While I’ve been practicing mindfulness for 15+ years and been on my fair share of shamanic retreats, a 10-Day Silent Retreat was intimidating. One of my peers mentioned a vipassana retreat taught by S.N. Goenka, and I signed up on the waitlist leaving it to chance if I got in.
Well, I got an acceptance email two weeks before the retreat started.
“[W]ow, you don’t mess around. That retreat is really hard core.”
In this particular program, you follow a strict schedule from 4:30 AM to 9:30 PM. We meditated 10-12 hours a day, ate two vegetarian meals a day (fruit for dinner), slept 4 to a room in very modest (but clean) accommodations.
I had trained for two marathons and survived a day at a food festival with a customer while battling food poisoning, so I felt like I was up for the challenge.
Below are some of the surprising things I learned:
1. Silence is Golden: I used to identify myself proudly as an extrovert. I could talk to a wall. Send me the difficult co-workers or customers, I can handle it because I feed off interactions with people. Well, at least I thought I did. After 2 days of silence, I found myself truly enjoying it. The need to be “on” was replaced by the need to be present. When I re-entered (or reintegrated with) the “real world,” I found that my energy, compassion, and empathy was stronger, and I was more sensitive to everything from people to the jarring subway to noticing how foods impacted me. Allowing myself to be okay with silence has help me become much more self-aware and intuitive. For instance, after 2 years of toying with the idea, I knew that finally making the decision to move to Northern California from NYC was the right one. Since this retreat, I don’t identify as an extrovert or introvert because the best versions of ourselves are found when we acknowledge, appreciate, and balance both introvert and extrovert within ourselves.
2. Food is Fuel: Over the course of the 10-day retreat, we were fed very simple healthy vegetarian meals, and we ate in silence. We only ate at meal times without any snacking. As someone who plans to eat 5 times a day, I found myself enjoying the meal because I was hungry for it. I realized I was grazing all day out of boredom, stress, or the peer pressure to eat because everyone else was (I’m talking about you late night dinners in New York). I found myself actually enjoying every bite because I wasn’t distracted by conversation or shoving food in my mouth while on a Webex. Because there wasn’t much stimuli, mealtimes were an experience of savoring the food, followed by a quiet space to notice how that food affected me. After years of drinking almond milk in my coffee, teas, or smoothies for breakfast, I realized that it was causing my bloating. I am now convinced more than ever that everyone is different; they need to make the intention to discover what truly works for them and mindful eating is the best way to do it.
3. We have an Addiction Problem: Our Phones. They’re the first thing we check when we wake up and the last thing we look at before bed. It took me three days to stop looking for mine or hearing phantom ring tones - and I am someone who doesn’t have notifications on and rarely checks social media. It was a relief to just be in one place and deal with whatever was happening there. The lack of distractions and stress from simply not having my phone around was so profound that I now leave the house without it often and I’ve decided to take quarterly tech-free weekends to recharge.
4. Blocks of Time to Focus & Performance Breaks are Critical: 4:30 AM – 9:00 PM was planned out, and honestly, I thought it was heavenly. Morning meditations at 4:30 AM was the best thing that could have happened to me because I started the day at a place of focused awareness. With the schedule, I knew that I could fully immerse myself into whatever it was I was supposed to do during that block of time. For me that meant truly getting deep into new mediation practices and letting go of distractions until break time. The pattern of blocks of focus and blocks of breaks were extremely helpful. Since this retreat, I have found myself recommitted to creating blocks of time to get really deep into a project or high-value task rather than checking off a lot of menial to-dos. I’ve incorporated this into my programs and I explain how and why this is beneficial based on research and science.
5. Less is More: For 10 days, I shared a room with 3 others, sleeping on a modest twin bed with very little luxuries or frills during the week. I wore simple, comfortable clothes, let my hair dry naturally, and wore no make-up or jewelry. I used the all-in-one organic simple skin care and found that my skin responded better than it did with the expensive, luxury five-step process I’d been sold on. Food was simple. I was fulfilled, happy, and slept great. I didn’t lose or forget anything. Truly, less stuff meant less stress. I had spent my life in the rat race of needing to make money to buy things but none of those things made me happier. Soon after this trip, I start minimizing my life so much so that, when I moved to California, I only had 6 boxes going with me. I’ve been in California for 7 months and have continued to downsize… And, I’m perfectly happy.
Based off my experience, I recommend everyone try a silent, tech-free retreat for at least 3 to 5 days and experience the benefits. While the program I attended advocated for a particular type of study that has been helpful for many, I believe that we all need to find what works best for us individually.
If you want to learn more about how mindfulness can increase your performance and well-being, check out my latest programs which focus on Productivity and Resiliency.