Earlier this year I decided to embark on a 10 day silent retreat at the International Meditation Centre in Wiltshire. I thought that it would be a good opportunity to consolidate my learning, and allow me some space at a time when I was embarking on setting up my own meditation business. If I thought that the ten days would be a deeply calming and relaxing time, I was wrong. But also, oddly right at the same time.
I checked in on a Friday in February and duly handed in my mobile phone. We were not allowed devices of any kind, and books, pens, paper and even perfumed products were discouraged. I had decided that I would stick strictly to the rules but was curiously relieved when my bag wasn’t searched, perhaps because of a lifelong habit of holding my breath when I go through Customs even though duty free Toblerone can hardly be classified as contraband!
I was shown to the dorm that I would be sharing with three others, and which bore more than a passing resemblance to a hikers hostelry with its bunk beds and absolutely no other furniture, although I was pleased to see the clean and cosy looking duvets and pillows, and the privacy curtains which adorned each bed. I unpacked before realising there was really nowhere to put anything and shoved it all under my bed before making my way to the dining room, which segregated the sexes like all the other communal areas at the Centre. This seemed to me to be rather pointless not to mention a little outdated. I ate my soup and cheese as we waited for the course to officially commence at a ceremony at 8pm.
Having duly taken my vows along with everyone else, the silence began. To be honest, I was not concerned about the prospect of not talking, being someone who enjoys their own company. My concern surrounded the prospect of sitting still in meditation for extended periods, although that soon dissipated when we were shown numerous cushions and blankets with which to make ourselves comfortable, as well as the option of resorting to a chair if we needed to. The first meditation session began and we were given some basic instructions. After an hour or so we retired to our rooms for the night as the next session started at 4.30am. I met my room mates for the first time, and we swapped courteous nods and smiles, unable to even introduce ourselves.
Accustomed to reading before bed, I lay in my bunk unable to sleep. Until of course I was absolutely sound asleep and the morning gong sounded at 4am. The others jumped out of bed and got ready. My ‘getting ready’ consisted of pulling on my Uggs over my pyjamas and falling into the meditation room at 4.29am as I marvelled at the genius idea of segregation.
As everyone else around me settled easily into meditation, I wondered about who the others were and where they had come from. In an era of constant information overload I suddenly found myself with no information, and desperate for it. I hope that the others in my dorm would forgive me if they knew that at one point I was scrabbling under their beds to peak at luggage tags in order to glean their names and addresses. Not my finest hour admittedly. Especially as what lurked beneath my bed was a jumble of stuff that I’d unceremoniously dumped there on day one, so an apology to them if they were also nosing about might also be in order.
The curiosity and desire for facts stayed with me. In the dining hall I observed others almost constantly, and got to know what people liked to drink first thing in the morning, their preferences for sweet food, whether or not they took salt or used the washing up gloves when they did their dishes in the communal area. The labels on the jars and bottles of condiments on the tables were my only reading material and were pored over, and I now know which Himalayan sea salt won the Great Taste Awards and in which year, the recommended retail price for Marmite and the ingredients in various nut butters, all of which advised that ‘oil separation is natural’. All completely useless information in the grand scheme of things, but which served as a great distraction to the real matter in hand.
Being at the Centre gave me an opportunity to be with myself, to meditate and reflect, to listen to the voice of my inner guidance that is so often drowned out by the constant noise of media, chatter both real and virtual, and the general busy-ness of life. Here everyone is given time to focus only on themselves, and perhaps seeking distraction is a way of avoiding some of the bigger questions that we naturally ask ourselves when faced with solitude. Nevertheless, I was comforted by others when, in the silence, they would pass me the pink salt I liked so much, or filled the kettle a little more when I was next in line as I would invariably be armed with my hot water bottle in the evenings. They had been watching me too.
Two main things struck me during my period of silence. Firstly, the constant judging that I did, of myself and others. And this was after a conscious effort to avoid such behaviour! Perhaps my efforts I had made previously had been in vain. Or perhaps they’d had an effect, but I had not truly reflected on the extent of them. Being in silence and meditation helped me to observe myself at a deeper level than ever before. My self-awareness was heightened, and I had a much greater appreciation of how I operate.
Secondly, as if the judging wasn’t enough, everything was labelled. One afternoon around day 5 or 6 (the toughest time for me, no doubt because I had decided to call it that) I found myself alone in the dorm. I concluded that as well as being a little fed up, I was bored. I paced the room and contemplated leaving early to go home. When I caught myself behaving like this, I literally had a word with myself. I was not bored, I had twenty minutes in which to relax and do nothing. I could lie on my bunk and be grateful that I was free and able to have time like this in which to luxuriate. The boredom label discarded, I carried on with my day. I am a big believer in mind set and this was amplified at the Centre. What we create for ourselves invariably comes to pass, and if something is ‘tough’ or ‘boring’ then it usually will be.
One of the other things I noticed was that I took pleasure in looking after myself. I was keen to take good care of myself, and soon fell into a routine of self-care, as we all do every day at home. The difference being of course that we just get on and do it, on auto pilot because we have to. Here, taking the time to replenish my drinking water, wash my face or walk around the garden was an act of love towards myself that I was truly grateful for. This is just as important to me back home, although regularly goes unacknowledged, the art of mindfulness so often lost in a busy diary or the constant stream of distractions that we call life.
I left the Centre full of hope and a perhaps a little pride that I had completed the course and discovered to my relief that I did quite like myself at the end of it. I had made new friends with people whom I was only allowed to verbally communicate with on day ten, but perhaps more importantly I had made friends with myself. I am looking forward to going back one day, but in the meantime I am cultivating the friendship that I have formed with myself; by all accounts it may even turn into love.