Silent Retreat: What is it and why should you do it?
If you follow me on Facebook you will know that over the St. Patrick’s Day bank holiday weekend, I went on a Silent Retreat. It’s not the first time I’ve done this, having been on retreat every year for the past 5 years. It was my second time attending a retreat with this particular teacher, Marjo Oosterhoff. Marjo is trained in the Burmese, Buddhist tradition and runs her own retreat centre, Passadhi, on the Beara Peninsula in Co. Cork. The retreat took place in the Emmaus Centre in Swords. This is a great venue for a first retreat, as you have your own ensuite room and all your meals are provided, more often you will be in dormitory style accommodation and are expected to help out with meal preparation or cleaning up, but this is not the case here. Having my own space was important to me when I went on my first retreat there with Marjo years ago.
The retreat started on Friday evening and ended on Monday at lunch. After check in all the attendees, 22 in total, congregated in the meditation room for introductions and instruction from the teacher. Marjo checked to see who had been on retreat before and informed us of the structure of the weekend. The timetable was posted throughout the building so that we could check it whenever we needed. After that were instructed on Noble Silence. This is the silent part of the retreat, no speaking, no phone use, no reading, no writing and no eye-contact. On this particular retreat Marjo didn’t enforce no eye-contact, something which I found a challenge on day one as I had been used to having no eye-contact on all the other retreats I had attended. She later explained to me that this was to make it easier for all the new people, of which there were several. We then had a 30-minute meditation, with instruction from Marjo and at 9pm headed off to do our own thing, in silence, before lights out at 11pm.
Marjo Oosterhoff specialises in Vipassana (open awareness) and Metta (compassionate) meditation. Her teachings over the course of the weekend are intended to help to develop these practices or deepen existing ones. Marjo’s Metta guidance is amazing, and it was on my first retreat with her, doing this practice, that I experienced a profound feeling of compassion for myself that has never left me.
Saturday morning started with meditation in the group meditation room at 7.45am. This meditation is not guided so you are supposed to do Vipassana, based on your instructions from the night before, or Metta if you have been explicitly instructed to do so by your teacher. Breakfast is at 8.30am followed by time to do individual meditation, yoga, tai chi, walking or mindful showering and if you really need to, return to bed for some rest. I chose to meditate in my room during these breaks, practicing Vipassana or lying on the floor to do a body scan meditation incorporating some Alexander Technique teaching I had received for back problems. At 10.30am we returned to the meditation room for further guidance.
During the times we were together we were given instruction as well as an opportunity to ask questions if we needed. I always chose to stay silent as so much of my life it taken up with asking or answering questions on a day to day basis; it is useful for me to notice my thoughts without responding or reacting to them. This portion of the day involves sitting meditation, followed by walking meditation, each session taking approximately 30 minutes, on a rinse and repeat basis. Lunch was at 1pm followed by individual meditation etc. and a return to the meditation room at 3.30pm for more sitting and walking.
During these sessions Marjo also had one to one meetings to help attendees with any challenges or to give them specific guidance. This was optional, and at first, I decided not to attend but by Sunday afternoon I changed my mind.
The evening meal was at 6.30pm. Lunch was the largest meal of the day and for those of you curious about what we ate, the breakfast was a continental breakfast and the main meal was soup, followed by dinner, dessert and tea and coffee. The evening meal was a small cooked meal with a sweet treat to follow and tea and coffee. In Emmaus the service it waited service and so there is no clean up afterwards. This is really nice as it allows you to feel looked after, have a break and enjoy the shelter of the venue. At 8pm we reconvened in the meditation room for some feedback and a final meditation of the day. At 9pm we left to do our own thing and lights out were at 11pm once again.
The structure for Sunday was the same as was the morning of Monday, until 12pm on Monday when we broke the silence and had our meal between 12.30pm and 2pm to allow us to integrate back into speaking, ready for our return home.
On Saturday it snowed and so I chose to stay in for quite a bit of the day apart from some Mindful Walking outside. This was a big difference from the first time I was there. The first time I found the times between meditations very long and so I walked laps of the beautiful grounds to pass the time. Marjo had reminded us that filling our time with ‘doing’ is not ‘being’ with what is, which in some cases can be boredom or restlessness. I found it much easier to just sit in meditation this time or just sit, as the case may be, without the urge to fill up my time.
One of the challenges I became aware of on Saturday was in relation to Noble Silence. As I mentioned earlier normally there is no eye-contact or recognition of anyone else in any form but on this retreat many people smiled, whispered, opened doors for you, handed you cups or poured your water causing us to continually have to break with our own experience to acknowledge the other. I found this difficult as I went from internally apologising for myself in my head when I didn’t respond or internally apologising for breaking the rules when I did. After a while I noticed how ridiculous I was. The other challenge I had was physical, I’ve had a number of physical problems over the past few years and the extended sitting was proving difficult. As the first day progressed I became aware of how much tension I was holding in my body and how much ‘doing’ I was engaged in as I tried to sit straight, comfortably or relax. Once I began to notice this my body began to soften and by Sunday evening most of my pain had subsided. The real gift of silence is becoming familiar with yourself and your thoughts. In fact, the word meditation means ‘to become familiar with’. On a normal day our focus is often outside ourselves, needing to speak, be noticed or recognised, wanting approval, taking control or defending ourselves amongst many other things. When we stay in silence all these things either become very noticeable or fall away. This was the subject of my conversation with Marjo on Sunday afternoon to which she reminded me that we are all the same. In Buddhism they call is attachment and it is really useful to notice what you are attached to; this can be varied but some of the things that are common are: to your appearance, being right, not looking stupid, not making mistakes, perfectionism, being acknowledged, needing approval or helplessness, to name but a few.
On Monday we finally broke the silence. It takes me a bit of time to adjust to speaking again and for much of the lunch I smiled, nodded and said yes or no in response to questions before finally beginning to chat. It’s important you do break the silence however, as it can be easy for us to forget our surroundings on the journey home which can lead to potential accidents. By the time I got home I was ready to tell all to my husband, having not spoken since Friday, as well as cuddle my pets and sleep in my own bed. During lunchtime conversation it was funny to hear of the number of people who broke the ‘rules’, texting home, checking Facebook, making a quick phone call and quite a number looked up the results of the Six Nations. I of course, being the rule bound person that I am, did what I was told and only switched my phone back on at 2pm on Monday. My rule bound behaviour something my meditation has made me aware of over the years.
On return I found I was slow to get back to Social Media, staying away until the following Friday. I also found my meditations deeper and my discomfort lesson as the week progressed. I found it easier to practice Metta during the week too and spent a number days focusing on this practice.
If you are new to meditation then, I recommend you do a half day or full day silent workshop before immersing yourself into a full retreat. If after that you are interested in doing a longer period of silence then, I recommend Marjo’s retreats which you can find out about on her website for Passadhi Retreat Centre or try out Jampa Ling in Co. Cavan, they do silent retreats a number of times during the year.
Thanks for reading.
I hope our paths cross gain in future,