located in some of the most beautiful settings, all over the world.  Maybe it’s something to put on your bucket list?

What do you think?  Are you ready to spend some time in silence?  Let us know if you have questions.

For information about silent retreats at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA you can go to Insight Meditation Society