I hold my breath for a moment and I look around.
The room is full of people in sweatpants or leggings, walking slowly without any obvious direction. Some of them are going in circles, some are pausing to stare through the window and others are walking backwards, for a mysterious reason. They are all taking it slooow: one step stretches over the duration of a complete breath, or even two. I know it because I can hear the breath of a woman passing next to me, so close that we almost touch. Her breath sounds suspiciously regular, deep and calm.
Where am I and what am I doing?
How I ended up in a silent retreat
During my journey of practicing mindfulness, a day came when I realized I wanted to go deeper. Since I started observing my breath and feelings two years ago, I became somewhat obsessed with uncovering a little bit more of my authentic self every day. I have experienced moments of fantastic clarity and insight over these past two years. This was what I interpreted as remembering God or knowing that there is more to life than just the material surface of things. All of those moments exist in my memory as points of inspiration, fuelling many mundane days which came afterwards.
Ever since I realized the impact those moments of clarity had on me, I started actively looking for more of them. Going for a retreat seemed like a good way of inviting more spiritual experiences into my life. Additionally, I wanted it to be a silent retreat, i.e. one during which me and other participants wouldn’t be talking.
The aspect of silence appeared to have the potential to enhance my experience of connection, of self-realization and feeling present in my life.
So I ended up in that moment, with twenty other people in the meditation room, where we were currently practicing walking meditation. Everyone together but each of us alone, containing whatever experiences we were going through.
I have spent three days this way, in the middle of nowhere (Polish countryside), without speaking, using phone or Internet. My days were filled, from morning till evening, with guided meditation, mindful meals in silence, walks in nature, yoga and journaling.
This is my description of what I got from this so far biggest self-care and spiritual event of my life.
I want to be as honest as possible about this. I am tempted to just write how blissful this retreat felt for me, and what a luxury it was when I didn’t have to do anything other than attending to my innermost needs. I want to tell you what fantastic explorations of the unconscious mind I made, as long-forgotten thoughts transpired throughout deep meditation and vivid dreams I was having at night.
And it wouldn’t be a lie if I said just that. But it also wouldn’t be the whole truth. Let me try and find the most genuine version of this story, so that I can share what my experience of silence really was about.
Version 1: A tiresome, bumpy ride
What am I thinking about?
Luckily, I don’t have to believe in everything that my mind suggests. But this doesn’t mean that the thoughts don’t appear. Hell, now that I am silent I can actually hear them all, as if someone tuned my internal radio and put up the volume.
I wake up to a silly Polish disco song playing in my head on repeat. Where is this even coming from?! I haven’t heard this song in years. Trying to pause the music, but the more I try, the louder it gets. Meanwhile, I start thinking about my Mom, and the fact that she will not be able to contact me for the next few days. What if something bad happens and she needs my help? Am I being selfish, locking myself away and just focusing on my own needs?
After a few meditation sessions I notice — to my surprise — that I am constantly judging my retreat companions and comparing myself to them. When I enter the meditation room, I habitually look around to see who is doing a ‘better job’ on the retreat. And, most importantly, how am I doing in relation to them?
Oh, look — this person is reading a book, so probably they cannot stand their own thoughts anymore. They are still too weak for that. I am not reading, so it seems that I am doing better. But then, another person goes out and hugs trees while I stay inside because of the cold weather. Now they are more resilient and connected to nature than me. Damn.
In the same way that I judge myself in relation to my retreat companions, I compare my overall life progress with other people. I think of my friends who travel to far countries and run their own businesses, or simply of those who earn more money than me. Am I doing well enough, moving fast enough, being adventurous enough?
Does the enough place even exist?
Where am I, time-wise?
I was told that time is only relative — but even so, it demands to be noticed. It is like a cat who sneaks on the chair I just got up from, and makes it impossible for me to go back to the position from a few seconds ago. In this sense, time feels like a prison to me. Before I realize it, it’s too late, and I am locked away from my most beautiful memories of the past, longing for some potential future miracle to save me.
I think of my past a lot, revisiting the most joyful memories I have. This almost makes me believe that the best time of my life had already passed. I often recall the year I spent in Edinburgh, which was loaded with new experiences, when I was alert, alive and creative. This was also when I learned how to trust the unknown.
I reminisce ‘the best love’ I have ever had, wondering whether anything like this can happen to me ever again. This, in turn, makes me feel fearful of the future. Will I manage to grasp all the opportunities life is laying at my feet? Am I making the best use of all the resources I have got? What should I still do to become more spontaneous, take more initiative or to simply enjoy life more?
As much as I want to invite my mind into the present moment — sooner or later it always slips away to occupy itself with some past or future event. Sometimes it chases its own ‘might-have-been’ projections, and other times — people who are now on the other side of this planet, but with whom I once shared a flat, a party or a travelling experience.
Not being able to stay present makes me judge myself even more.
In the end, it is all about the feeling.
Bored. That’s the word. I don’t often feel bored in my life — but what is there to do in this place? How long can I be with my own thoughts, drink tea mindfully or even journal? Of course I am bored, and the more I am bored, the more I want to exploit my mind to entertain me. So I ask it to tell me a story about why this person next to me is stretching the way she is stretching. Then I fantasize about a forbidden romance, or recall certain flattering words I was pleased to hear a few months ago. I want some kind of entertainment, any! Food will also do — but I have to wait until the official lunch hour for that.
Another predominant feeling is my sore throat. It seems that whenever the group sits for another round of mediation, it immediately activates my throat to make me suffer. I don’t want to cough and break this sacred silence, so I do what is in my power to refrain from coughing. The ticklish feeling in my throat intensifies and suddenly nothing else exists in my awareness. I focus all my efforts on preventing the cough and at the same time keeping the breath going. Tears fill up my eyes and mucus starts dripping from my nose.
Yeah, you could say I am immersed in my feelings.
Version 2: A bright and blissful life
I realize I am already enlightened, and there is nothing I could possibly do to be more perfect. I am here, now, in this experience, vibrating with love and acceptance, savouring every breath, sip of warm tea and even the slightest impression of light on the plain wall of meditation room. I am enough, complete and balanced, and there is nothing to be added to it.
What am I thinking about?
Thoughts keep flowing through, and sometimes I notice them more, sometimes less. There are moments when I am fully aware of the state of my mind, and other times when I am just oblivious to it. But this is perfectly fine. I don’t need to worry about it.
I have come to understand that I can only do so much in terms of actively expanding my awareness. The rest is just an organic process which has to occur at its own pace. As long as I am moving forward with an intention, it feels as if I was holding a lantern — it will show me the way, always. Even if an anxiety appears, I just know deep inside that there is nothing to be anxious about.
I am alive and I am growing. There is no single reason for not enjoying each breath and step of this journey.
I am finally thinking good things about myself, and so I embrace these thoughts with enthusiasm. It feels great to have such a high opinion about my own life. I find admiration and appreciation for all the efforts I have made to arrive where I am currently at. The quickest path to this appreciation is recalling who I was merely two years ago and how much has changed for me during that time.
I have become wiser, more skilled, better and more experienced — I know this. I just sometimes forget. I also know how to make my own decisions based on my innate core values. I am more aware than ever. I am a perfect, light, divine yet human, being.
Where am I, time-wise?
Here and now, I am safe. As long as I am rooted in the present moment, there is no threat, no lack and no unaccomplished things that are calling to be accomplished. There is nothing to change in the present because it already is what it is.
Rather than me travelling through time, the time travels through me. I am still, and this stillness is enhanced by omnipresent, unchangeable silence.
My breath assists me in remaining present. As long as I remember to breathe, I have access to the now, which is everything. There is nothing that could possibly go wrong.
In the end, it is all about the feelings.
I expected this retreat to be a difficult experience in which I would need to go through challenging emotions, dark mental places and severe bodily pains, in order to reach a cathartic conclusion in the end. In reality, it feels like a luxurious spa for my soul, mind and body.
I feel blessed to be here. Not having to speak, cook, clean or work is a blessing and a luxury. For this couple of days all I have to ‘do’ is to be — exactly as I am, with no attempts of changing my experience, recognizing and accepting whatever arises. It is either very easy or I am doing a good job on that. I feel more connected to my essence (or to my child-self, if you will) than ever. I spend my days moving around this environment comprised of candles, blankets, and like-minded people. They obviously facilitate my growing acceptance for the world and for myself.
I strongly feel the company of these people — even if we don’t talk to each other. The fact that we are immersed in the same experience of silence is enough to bring us together. When we drink our evening tea in silence at the same table, or we collectively practice yoga, there is an understanding which doesn’t require words. Just because we are going through the same process, we connect. We still spend our time in one another’s company — and the fact that we are not speaking doesn’t deduct any value from it. Maybe even the opposite: the silence between us emphasizes the feeling of each other’s presence — and our own presence in this very situation.
I would get a confirmation that this silent connection was indeed real later on, when we would be coming back home together in the same car. We would talk as if we had known each other for ages, while in fact we just met on the retreat. Going through the same experience, at the same point of space-time continuum, obviously created bonds between us.
Version 3: A twist
Now, the funny thing is: both Version 1 and Version 2 of this story are true. I was writing them both down throughout the retreat, the first overlapping with the second, and the second chasing the first. In the end, it was up to me to choose: which one I would select as valid and remember as what really happened?
Both and neither. If there was something really magical about this retreat, it was that it had a perfect closure aligned with my expectations — and we all know that expectations which actually have something to do with reality are rare. For three full days I was waiting for a conclusion, a lesson or a breakthrough to take away with me from this retreat. This is what personal development is about, right? Deep focus. Total immersion in the meditative practice. Then a moment of absolute clarity. Boom! Something had to happen.
The interesting part was that the ‘boom’ that occured was an implosion, rather than explosion. It came as an insight which, by presenting itself, renders all the above story kind of redundant. The message it brought was:
There is nothing to look for. What you require is literally in front of your eyes at any given point.
Now, this is very simplistic, as much as it is profound. I could probably stop right here and save you the explanation of such an obvious outcome. There is nothing to look for — this should just be concluded with a full stop, and nothing more.
But, because this part is called ‘a twist’, I want to twist it even more and continue. I leave it up to you to perceive the rest as redundant or not.
What was the truth?
The notion I had been clinging to as ‘the truth’ was this: high frequency, or a specific state of alert awareness, is something to be favoured over sleep, over being distracted, over clinging to negative thoughts and moods.
Suddenly, I realized that this notion didn’t serve me at all. There is no reason to favour any particular state of being over another, since I have long ago figured that all of them are important, precious and serve a purpose in the whole process of my evolution.
Since I believe that I am by default moving forward, and that my consciousness is by its nature inclined to expand, rather than shrink — it doesn’t really matter when and how I am going to get there, to the enlightenment or to some definite realization. The state of mind which implies being There and Then, rather than Here and Now, can only achieve me one thing: an unnecessary energetic expense. This is not intrinsically bad, but merely impractical.
Because, even with its utmost impracticality, this state of mind doesn’t have any power to kill me. It only postpones the moment in my evolution when I definitely realize that the Here and Now is the only place worth inhabiting. And since the Now is eternal: why would it matter if this realization is postponed in ‘time’?
Why would I be concerned with chasing any specific experience, when the process of living is already up and running, constantly reaching its climax and inevitably unfolding in front of my eyes?
There is nothing to look for. Everything is already here and now.
“As long as you are breathing, there is more right with you than wrong with you, no matter what is wrong.” — Jon Kabat-Zinn
I breathe. I am alive. And I can go back to silence whenever I want.