Being in the moment: my week at a silent meditation retreat
Updated: Oct 4, 2022
Day 1 - Bong! Bong! Bong! I awake to this unusual sound; initially perceived in the distance, but I then realise it is now coming towards my dorm room door. It is 06:15 and the first meditation practice is at 06:45. My first ever, beyond doing the free bit of the Headspace App. I am both excited to begin but nervous because there is no benchmark for experience or expectation (have you ever tried Googling ‘what are silent meditation retreats like?).
This place is special. Hanging out in silence feels wonderful today. I can hear the birds singing and the woodpeckers rap-tap-tapping a nearby Oak or Birch tree. I can hear through the open windows the noise of the wind passing through the tree canopies, and the others’ deeply breathing within my retreat community. I realise, the noises sound much like the sea. This thought allows my mind's eye to drift to the coast; a much-loved place for me. It makes me feel relaxed and happy in the moment. This counts as meditation, right?! Pondering, and contemplating feel familiar to me. I ponder and contemplate frequently, but just not usually in such beautiful and peaceful surroundings. I prefer this, already, I think.
Standing on the retreat balcony, lost in thought (meant to be doing standing or walking meditation), ‘how are they to know what is going on in my head!?’ My thoughts of rebellion come out of focus as I hear the chop, chop of vegetables. We all (17 in total) have a ‘Yogi’ job. Mine is washing dishes, after dinner. Those who volunteered for vegetable chopping are dutifully doing their bit. I walk past the table where they are sitting, and I get myself a cup of tea. It is interesting how quickly you realise that although linguistics is the obvious way to communicate, they are not the only way. There are so many smiles, and moments of eye contact, conveying an understanding of the experience we are all collectively part of.
Day 2 – It has been an interesting 24 hours. After yesterday’s entry, I became restless about meditation practice. It’s as though my experience and responses change from moment to moment at times. My frustration was when they were asking me to ‘welcome myself to my practice’ and I just kept on thinking, ‘I’m already here!’. For the remainder of the practice, I let my thoughts wander and took turns from that staring out the window at these tall purple flowers. It had become a test of my endurance, but I was not giving in this easily. Not at the first hurdle. This feeling of uncertainty remained with me for the remainder of the day and in fact, I missed the final meditation session, and I went to bed early, dreading tomorrow’s lunch of lentil pie and wondering how all vegans eat like this every single day.
Day 3 - It turns out eating lentil pie isn’t as bad as the thought of lentil pie. Thank goodness! When you simplify your diet, it is amazing how the most boring foods start to become more delicious by the day. Food, life, and experience become ‘all the sweeter’. Although, the pace you eat becomes ‘oh, so slower’; to the point, I believe those who mindfully eat must really like cold food because by the time you mindful eat a third of your plate the remainder is stone cold. At this point, I am still appearing to be a supersonic eater and I am feeling a little uncouth in my present company. Must slow down! Must put the cutlery down while I chew my food! Must not under any circumstances pre-load your fork while you are still savouring the experience of the last mouthful!
I had a breakthrough in my meditation practice today. Reflecting, I believe that my frustration yesterday was resistance, part of the transition period from the ‘typical’ world we live in and the stripped-back existence within the retreat. It dawned on me that to get by in my life I had subdued parts of myself that made life seem harder i.e., the more emotional and sensitive aspects of myself. It occurred to me that opening all areas of being was the way I could welcome myself to my meditation practice. Something clicked and I was able to settle into my position, imagining the triangle between each of my knees and my ‘sit’ bones. Grounding myself, I began to show self-compassion. It felt warm. Allowing myself space is a type of kindness and I had not shown myself that for a long time. I felt liberated, empowered, and cared for.
Day 4 – Not me, not mine, not I. Reflection time, in the evening, with the Dharma teachers is by far my favourite time of the day. I was enthralled by their wisdom and teachings. These talks are highly philosophical and there are links between Buddhist teachings and psychological principles. This evening we discussed cognitive distortions (e.g., all-or-nothing thinking), hot thoughts (spontaneous negative thoughts) and the core beliefs of self/selves. Buddhist theory suggests that there are several versions of self, ebbing and flowing and that we are susceptible to five hindrances: aversion, apathy, laziness, anxiousness, sensual desires, and doubt. These serve as obstacles to self-mastery. I had already experienced all these hindrances a few times over and I’m only on day three.
I have established a routine without a clock or mobile phone. The phone was switched off as I arrived at High Heathercombe. The gongs tell us when to get up when to meditate when to walk when to eat. The act of surrendering control of time was easier than I thought it would be. It feels strangely freeing, and your circadian clock begins to kick in, due to the only stimulus being the sunrise and sunset signifying the start and end of the day.
Day 5 – I go from hating to loving this place at a moment's notice. The frequency of meditation is a struggle sometimes and if I see another legume in my life, it will be too soon. On the flip side, I feel peace much of the time and after reflecting in my many quiet moments – after all, this is a silent meditation retreat – I believe it is the meditation practice that is allowing that peace to exist within me, and subsequently around me. Nonetheless, today I do feel a little lost. Last night the Dharma teachers shared that at times they think of the mundane such as a shopping list. This disclosure blew my mind. I assumed whilst meditating, Dharmas would be having profound thoughts and insights into the web of life. Their fall from grace in my mind resulted in me feeling a little deflated, but I also realised that perhaps I had been allowing my inner critic to guide some aspects of my meditation and that needed to change. From now on, if a Dharma can think of shopping lists, I can entertain some of them verging on ridiculous thoughts I often have and tease and play with them until they pass and until the next thought or feeling arises.
Day 6 – Last night's reflections spoke of tonality of feeling: the spectrum of an experience being pleasant, on a sliding scale to unpleasant (bliss to agony). Often, we are quick to identify emotions and pigeonhole them. This practice allows you to consider that emotion can have range, it could change from more unpleasant by being less pleasant in a matter of seconds – and that is ok. This deliberation can, when considering that humans are more predisposed to negativity, alter a thoroughly unpleasant arising in the body. Seemingly negative, you realise by considering tonality, that perhaps the experience is ‘more’ or ‘less’ blissful than you originally thought. Furthermore, the Dharma teacher discussed the ‘grey area’, that sits between bliss and agony and that in our busy lives we often fail to acknowledge this. These grey areas are times when we are washing dishes or making a cup of tea. We don’t register whether we are feeling pleasant or unpleasant, undertaking the task. However, bringing mindfulness and tonality to the proceedings provides a perspective where you begin to discover that there is bliss or agony even in these so-called grey area experiences. It is only when you give yourself the space and the time to contemplate, do you open yourself to this experience and the range of feelings that come with contemplating tonality.
Day 7 – I had awoken early (before the bongs!) and had the fortune to experience a Dartmoor sunrise. As I stood on the balcony of the retreat, the burning orange embers of the emerging day peeped above a Tor in the distance. Wispy ribbons of clouds, of different thicknesses, seem to go behind me, then far into the distance of the horizon. Forming this criss-cross forged by nature: the sweeping lines of the hill, north to south and the sky tracks of clouds, west to east. I was silent, alone, and completely mesmerised. As the moments passed, the morning’s beauty continued to unfold. The sun had now risen some more, and a mature tree was in the foreground. Its branches at the very top of the canopy had an indentation, which for around a minute perfectly held the sun, as though it was a hand cupping a small satsuma. It was fleeting. It was bliss. I let it pass.
During the day’s practice, I contemplated scenarios of coming back to ‘usual life’ and what that would be like. I wondered, whilst bringing myself back to ground how events would unfold in the not-so-distant future and how I would respond to each experience. Would I react differently? If I did, would this version of me remain? Or would life pull me back to how I was before?
What I can say being now 11 days back in my normal life, I do respond to external experiences differently. I am a lot more relaxed and if I do get stressed, it tends to blow over more quickly. I have mediated six times since being home. That is a solid average of every other day. I find the morning is the best time for sitting meditation and during the days, I go for walks. I take in my surroundings, think of my feet connecting with the ground and acknowledge doing being a form of self-compassion. I am unsure if this is a permanent change, but I am thankful for however long it lasts. I have found a kinship with not only my silent retreat community but also with Dharma practice. Although this is my first retreat, it certainly will not be my last.