The sounds of birds and falling tree leaves are all what I could hear in this cozy cottage in the middle of the farm gardens during the silent retreat I chose to do in the outskirts of Bangalore, India. After almost 2 years of being quite stressed out from various life events, including a tough divorce, I decided that this was the perfect time I needed to be by myself on a silent space where I would be able to switch off and cut all ties with the outside world for a full week. 7 days of not talking. 168 hours. 10080 minutes!
After some research, I booked this place, rolled up my yoga mat, some yoga clothes and headed to India. One of the choices I thought about was Vipassana but it seemed quite extreme for me sitting for 10 days just silently meditating without doing other activities. So I thought this would be a good start.
I had varying reactions from my friends when I told them I was going on this retreat. Some encouraged me to the extent that they wanted to join me while others thought I was completely crazy for attempting not to speak for one full week. Whatever the reactions were, I was so determined to go. After all, I was sure that this place will help me find my balance while practicing yoga, meditating better and rethinking my life as a whole trying to find the comfort in my discomfort.
The place had the ideal settings for a silent retreat. It’s completely green with palm trees everywhere which I lack in my busy city life. Upon my arrival, I had a thorough consultation with the resident doctor about my diet, lifestyle, exercise level including the frequency of my yoga practice. This was shortly followed by another consultation with the meditation teacher, about my goals out of this silent retreat and his advice regarding the emotions and feelings I might be experiencing during my silence.
As my first day was coming to an end, I said good night to the other guests I was having dinner with knowing that tomorrow would be a completely different day where I would be… 100 % silent!
For the coming few days, just being by myself, switching off my phone, eating my meals at my own table set up for me away from other guests with a notepad and a pencil, to be able to communicate with the staff, if necessary. In addition, they placed a white board and a marker outside my room to ease communication and they gave me a “silent” sign to walk around with. At this moment, my heart was pounding with emotions and my mind with questions whether I will be able to complete this full week of silence.
I kept remembering a medical condition I had a few months earlier when I was completely deprived from my voice for 10 days; the experience was quite frustrating as I had to perform all my daily tasks including going to work but without a voice. Conversely, during my silent retreat, I soon found myself engrossed in the daily schedule which started at 6:30 a.m. by the yoga class followed by breakfast, sound meditation passing through the personalized private classes. I discovered myself tremendously enjoying my silence!
My mind was completely clear and the busy life I am leading seemed so far away and irrelevant. During my silent days, I experienced a roller coaster of emotions. Sometimes, I remembered some unpleasant memories and they made me cry especially after my Yoga Nidra sessions in which I was asked to remember painful memories and do some visualizations that triggered pictures of people and places I have been attempting to forget. Some other days, on the contrary, I felt extremely happy and could not even recall anything that would make me sad. However, by the third day, I couldn’t stop smiling while everybody was smiling back at me in a very pleasurable environment full of love and bliss.
But, above all, the chief relaxing experience was being able to read my recommended books uninterruptedly: Yoga Psychology by Swami Ajaya and The Journey of Life by Sudesh Sehgal. I was able to keep a journal of my everyday experiences, emotions and thoughts without being distracted by phone calls or never ending text messages.
I was lucky enough also that the retreat’s staff allowed me to join for their daily chanting, which I was really grateful for as Kirtan is one of my favorite activities. One of the trip highlights was karma yoga, community service. I helped in gardening in the farm, chopping the vegetables and feeding the orphans who live in the orphanage attached to the ashram. Getting to closely interact with the orphans was a very self fulfilling experience. Some of the stories were heart breaking and made me wonder about the underlying philosophy of life.
The overall silence experience was extremely rewarding. I was able to focus, clear my mind and think about important life decisions. I practiced self control and being less judgmental. I, like many other people, often unfortunately engage in pointless conversations that are non value adding and energy draining. During my silence, there were many things I wanted to say that were completely unnecessary and actually better left unsaid. Silence is sometimes very useful for us as human beings. We always use speech to talk about the past or plan the future while seldom focus on the present. However, the past is already gone and we have no control over the future. Silence makes us thoroughly think about our present.. our reality.
As I felt so much at peace and serenity while being silent, I decided that this feeling should continue with me after going back to my bustling city life and that I should apply the positive thoughts and lessons learned to my daily life:
1. Enjoy quality time with myself
I was always the social butterfly having events every single night of the week, not to mention the weekend. While being silent, I realized that I was doing this because I was trying not to spend time with myself to avoid thinking about my problems, fears and insecurities. But actually, spending time with myself and confronting my failures and shortcomings are the only healthy way I could grow out of them, learn, and decide on the next steps.
2.Learn to say No
I was always stressed out, because I was not used to say no, fearing to upset people. However, I realized that it is a great skill. If I don’t want to do something, I don’t have to do it. I learned that I actually I can’t make everyone happy. In fact having scarce free time makes me want to spend it with people and doing activities that add value to me.
3. Put the phone away at least 2 hours a day
Being away from my phone during the silent retreat tremendously helped me to focus away from distractions. I decided to put my phone away for at least 2 hours a day and it has been working great! The phone, like many other things in our modern world, is an addiction or an attachment that we need to let go of for some time.
4. Gossip less and judge less
So much of what complicates our lives comes from assumptions we make and our reactions to them. Our minds distort the reality we perceive. We often judge people and are afraid of their perceptions about us. After the silent retreat I always ask myself the 3 golden questions: what difference does talking about a topic make for me? What impact does on others? Would I like this person to share something similar about me? Then usually I just zip it and neither gossip nor judge.
5. Control my frustrations
In the busy city life, we experience a lot of frustrations: important ones like a nasty boss or a far fetched promotion or trivial. Post my retreat, I made a conscious decision that these frustrations should not bother me. If I don’t like my job, I will search for another one; if I don’t like my boss, I can try to move to another team. If somebody stole my parking or my cab, I will just get another one. Life is too short and stress doesn’t solve any problems, it just adds to them.
6. Learn to do the work
Shortcuts do not exist in life and we need to train our brains to put the effort and work towards our goals. The first couple of days were tough being silent but I had to train myself to enjoy it. Everything else in life is the same, we just need to have the discipline, endurance and the right mind set.
7. Dangerous perfectionism
Most of us grow up on the belief that we have to be perfect. Being the perfect student, having the perfect job, delivering always the perfect yoga class. But simply there is no perfect, and there is no objective measure of what “right” can be. Silence reminded me that if you have a value system that thrives on making decisions with integrity, for the right reasons, doing your best is good enough.
8. Happiness comes from within
At one point in my life, especially when I was in a relationship, I derived my happiness from my partner making him the center of my life. I barely had time to think about myself, what really makes me happy or unhappy. After a breakup and confronting life on my own after long being in a couple, I decided to do activities that make me happy and self fulfilled. Practicing yoga is another source of my happiness. When everything goes down, my mat lifts me up. I am the only source of my own happiness and I should not depend on anything or anybody to be happy.
I always came across this quote of Rumi that I never understood until I went silent: “Silence is an ocean. Speech is a river. When the ocean is searching for you, don’t walk into the river. Listen to the ocean.”
In the midst of nothing and in silence, perhaps, that is where we find ourselves.