Love is given and received through relationships with parents, partners, siblings, friends, animals and nature. And yet this is not the love I wish to focus on here. The love I have been searching for was within me and had been there all along, only I didn’t know how to access it, hence my decision to go on a silent meditation retreat. I know what you’re thinking – “here we go, I’ve heard it all before, meditation was supposed to be the answer to all my prayers and yet it hasn’t worked for me. I’ll have to sit on my bum all day with a bunch of hippies, fast, meditate and chant all day long.” Not so…
Imagine you are tucked away on a secluded property high in the hills of Healesville. You are with thirty others whom you do not know and have never met before and yet you see look-alikes in nearly all the faces that surround you. Now, here is the point of this exercise – you are not allowed to speak for three days and yet you will eat with these people, meditate with this group, sing and walk with these strangers.
Awakening to Awareness
The first day goes something like this … you’ve never done this before, it’s all new and exciting and somewhere deep in the midst of it all lies a whirlpool of unease, of stepping outside of your comfort zone and into what’s known as fear. But to balance the discomfort there is just a hint of mystery and curiosity to keep you from turning around and heading back home. You were warned the accommodation was basic and so your expectations are not of disappointment or of delusion, and yet the poky room with the small window would most definitely have felt gloomy had it not been for the majestic view of the green leafy trees in the distance. The shared ablutions block though, leaves something to be desired. It is cold, very cold and the two toilets and two showers replicate something you’d find camping out in the bush – very basic. Again, you remind yourself that this is not the reason why you are here and move on.
Your first assignment for the day is to meet and greet, chat and get to know a little about each other – just enough to make you want to know more, but alas, you won’t be allowed to talk, so you’ll be left wondering. Then there’s a scrumptious gourmet vegetarian meal to devour. Oops, no, I mean chew slowly, taste and enjoy, which is followed by an intention ceremony. What do you want to get from this weekend? I personally can’t think of a thing, until a spider crawls across the cushion I am sitting on. Spiders are a metaphor for the weaving of words… so you can guess what my intention is.
After some singing, meditation and yoga the first segment of free time arrives. You sit, ponder, reflect, or like me, watch what everyone else is doing. You watch people’s mannerisms, their body language, and place judgement on their dress – all parts of their exterior self. From the woman who adjusts her scarf and smoothes her hair, to the man’s eyes that dart from one person to another around the room. Does anyone notice the woman’s new scarf or the man’s insecurities? Each of their idiosyncrasies though, highlights that which is within us all – fear. The mirrors are everywhere you look. So you turn your attention to the autumn leaves beyond the distorted glass window panes.
There is a lot to love about being in silence. It’s a relief not to have to talk, to contribute to often trivial conversations, usually about negative matters, and not to have to be drawn into gossip and hearsay. There is no competition and no distinction between the classes. Segregation and individuality becomes unity and equality. There is no need to cook, clean or organise, be a mother, a daughter or a sister. All I have to do is just BE. But still, I wonder what it is like for others’? Are they content to go with the program? Are they bored? Do they end up making so many cups of tea that they can no longer stand the taste of it?
An outsider might see similarities in a room of thirty expressionless people being mindful of their chewing, some gazing out the window, others staring at the walls to resemble that of a psychiatric ward or dementia wing of an aged care residence. It’s as if each individual has slowly been drawn inwards, where nobody and nothing exists outside themselves and yet all are still connected, united in the silence and solitude. There is an invisible veil of powerful energy in the combined stillness, stemming from a conscious collective commitment and respect for each others’ sacred space.
Day two though, has a whole different meaning. It is 5:30am and you are woken by the soothing sound of the gong. You feel you haven’t slept but rather, meditated all night long. You’re not tired or cranky, but are feeling energised and ready to take on a new day. There is meditation in the main hall for 30 minutes followed by yoga for one and a half hours, breakfast, then another session of meditation and a story. It’s not such a hard task, but what follows feels like an uphill climb – literally. Donned in wet weather gear – overcoats, boots, beanies, scarf and gloves you start your trek up into the hills. The ground is slippery beneath your feet, the path narrow and lush vegetation lashes at your clothing as you pass by. You want to stop and take a breather as your lungs can’t get enough air, but no one else appears to be struggling. Aware of your limitations you decide to stop, not once but three times. One by one the group passes you by, some smile in acknowledgement while others’ hold a steely gaze and forge ahead, determined to conquer the task. Every person in the group reaches the top before you do.
Standing in a circle surrounded by an angelic mist you are asked to connect to the spirit of the trees, tune into the sounds of nature and feel yourself centred, grounded deep into the soil. You move on, the group spreads out, some sit at the base of a tree; others pick flowers or walk, consciously aware of their feet touching the ground. More climbing approaches. Your breath is laboured again, only this time a new awareness enters the mind – ‘ if you keep putting one foot in front of the other and don’t stop, you will find it is not that hard, the difficulty is but a barrier of your mind.’ The crystal clarity of your movements tells the story of your past, where you would stop and start, stop and start – never really traversing very far. All you have to do is keep going and not give up.
At the top, the woodland opens into a vast space revealing segments of surreal views, kookaburras laugh amongst the tree tops and the sun spreads fragments of light and warmth to your cold face. There, the smallest creatures traverse the ground at your feet and you see a large rock to stand on. It feels solid, strong, secure and imbedded in the earth – yes, just like you. Your inner voice speaks to you again, revealing another piece of your life’s puzzle. But the best is yet to come. On the journey back everything looks serene, more blackened tree stumps, a rocky outcrop, a still lake of water to dodge, until a mysterious scene comes into view. It’s your past, the road you’ve travelled and indicates just how far you’ve come on your journey. A vibrating shiver runs through your veins as a moment of bliss catches you by surprise. It is then that you feel your heart swell with the radiating power of energy and light. You can’t help but smile in awe at the recognition. Even when you walk past the turn off to the campground, a forceful clearing of the throat from another walker assists you back onto the path again, reinforcing that you are always looked after even if you lose your way every now and then.
What happens when you take away the external conversation is you start to hear the internal chatter, of future ideals and regrets of the past. Your mind is everywhere and anywhere but in the moment. As the second day progresses, many more profound realisations unfold, like a beautiful rose bud gradually flowers into full bloom. The mind becomes quieter, still, like a pool of crystal clear water. Questions that arise have answers and you realise there is nothing you can do about the past as it is long gone, even if only a second has passed. And the future is just that, the future. Every little thing you do, such as walking, eating, showering has an added depth of meaning because you can feel, taste, hear, smell and touch it. Your senses become alive, the colours vivid and sounds sharper. Dishes of food made with love taste like nothing you’ve eaten before.
Suddenly I understand. The walls I have erected around me, I had placed there to protect me from being hurt. But a growing restlessness is stirring within, making the task of sitting still for the fourth time in one day a little unnerving. Why did I not like the quiet anymore? The answer arrives with immediacy. Whisked back in time, to my childhood, my parents are arguing. My father’s response is to turn inwards and go quiet. He doesn’t like confrontation. My mother though has plenty to say, including the final word before storming off and stewing on the matter. I retreat, into the comfort of my bedroom where I imagine there is a secret door to a room beneath my bed. The torment of these times, caught between the awkwardness of two adults living through their pain bodies results in many negative patterns of behaviour, but also brings with it the positive gift of compassion.
A trio of women, travelling together, catches my eye, as they have on several occasions. They are not talking, but communicating through the written word; notes passed across the table, sign language, facial expressions and added intermittent laughter – it presents the opportunity to acknowledge how grateful I am for taking the leap of faith to travel alone. It is a pleasant change to only have to consider my needs, for when I am with others I have the tendency to put their needs first, before my own.
Before dinner on the second day the gong sounds for mantra singing and the making of a prayer tie. You venture into the main hall and sit in your spot in the large circle. After a moment of stillness, the singing begins, only you appear to have lost your voice. For my part, it’s a struggle to get the air to my lungs. However, persistence pays off and the more you let go, the clearer and merrier the sound emanates from your lips. All in the room are asked to move closer to the lead singer, who is fingering a reed instrument called a harmonium – it looks a little like a miniature piano accordion. The space around you grows hot, your chest starts to vibrate and a growing rise of emotional bile gathers between your heart and throat. Everyone is asked to embellish the song with their own words. Set the words free. Let them fly like a bird.
The release is immense and the choked tears spurt and flow like a fountain down your cheeks. Eventually the tears give way to unbridled joy, the singing picks up tempo, the energy soars and life takes on a whole new meaning.
Finding the Gift
By the third day some are itching to speak, some don’t want it to end, yet others accept the experience for what it is and are ready to go home and put into practice what they have learned. The day is filled with the customary meditation – yoga – meditation scenario. The final program is the closing ceremony and metta – a wish for health and happiness on your return home. There isn’t a dry eye in the hall and yet there is a huge sense of completion, inner satisfaction and freedom, knowing that whether you consciously chew your food slowly or sit and focus on your breath, you are being mindful and living now. There are no worries, fears or thoughts, what is, IS.
There is a famous quote by Rumi, the Sufi poet:
Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.
Had I not experienced these three days of silence for myself I would never have believed the transformation that can take place.
My heart feels full to overflowing and my lungs feel free to fully breathe in life.
The stillness reinforces the process of meditation and together with a safe and nurtured environment we can all find the love and respect we truly deserve – from within.
About the Author
Leanda-Michelle has a Diploma in Professional Writing and Editing and is a member of the Victorian Writers Centre, Australia. She lives life through her passion for writing and healing, and loves to share what she has learned with others. Leanda-Michelle is the coordinator for Ridge Writers group, Mirboo North, Victoria, Australia that she instigated in November 2009. Along the path she hopes to inspire and uplift others on their journey and add light to humanity. Leanda-Michelle is a freelance writer who continues to work on a memoir, short stories, children’s picture books and novels. To learn more about her work visit her site: www.leandamichelle.com.au