What I Learned on a Silent Retreat

Posted 05.19.2014

retreat-picSo let me clear things up right from the start. The picture that accompanies this post is not one I took on a silent retreat I went on this past weekend. It’s a picture I took a couple of hours after it ended. The scene is just outside the front door of my son, Andy’s, apartment building in San Francisco. (I stopped to visit him on the way home from the retreat.) Each year in SF, there’s a road race called Bay to Breakers and, while there are people who actually run the race, there are thousands more who use it as an excuse to dress up in costumes and sort of, kind of walk the course until they get to Panhandle and Golden Gate Parks. Then the party starts. It’s about as far away from a silent retreat as you can get. It was a lot of fun but you probably won’t find it in the typical playbook about how to transition out of being quiet all weekend.

Perhaps not surprisingly, I don’t have any pictures to share from the silent retreat. Smartphones are definitely not in the playbook. Neither, as you might expect, is talking. Along with about 100 other people, I spent the weekend at a retreat center called Spirit Rock being silent from the end of dinner on Friday night to just before lunch on Sunday. Because I’m a habitual reader (I will read anything that’s in front of me even if its upside down), I decided to not read during the weekend either. The goal was to unplug from all the input and the output. Here’s what I learned in a weekend of being silent.

My mind wanders a lot: If you’ve ever tried to just focus on your breath for five minutes, you know how quickly your mind wanders. When you have a whole weekend to basically focus on your breath, your mind can really cover some distance. What surprised me was how much my mind kept wandering back to the same four or five core thoughts. Definitely something to pay attention to going forward.

I miss a lot of the interesting stuff when I’m talking or reading: The routine for the retreat was sit for 45 minutes and then walk for 45 minutes and then repeat until the day is over. On one of the walks I noticed a bunch of little skimmer bugs kicking their way across the surface of a still stream. I crouched down to watch and was probably there for 20 or 30 minutes. It was kind of fascinating to watch when they kicked their legs and didn’t, clustered in groups and didn’t and how they kicked harder when the wind on the surface of the water was blowing them backwards. Who knew so much was going on in that little bit of water? Kind of makes me wonder what else I miss on a day to day basis.

Once I identify the things that annoy me, it’s easier to let them go: There were aspects of the retreat that annoyed me. Of course I couldn’t talk with anybody about what was annoying me so I was left to sort through that on my own. After sleeping on it, I woke up with a real clarity about what was bugging me. To my surprise, once I was clear about what had annoyed me from the day before I was able to let it go and enjoy the last few hours of the retreat.

So, a weekend long silent retreat (or a week long or a month long; yes, people actually do those) isn’t an option very often if ever for most of us. But, what could you do this week to create a short period of silence for yourself? A half hour might be a good place to start. Maybe during lunch or on your commute home? What would work for you? Consider buddying up with a friend or family member to brainstorm options and share the experience. What do you think you’ll learn? Would love to hear your thoughts and experiences in the comments.