Seven Days of Silence

“Well if I hate it there’s probably an In-N-Out 10 minutes away.” That was my last thought before entering a seven-day silent meditation retreat in June. Then they parked another student’s car in front of mine which meant there’d be no late night burger runs for me, no matter how desperate. I had not done much meditation before but was always interested in the science and spirituality of the practice so I drove up to Spirit Rock in Marin for a jump into the deep end. While trying to keep my expectations to a minimum, I did hope for significant breakthroughs in terms of understanding myself and how I relate to the world around me. Quickly though I realized this practice is more about being present and awake. Instead of looking for answers I’d be looking for questions.

Turns out the silence wasn’t difficult for me but trying to free my mind of the thoughts which arose in that silence, well, that’s much tougher. I will post more about my particular experience – there were some things specific to my personality and other thoughts about the connection between Buddhism and product management – but enough people seem to be interested in the general idea of meditation retreats so here’s a brief FAQ. Feel free to ask questions if there’s something I haven’t covered.

Would you recommend meditation retreats to others?
Yes definitely. New experiences help expand your notion of what’s possible and often lead to serendipitous ideas and connections you might not have otherwise imagined. The chance to step out of your normal day-to-day is something I had not experienced before and I found this option preferable to hanging out by myself at a cabin somewhere. I went for week but 3 to 5 days is a good duration also. I would suggest that anything less than that is more like a seminar than a retreat where you don’t get the benefit of building a routine over the course of several days.

Do you have to be a meditation “expert” to attend?
Although I was clearly the most inexperienced I still found value in attending. I think it might help to practice meditation for about a month prior to your retreat. That way you are familiar with the act of sitting and how you react to it, both physically and mentally. But by no means do you need to have reached some enlightened state before going on a retreat.

Silent? so you really didn’t talk for the whole week?
No talking. No reading. No e-mail. The goal is really is to just be with yourself. I did do some journaling, both to capture thoughts I wanted to pursue later and to just record emotions and feelings. we read a  short poem to close each night. There is some instruction each morning and a dharma lecture each night so you do hear other voices from time to time, but otherwise noble silence.

What did you do on the retreat?
Each day’s schedule was basically the same. Alternating periods of sitting and walking meditation along with eating meditation for meals. There was also a working meditation during which you would take on a task meant to help support the upkeep of the community – making meals, doing laundry, cleaning up. There was a nightly lecture and  ritual such as a closing poem. I also have my own rituals such as getting a cup of tea and sitting outside after the last meditation session but before bedtime.

Were you by yourself?
There were 25 people in my retreat ( about two thirds women) and two guides but I didn’t attend with anybody I knew. There were a few people who came as couples and I can see how it might be an interesting experience to go through together.

What was Spirit Rock like?
Really a special place. A stillness and simplicity combined with strong instructors and sufficient amenities. Deftly recommended.

okay, more to come in future posts.

5 thoughts on “Seven Days of Silence

  1. most folks were very self-contained. No eye contact, no touching, etc seemed to be the etiquette in order to preserve people staying within themselves. Even so different people give off different types of energy and it was interesting to feel myself forming opinions of others without any real basis. There's definitely implicit bonding which occurs from going through something like this together.

  2. Are there any follow up exercises or practices that you feel are possible to maintain? Is there an opportunity at any point after the retreat to meet with people who were there to discuss? Is there a particular type of meditation or routine that they (or you) recommend for the month of preparation you suggested?

  3. noam –

    Bringing meditation practice into my daily life has been where I still struggle – to make time, to build the rhythm, etc. in seeking advice on this a friend shared with me that they practice meditation throughout the day but it's not necessarily seated for long periods of time. Rather it's about pausing and being present in the moment or being mindful during an action like exercising, walking, making tea and so on.

    At the end of the retreat some of the students gathered to discuss their experiences and I think those who were at particular shared points in their lives did exchange contact information to stay in touch. More formally, there was a small group debrief where we paired up in sets of three and talked a bit about the experience.

    For the month of “preparation” I would recommend traditional sitting meditation of various lengths so that you start to become familiar with the flowing cadence of your breath.

    Hope that helps!

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