Round and round the small shed the grizzly bear chased me, its hot breath close on my heels. I wasn't really afraid, just kind of startled. And so began the first night of my silent retreat. Submerged in a dream state, the bear was a perfect companion to get me started. I began to notice that as long as my external as well as internal voice was quiet, the bear didn't bother me, going peacefully about its business. As soon as I opened my mouth or had a thought, the bear aggressively ran after me. I realized at that point that the retreat meant not only outward silence, but included turning to silence within. In the dream I went deeply into quietude and sat on a bench in the sun. As I tipped my head back to rest against the wall, a giant monarch butterfly came to rest over my eyes, gently flapping its wings. From the time of that dream on Friday night until right before we came out of silence on Sunday, my mind was still.
I had never done a weekend of total silence before; only a day here and there or several hours at a time. Even when I did a three day solo in the wilderness when my children were small, it didn't require complete silence. I was alone, but I sang and talked to myself. This would be meeting silence internally as well as externally. The timing was right, as it had been a particularly stressful, nonstop period and my body, mind and spirit were calling out for a change of pace.
We were a small circle of women who came together at a warm and welcoming retreat center. After checking in with each other Friday evening, we parted ways after meditation to settle in for the night. With gratitude for the weekend ahead, I pulled out all the fixings for an altar, setting in place personal objects that are sacred to me. I'm not a religious person, but the days prior to retreating, I had a strong feeling of Mother Mary's presence and kept seeing white roses, so I brought a white rose for each of us. This too went onto my altar.
You don't need to go to a retreat center to immerse yourself in silence. There are many ways to go on a silent retreat. It can be at home alone, with a small group of people or in a larger setting. It can also take on varied formats, depending on what draws you and who the facilitator might be. Certainly joining an established group at a retreat center provides structure and directives, but it is just as valuable to do it on your own or with a small group of people. I think for someone who is new to a silent retreat whether at home alone or with other folks, it helps to set up a rough schedule. You may end up tossing half of it, but it provides a reference point that can help guide you and/or get you back on track.
Here are some offerings as to how you might spend your retreat:
- turn off all electronics - no phone, TV, radio, or computer
- make meals that are nourishing but simple, and use prep and cleanup as a meditative experience, paying attention to the task immediately in front of you. Or
- rest your body with a fast, just drinking juices or teas
- practice yoga in the morning and again in the afternoon
- meditation times - set a realistic time frame to sit in silence. This could mean as little as 10 minutes or as long as an hour or more. You could sit for shorter times, but spread it out over the day. If it's nice outside, sit quietly in the sun
- take a walking meditation, observing silence as you walk through the woods or in circles around your yard
- create an altar with items that are important to you - photographs, flowers, found items from nature, drawings or paintings, candles, etc
- set a goal for the retreat and/or personal goals
- write a letter from your 5 year old self to you now using your non-dominant hand
- write a letter to yourself five years in the future
- journal thoughts, feelings and ideas that emerge - the difficult and the inspirational
- rest, really let your body relax and do nothing
- read inspirational books - can be fiction or non-fiction, but would suggest that reading materials are of a spiritual nature
- sit in prayer and gratitude
- list all of the ways that you take care of yourself and others
- list all of the ways that you judge yourself and may be self critical - create a ritual around releasing those judgments such as burning them
- record your dreams
Most of all be gentle with yourself if you find your mind becomes agitated. See if you can watch that agitation from a distance and accept the feelings that arise. However long you decide to self retreat is the right amount of time, even if that means ending it sooner than you had originally planned. Have fun with it and look at this time as a precious gift that has been given to you. There is so much value in finding retreat from the usual busyness of our lives, that it is well worth the time and energy to turn within.