I attended my first full day silent retreat this month with my fabulous, warm and compassionate Mindful Self Compassion teacher, Annette Boden. I had previously attended a half-day retreat as part of the Mindful Self Compassion Programme (created by Kirsten Neff), and taught by Annette in a beautiful spot in Disley – a really magical place to learn, well, anything really – but especially self compassion!
I have a strange relationship with silence. I love it, but for some reason there are times I feel like a demon possessed with the desire to fill it with noise, even if I have nothing sensible, interesting or amusingly silly to say (usually at home with my sisters)! I live alone (and don’t often leave the house), so I spend most of the time silent, most days. And yet the first time I tried it at a retreat, it was really really hard! Why?
- I think there’s a difference between being silent on your own and being silent where there are other people.
- There’s also a difference between being silent, but keeping your brain occupied with reading, writing, TV, radio etc and being silent and just being there.
It started off feeling like a lot of effort to stop talking, but I was grateful that we had some time before the official start for a little catch up chat with the other members of the group. After that, it was like an itch I couldn’t scratch. My brain forgot its itch after lots of soothing breathing, sitting comfortably with blankets and listening to Annette lead us through some lovely meditations. I sort of settled into a warm, calm space, where there were words from Annette, words in my head, birds tweeting and creaks, shuffles and gentle breathing (and the occasional gentle snore from a couple of people too!).
Silence means we can’t make our thoughts solid by voicing them. There are things I never voice but I can write. It feels to me, that saying something out loud can turn nothing into something real. Equally there are things I can’t write, but I can say out loud, and this process too, does something to the ideas to make them more real to me. What I have found is that since my day of silence, I have been more in control of my voice. I have had things to say that normally there would be insurmountable barriers for me to actually, you know, say.
In silence we are forced to let thoughts go or try to cling to those vanishing little puffs of meaning. I think for longer retreats I’d definitely take a notebook, but for this one it felt good to practice letting go of a thought without backing up to paper. I have such a habit of trying to capture all my thoughts in case there’s something useful there that I think this was actually a lovely feeling, difficult though it was. My brain, after some arguments decided it was quite nice to just sit in a bath of warm brain chemicals doing their thing, without any need to do anything with any of it. And I think that’s kind of how it felt – like a hot relaxing bath for my brain! I gave it the day off (well bits of it, I needed a lot of it to stay alive and stuff but you know which bits I mean!).
And in this calm, my brain didn’t feel so terrified (or too low on computing space) to form words and thoughts it might have normally struggled with. Perhaps because I wasn’t going to do anything with them anyway. It gave me time to appreciate other things, people’s smiles, the sound of my breathing, the ways we connect with each other without a single word, and a lovely poem we had read out to us that I have previously written a post inspired by here.
There are obviously still barriers, but I have found my day of silence refreshing and empowering. It’s not at all like those “confidence building” tricks, it’s so much more quiet and subtle than that – it’s a shift that just made making words a little bit easier. Perhaps because my brain stopped feeling so much pressure to perform? I don’t know. Whatever it is, I like it. In fact I like it so much I’m doing a week soon with BreathWorks. I may not like it any more when I get back from a whole week, but I suspect I will.
I can highly recommend learning Mindful Self Compassion with Annette, and her guided retreats. We had some wonderful guided meditations, the smell of the most gorgeous lavender oil, the calm warm guidance of Annette, blankets, warm socks, a little sunshine, tasty treats and the most beautiful Peak District setting for a whole day of silence. I felt like I’d had a week’s holiday when I got back!