Back from 5 nights away from the family. In the spirit of mindful awareness, I came to the Mindful Schools annual retreat at the Garrison Institute in the Hudson Valley (across the river from West Point!) with a playful curiosity. I was interested in the content of the two seminar days, but not totally sure what the first 2 days OF SILENCE really meant and even if I really wanted that. What I got from the experience was something magnificent.
“Welcome to silence”
When I heard those three words, I was scared. I was walking into the unknown and, as new experiences are, I was feeling uncomfortable, weird, and stressed. We alternated between sitting guided meditations (focusing on our breath, our bodies, compassion, self-compassion, letting go of thought for 30-45min) and walking meditations (walking back and forth between 20 feet or so for 30-45m in a clip). I was surprised at how exhausting the sitting and walking was–by afternoon I was tired and by evening I was downright exhausted. Meals were incredible, vegetarian and healthy–a la the famous Moosewood restaurant in Ithaca. We made little eye contact with each other and did not even worry about normal social norms like holding doors for eachother. The experience was designed for each of us to go completely into our own bodies for 2 days without distraction. Each evening we had a talk about our mindfulness practice.
During the silence I practiced staying in the moment without judgement over and over and over again (read: Intro to Mindfulness). It was hard. Our minds have so much practice swinging from thought to thought like a monkey that stilling those thoughts is usually very difficult. It takes a lot of practice to get good at quieting your mind and it is completely dependent on practice. You can not read about it and be good at it, much like swimming or riding a bike. You have to do it. Instead of thinking through every thought or attaching a story to every emotion, I tried to just notice it and let it float on like a leaf on a stream. It was very comforting to allow myself the space to practice this because so often I can get caught in a story that eventually turns into a rumination, which eventually makes my jaw tight, which eventually gives me headaches, which eventually make me tired or cranky, which eventually make me not very nice to be around.
I found the silence to be:
- mundane and profound
- boring and fulfilling
- painful and peaceful (physically and mentally)
- …and so much more
The hardest times of the silence were when I was physically uncomfortable which made focusing on breath very difficult. I also found interesting to note that I really dislike boredom. I would go up to my room and just hear the call of my book to read, or my body to offer going for a walk in the woods, and especially not surprisingly, my phone to call home and hear the voices of my loved ones.
During silence, I can legitimately say I never tasted food quite like what I ate while my sense of hearing didn’t have as much input. My grilled cheese that day was a type of magic I will never forget. As I ate slower than ever before (and everyone else did, too) I got to first notice, then appreciate, than savor every single bite. It was something I had never experienced before and while some moments went faster than others it gave me a deep sense of gratitude I had never had before for a simple sweet potato let alone a veggie burger, bread, or bean salad.
The Tao Te Ching (ancient Chinese text that is referred to as “The Way”) says “We shape clay into a pot, but is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want.” This simple truth is what I got from the silence, the gift of finding space within myself to hold whatever is dearest to my heart.
With humble gratitude and boundless joy,