I had booked myself onto a silent retreat last year and for many months had been looking forward to the event. As last year had been a difficult year, I craved quiet and alone time. But as 2017 awakened, so too did the ease and flow of life that I finally found myself feeling quite apprehensive about how I would find sudden silence in a year that has been nothing short of fast-paced and thrilling so far.
I expected to find myself writing about the commodity of silence after returning from the retreat. But what I found was something very different to what I expected. I thought I’d discover something earth shattering and mind blowing having my phone and all contact with the outside world taken away from me and nothing – not even a book – for entertainment. But I did not find anything earth shattering at all. Nothing special happened, which oddly was the precise reason that it was very special. I have worked so hard to be mindful and to do away with my bad habits that it was nice to find that life inside the monastery was much like the outside. That’s not to say that I didn’t learn a thing or two however.
The retreat schedule was straightforward although perhaps daunting to look at. 5.30am wakeup, 6am meditation, 7am breakfast, 7.45am working meditation, 8.45am meditation, 11.30am food, break (usually walking the grounds), 2pm meditation, 5pm hot drinks, some free time (although free time really could only be spent meditating, walking or sleeping), 7.30pm meditation, 10pm sleep. That’s 10 hours meditation per day and no food after 12pm 🙂
If the schedule wasn’t daunting enough, my lack of phone and having no watch meant I was mostly clueless about time. It was after the meal on the second day when I lost all sense of it and can honestly say it felt like I’d spent at least a week at the monastery. I found myself longing for familiarity during the morning and then suddenly finding everything like a distant memory, with my mind turning quite blank, like a fresh new clean sheet.
The sitting meditation sessions were amazing even though I was rusty around the edges sitting for so long. My legs, hitting their 30th year, were clearly not as flexible as they once were but I managed fairly well. I still had the issue I once had before – half falling asleep whilst meditating during the post-lunch sessions.
Walking meditation was my favourite form that was on the schedule. I love walking. Even better was getting to walk barefoot on the grounds. With fresh, crisp spring mornings and almost summer like afternoons, I felt privileged to feel the ground change beneath my feet. The morning walk was stunning. The sun rose in the sky like a perfect giant yellow-orange egg yolk. It certainly was sunny side up as I walked around the stupa, stopping to admire the sun during each cycle. The air was clean and fresh. The grass was damp and had dew drops that were like perfect little sparkling crystals nestled in the grass. There was a mist covering the base of the field. It seemed unreal, like seeing something that should always be seen but is never noticed. It was life. Life that I miss whilst tapping away on my phone.
[Main building at Amaravati. Unfortunately no access during silent retreats]
Working meditation was amusing. I’d drawn the ‘short straw’ of having to clean the showers and toilets. Thankfully another retreatant took to the loos, so I got wax-on, wax-off action with the shower tiles, which were scrubbed and squeegeed to the best of my ability. One thing I learnt was how at home I was always getting annoyed by the clearly ‘inadequate cleaning solution’ that I use to clean the shower screen. Having a whole hour and three showers to clean, with various solutions and cloths available made me realise after all this time that the cleaning solution wasn’t the issue, it was the type of cloth! It’s too easy to look at a situation one dimensionally, but if we take more time and try more variables, we can come up with answers 🙂
Food. When you know you only have one main meal a day and that there’s going to be no food from noon until breakfast the next day, it really does make you eat mindfully. I found myself slowly eating and carefully tasting everything, as if it would be the last meal of my life. I felt incredibly appreciative for the food that I have usually readily available to me. It seemed unreal how much I usually waste too.
Afternoon walking meditation was warm and sunny. The morning’s fresh dewy ground had turned into soft moss and tickling grass underneath my feet. It felt softer than any carpet I had ever walked on. It was at this point where I appeared to have nearly no recollection of what came before and almost no train of thoughts to interrupt the steady stream of silence in my mind. I even was aware of trying to recall something – anything – but found my mind quite blank. Empty of the nonsense worries of past and future. Empty of the nonsense internal monologue.
At some point of the afternoon, I even found the presence of the other retreatants distracting. I have always been a person who needs some minutes to myself each day, and it amused me that it was even the case on a silent retreat. I was sharing a dormitory with three others and although it was nice and silent, I was still very aware of their presence. I retreated to the women’s sitting room, which was wonderfully empty. I found myself only observing, rather than thinking. Observing the colours of the room, the blossom on the tree outside and the birds singing.
Evening meditation was wonderful. The cool breeze through the window prevented me from dozing off as I had done in some previous sessions. I felt incredibly clear and light. It was like that feeling after you’ve cleaned and tidied a very messy room. You feel and enjoy the space. There is room to breathe. That night, I slept incredibly well.
It was an honour to hear Ajahn Nyanadassano speak and I was happy with the time he took to answer my question. I enjoyed how he took his time with everything. He took his time to talk and everyone patiently waited. I enjoyed too his story of his past and how he had decided to become a monk. The monastic life is one I have long found extremely appealing – to live simply and truthfully. To my mind, there is nothing more honourable than not being driven by possession and existing on minimal means. And to be truthful. I like to think myself a clear, truthful person and I try my best, but there is still work to be done on being less defensive; being patient when you may be verbally attacked due to another’s stress or troubles. In these situations, there is no need for anger, but patience and understanding with others.
My time at the retreat was not awe-inspiring. It was not like many accounts that I read about. It was a mixture of difficulty (at first missing my usual routine and environment) and utter clarity due to the boundless time with myself and no one else for company. I learnt a lot from it as I learn from life every day. I guess the main thing it reminded me of is that you will not find peace in a place. You too can go to a monastery and you may not find peace there. It can only be found within. Your home is within. You feed yourself not just food and drink, but media, chatter, work and environment. All these things feed you. So look at what you are feeding yourself. Be careful with what you are feeding yourself. Will it result in keeping your home inside fresh and clean, or will it cause litter and destruction? Pay attention to what you are thinking and your actions. Observe and don’t judge them. Are your thoughts also creating internal litter? We must look after ourselves and be aware. Not just on a silent retreat, but every second of our lives. And to do so, we must practice to be free from the habits we are used to.
For Amaravati silent retreat information: Amaravati.org