A week of silence: Exploring the foundations of mindfulness
It was several years ago when I first understood what silence really meant. At its most basic, it is of course the absence of noise but in the context of a silent retreat it encompasses so much more. It is an attitude used to support our intention of exploring our inner landscape. No talking is a given, but we also abstain from reading, using our phones, and even journaling. If you chose to journal, you do so mindfully, and with discretion: it’s a fine line between capturing something of note and subtly feeding the mind the external stimulus it so desperately desires. Abstaining from talking is perhaps the easiest bit; it’s the other “noise” that is harder to quieten.
When I tell people I’m going on silent retreat, the usual response is “Oh, lovely!” And honestly, I felt the same in the run up. I knew it would be a challenge, but I enjoy silence – often I’m reluctant to come out of it – and I’d had a really full schedule in the preceding month so was looking forward to a few days of non-doing: not training, not working, not socialising. Simply being. Sleeping early, waking early, meditating and eating delicious, nourishing food in abundance.
This was a comment I noted down during the first day:
“Yesterday I couldn’t wait for silence & doing nothing. But it’s HARD.”
As they say, nothing worth having comes easy. Here I select my Top 10 highlights from the many insights of that week….
1. Moments from the end of struggle
On the first morning, I had no idea what the format of the days would be as I embarked on the first sitting practice. All I knew was the current session ran from 9am – 12:30pm. I’d started to struggle with challenging thoughts and wondered how I would sustain this for 3.5 hours, or 3.5 days. Just minutes later the bell rang signalling the end of that practice. I smiled to myself thinking how we can be just moments away from the end of our struggle without knowing it.
2. Kill me Now: A lesson in aversion
After that first sitting practice came walking practice, complete with a warning that practitioners often treat it as secondary, somehow lesser than the formal sitting. The retreat lead guided us for 10 minutes, and then said, “And now continue for another 30 minutes.” 30 Minutes?!!?! I couldn’t believe it.
That first self-led walking practice was a mirror to my mind. I walked in different directions, at varying pace, in and out of different rooms. My mind was agitated, trying to escape the horror of 30 minutes of this repetitive behaviour.
By the afternoon, I had realised this was it, this was what I was here for. I picked a path and stuck to it. My mind settled. I noticed the details around me – the hole in the tree serving as a portal to earwigs, the colour pattern of a slug, the flowers that I’d passed so many times before without noticing. Gone was the sense of waiting for the bell to bring it to an end.
3. “We don’t need to offer every visitor a 5-course meal!” – Christina Feldman
Here we are, sitting down to meditate, idyllic conditions, and the roar of a tractor starts up. “Oh I hope that stops.” “Ugh! Don’t they know we’re meditating in here?” “I’ve paid all this money to come here and now it’s ruined, I might as well have not bothered.” “OMG if that noise doesn’t stop, I’m going to scream!”
Give anything a 5-course meal and it will return! Try giving it a glass of water instead.
4. The Discerning Gatekeeper
“Mindfulness is the gatekeeper standing at the entrance to the city of the mind, warmly welcoming everyone who means to serve the inhabitants well, and politely but firmly refusing entry to those who wish to do harm.”
Many people come to mindfulness through an 8 week course and there are a few life-changing elements you learn on these: one being how to respond differently to that which we consider unpleasant. Our habitual approach is often aversive – to push away, distract, get angry. Learning to turn toward difficulty and allow it to be there is a huge skill and there is a tonne of evidence to support this approach as beneficial for our wellbeing.
We rightly focus on this in the courses because it is the antithesis of our usual reaction but we must not confuse an attitude of allowing with abandoning discernment.
5. The Sturdy Protector
How often do we hurt others as a result of our reactions? We are not the only ones who get hurt when we allow our minds to control us. We can think of mindfulness as a sturdy post hammered into the ground, and our impulses as a wild dogs chained to it, straining to get away and rampage through the world. The post prevents the untamed energy being unleashed, and after some initial pulling and barking, the wild dogs calm.
As the Dalai Lama said,
“If every 8 year old in the world is taught meditation, we will eliminate violence from the world within one generation.”
6. The Canny Cowherder
Another wonderful image from the early texts is of cowherders gathering their cows and moving them from barren fields into lush pastures where they can thrive. Our minds default to worn paths and these aren’t always paths that serve us well. When there isn’t a drop more insight to be gained and we are simply tormenting ourselves, we must herd our thoughts to more wholesome territories. Like forging any new path, this requires effort!
7. Cultivate the wholesome and the rest will take care of itself
Rather than try and get rid of a negative state, e.g. feeling angry with someone, we can intentionally cultivate a more wholesome response, e.g. goodwill toward that person. That does not mean that we try to induce a positive emotional state, but rather that we sit with the clear intention to cultivate good will, and trust that that will lessen the ill will.
“Compassion, kindness, equanimity, and joy are not only the fruits of the awakened life but also the path to it: attitudes of mind that can be cultivated by anyone willing to set the intention for doing so.” – Christina Feldman
8. Don’t Forget Joyfulness!
Really simple but let’s not forget it – joyfulness is an essential ingredient in any recipe for health and happiness. Again, not rocket-science, but as we learn to allow the unpleasant, let’s not forget how important it is to experience moments of joy.
9. “In the Midst Of”
This was a phrase Christina Feldman continuously used, especially in relation to metta or loving-kindness practices. May I be as happy as it is possible to be, in the midst of…
We don’t have to wait for circumstances to be exactly as we wish them to be, but can cultivate kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity in the midst of whatever is.
10. True rest is deeply restorative
I arrived at the retreat tired and in need of a break. The days are long, beginning at 7:15am and ending at 9pm, but they are also spacious, leaving room for choice within the container provided. On the first day, out of absolute necessity, I slept after lunch. I set my alarm for the afternoon session but when I woke I felt fatigued to my very depths, my body a dead weight. The naps continued for a few days.
By midweek, it was incredible how revived I felt. So often, I use ‘downtime’ to fit something in. Even a pleasurable thing, like reading a book or watching something on Netflix, isn’t a substitute for true rest. Completely withdrawing stimulation was TOUGH; it’s an addiction, no doubt about it. But as the retreat leaders said, “By saying no to something, you are saying yes to something else.”
2 Months On…
An immersive experience outside of everyday life can feel really profound, but how has this impacted my life 2 months on?
Of particular relevance to me were the teachings around mindfulness as a gatekeeper. Some thought trains have tunnelled very deep tracks in my mind, and all they do at this point is waste my energy speeding back and forth through baron wastelands. My Gatekeeper has become resolute in forbidding these f***kers entry, and in their place I am cultivating higher-performing, low-emission, thought trains on scenic routes that lift my spirits.
The other teaching that really resonated was trusting that cultivating the wholesome will take care of the rest. This is a big one for many of us in the West, who are so used to a more proactive problem-solving approach, but I’m building that trust, day by day. When I’m on top form, I see with absolute clarity and belief; in weather terms its sunshine and blue skies and like most of us Brits, that makes me feel excited and hopeful. When doubts or fears dominate, it’s like trying to walk through thick fog – I can’t see anything ahead and what I can see all looks bleak. Working out how to help myself trust in the moments of doubt has been interesting – there isn’t a prescription for this. In practical terms these are the things that are working for me so far:
1. GRIT & DETERMINATION
2. Capturing the clarity in the sunshine and blue sky moments for myself to refer to in the fog
3. Consistently cultivating in line with my intentions rather than changing my behaviour with my fluctuating emotions
4. Aaand repeat…