Written by Rishabh Dev Sharma as a part of Personal Experience Series
So, I came back from a silent retreat in Iceland where 20 of us stayed in a cottage for around 4 days practicing vipassana. We also received guidance on meditation and Buddhist wisdom from a teacher: Yanai Postelnik flown in from Devon, England. In this post, I would like to share my personal experience and what I learnt in this retreat.
Our routine at the retreat
The main part of any vipassana based retreat is about spending long hours in meditation and practicing complete silence. The meditations are aimed towards observing your mind and body either by observing your natural breath or bodily sensations. Needless to say, we were instructed to hand in our phones and any writing or reading material before we began.
Each day we had 5 sessions of sitting meditation altogether for a stretch of 30-45 minutes each. We also had walking and standing meditations with the choice to do them indoors or outdoors. Once a day we had a work meditation as well: we all pitched in with helping to maintain the retreat by spending an hour cutting vegetables or cleaning the floor, etc. We ate light breakfast, warm lunch and a light dinner. There were also volunteers amongst us who would indicate time for start or end of an activity with a bell so we did not even have to carry a watch. Moreover, on one occasion we had a group sharing session to share and ask questions to the teacher about our experiences. Finally, at the end of each day we had a 50 minutes dharma talk by the teacher.
Challenges and lessons learned
The biggest challenge in the silent retreat is usually the initial couple of days. As we are not really used to spending time with ourselves and are so accustomed to focusing our attention to our daily lives, the complete cut off from all the things we are so used to can be a little overwhelming at first. However, I slowly began to get used to this as the first day passed.
Here is what these intense but empowering 4 days of silent meditation have taught me:
Practice observing my thoughts and feelings without judgement and reaction
As an active meditator, a significant part of my personal practice has been to observe my thoughts and feelings objectively and without reaction. In a silent retreat, this practice is taken to a whole new level. Mostly, because you really have no choice but to keep sitting and doing “nothing”, meanwhile a range of thoughts and feelings go past you. I got to experience the fleeting, ever-changing nature of the mind and bodily sensations. After some sitting meditation (sitting, walking or standing) often with a storm of thoughts brewing within, I learnt to ease into the present regardless of how uneasy it made me. I began to understand the body, mind and their relationship with past or future. By sheer rule of not reaction to whatever going on inside, I learnt to accept the present and stay in it. You might compare it to experiencing yourself as a deep part of an ocean with waves of ever-changing thoughts and sensations.
Overcoming physical discomfort with the power of the mind
There is also an obvious physical pain I experienced due to sitting cross-legged. However, there is a certain wisdom that began to seep in handling the paradox of being kind to my body and how much will power I can use to fight the pain.
Any information that I take in affects me and I cannot even control what to filter out
There was a barrage of thoughts coming in, most of which were from other people, youtube, facebook, etc. This really brought into perspective as to what kind of information sources I surround myself with. Thoughts ranged from Trump to those of my girlfriend. The funny thing was that I had no control over what came up in my mind. However, the practice of holding that space where I observed without getting carried away in my thoughts gave profound insights into how careful I must be in taking in information.
Getting in touch with my “dark side” and taming it
This can be a sensitive and deeply personal topic. First, the way I describe my dark side is that part of me that I have put away in order to conform to the people around me. It is a part of me that is wild, often untamed and contains a lot of energy. In the retreat, the dark side that I was confronted with were my deep-rooted insecurity about not feeling worthy of receiving love in abundance from my girlfriend, my insecurity with money and anger over a work situation which I tend to push away. During the retreat, those familiar feelings and related thoughts did come back but with spending time with them and some guidance from the teacher, I managed to “feed” my demons with acceptance and compassion instead of pushing them away.
A deeper understanding of energies within and outside of me
Another remarkable thing I discovered was the intelligence of my own body. In a world where we are all encouraged and educated to make choices from the head, there is something special about observing how the body in fact reacts to the different thoughts about the choices for a decision. On many instances, I did experience the shifts in energies especially in my chest area. For example, my chest would close up tight when there were thoughts based on fear or anger towards a difficult colleague. On the other hand, I felt sensations of openness and flow when there were thoughts on gratitude, compassion and unconditional love for the same work colleague.
Embracing love and gratitude instead of complaining and blaming
After sitting for a long time, standing or walking sometimes in the rain it’s easy to pick up thoughts on complaining. After some initial resistance and eventual acceptance in one self, I could notice my attention beginning to go outwards especially during the end of the retreat. I began to observe the other participants and had a feeling of reassurance that I am not in this alone. Others are also experiencing similar difficulties as me. Just focusing attention outwards on being empathetic with others instead of complaining shifted my thoughts towards love and gratitude. There was a different form of energy that was clearly felt in my body. Though there were still some lingering feelings of pain and some resistance towards the present moment, the feeling of gratitude and love originating from compassion towards others felt so good that the pain was easier to handle.
At the end of the retreat it was fascinating to witness the changes in myself and people around me. Come to think of it, all we did was staying silent for the most part and doing nothing – at least that’s what it seemed like from the outside. However, I could get a sense of peace of mind in myself and others. It could well be that we are all in the “spiritual high” where everything is sunshine and rainbows. I could not help but imagine that once we went back into tackling our daily challenges of life, I could lose this peace certainly the next time someone close to me pushes my buttons. However, retreating into this space for a few days has left a lasting impression.
There is a wisdom that I do not need to chase or acquire something in order to have peace of mind. It is right here within me and I for one cannot find it elsewhere.
So to round this all up, I would like to say that a silent retreat in itself might not cure you of all your problems. Nor is it an escape from the “real world”. Maybe you come out of it with something completely different from what you expected. However, the very act of retreating into complete silence and non-reaction to your dark and light side will certainly take you deeper on your journey to knowing yourself and your connection to others. During times when we are bombarded with information and distractions all around, spending a little time only with yourself can bring you face to face with the paradoxes of life. And maybe, just maybe you come out of this experience looking at yourself and the world around you a little differently, perhaps more kindly…just by doing nothing 😉
Rishabh Dev Sharma is man from India currently living in the Netherlands. His purpose in life is to create more loving inter-personal relationships and benefit society through more sustainable technology. Hence, during the day he is an engineer in a high tech company and in his part time he trains people to connect with others and themselves on a deeper level.