Silent retreats are getting more popular globally, but yet I have met many who fear the prospect of spending ten days in silence. I remember when I had wanted to attend a six days silent retreat in Nepal in 2014, I was worried I could not handle the boredom. Boredom is a symptom of the mind always reaching out for distractions, or wanting to have something to do. This something to do includes incessant talking and thinking.
To prepare for the six days silent retreat, I attended two-weekend retreats in Singapore. These two-weekend retreats were strict. We kept to a schedule of waking up at 4 am, washing up and then meditating till 6:30 am, when breakfast is served. We were taught to eat mindfully in silence. Then there was a bit of rest time, before resuming meditation from 8 am till 11 am lunchtime. We were taught how to meditate walking, sitting and lying down. After lunch, we continued with our group practice until 6 pm for a short dinner break. There is sometimes a talk in the evening and then more meditation until lights go out at 10 pm for sleep. The schedule then repeats to the end of the retreat.
The short retreats gave me confidence for the six days retreat. I was fortunate in the sense that the six days retreat ended up being less strict than the weekend ones I had attended. Moreover, the place I went to was perched on a mountain overlooking Kathmandu valley – this afforded a beautiful spectacle to admire even during times of boredom.
There are many reasons to attend a silent retreat. I did not choose a holiday yoga retreat. I chose serious meditation retreats. Meditation retreats are usually conducted in silence.
The reasons to attend a silent retreat depends on your intention. My intention was to find relief from the sufferings from my non-stop thinking mind – what some teachers refer to as the monkey mind. The moment the act of talking and doing stops, the mind starts grabbing onto thoughts, swinging from one thought to another like a monkey from tree to tree. If you have used mind mapping to work on your personal or business plans, you see how one image leads to one thought and another image leads to another. This happens in real life too, without consciously using mind maps to help organise presentations or work. In short, the mind never stops – not even when one is sleeping because the mind dreams, creating images that let us live another life while the body is asleep.
After the weekends and six-day retreats, I decided to attend a strict ten days retreat at Blackheath mountain in Sydney. I was concerned if I could stretch myself for ten days on two meals a day with nothing to do except to meditate on my own and thrice a day with the group. I must mention that some retreat centres are free-of-charge. The one I attended at Blackheath is free all year round for anyone who wants to attend a silent meditation retreat. The late founder of the centre said, if we know what it feels like to be given, we would appreciate the act of giving – this is something I have always remembered in my heart.
I spent most of my time without any problems from my mind for the ten days silent retreat except for day six and day eight. I felt I wanted to leave the retreat centre. My addiction to various distractions such as wanting to listen to music, read and watch movies nearly got to me. I managed myself by imagining a movie running in my mind. After one to two hours, the desire to run away faded and I stayed for the entire retreat. I have since learnt that the mind can be calmed from agitation by being with whatever feelings and thoughts that arise rather than running away from them.
Many new meditators who had never meditated before at the retreat broke out into conversations the moment it was announced the retreat had ended. Everyone I spoke with talked about how glad they were to make the decision to attend a silent retreat. They felt renewed, having taken the time off to rest and calm their minds. Meditation is not about doing nothing. Rather it is doing something and that doing something is training the mind to know what it is doing in every present moment. The need to take care of our minds become more urgent as our society suffers from stress and the many commitments we make in life. Moreover, as we age, our minds are what we depend on, and not our bodies, which deteriorates.
If you too are keen to take care of your mind besides your body, you can start on a silent retreat that is less strict, unlike the ones I have attended. There are silent retreats at holiday resorts that do not restrict food intake to only twice a day. There are also silent yoga retreats, where besides healthy food and meditation, one gets to exercise the body with no requirement to wake up at 4 am in the morning.