today I will share with you my experience from attending a 7-day silent meditation retreat in Southern Portugal back in October 2021.
What is a meditation retreat?
A meditation retreat is an opportunity to connect with yourself on a deeper level and to hear the callings of your soul. The goal is to be able to reach a deep level of personal reflection and self-discovery by removing all daily distractions. The daily schedule often includes a certain amount of meditations and the period of sitting in meditation can be anything from 3 hours to 12 hours per day. Meditation retreats are normally hosted somewhere away from the city buzz, in pristine nature with beautiful surroundings.
The surroundings were beautiful.
How did I find myself on a silent meditation retreat?
That is a good question. The desire to go on a meditation retreat began years ago, not long after I had my spiritual awakening. In early 2020 I was super excited after I had booked in a retreat in Costa Rica for April 2020. Unfortunately that’s when the pandemic started escalating and so all retreats were cancelled, even mine. I was desperately looking for a retreat later in 2020, but they were all online, so I decided to wait.
This was my first ever retreat
I had no idea what to expect. This was one of those experiences where I just listened to my intuition and my soul's calling, without over-thinking or questioning it too much.
I remember the conversation I had with a friend before the silent meditation retreat, when I had just signed up and wanted to share my excitement with the world. She said I could never do that. You have to be without your phone, do you know that?. Her response didn't surprise me, but it made me sad to realize to what point our society has come to. Where we feel empty without our phones, like we don't even know who we are anymore. We have become so attached to technology and social media that being without it, even if for only a couple of days, brings us physical pain. Of course I knew that I had to be without my phone and laptop and without scrolling through social media or reading any news, that was the reason why I wanted to attend. To actually take time off and unwind.
What happens at a silent retreat?
The length of a meditation retreat can vary from one day to several weeks. The meditation retreat I attended was 7 days long. As the name implies, the silent meditation retreat is like a meditation retreat, but the verbal communication is also limited and the participants take a wow of silence for a given time. This means no talking during meditations, as well as during meals, walks, yoga, and other activities. This also means no internet use was allowed. We were allowed to use our phones to keep track of the time, as alarm clocks in the morning and to write notes, but not for contacting people or scrolling through the Internet or social media. Not even for listening to any podcasts or music.
When we arrived at the retreat center we were allowed to talk for a few hours and briefly introduce ourselves, before we then went into noble silence. The first day we received our daily schedule, that we then followed for seven consecutive days we followed the same schedule. For me the first two days were the hardest.
The retreat included a combination of meditation sessions throughout the day, vegan meals, walks, yoga sessions and the retreat leader’s talks. Each day we had short group walks in nature and every evening we had dharma talks by the retreat leader. They were super interesting, but way too short (only about 20 minutes long). All the meals were vegan and were prepared by volunteers. The food was actually nutritious and super delicious. The only thing I craved and missed so bad was coffee.
The meditation hall.
Our daily schedule:
So here are 6 things I’ve learned from being on a 7 day silent meditation retreat.
Changing your daily habits is much easier when in a new environment
Changing habits at home usually feels like a struggle, but it’s much easier to do it when you’re in a new environment. We were waking up at 5:30AM every morning to meditate and it became a routine in no time! I had got used to going to bed around midnight or even later, so waking up at 5:30AM and actually getting my ass to the meditation hall for every meditation session felt hard. I wanted to hit the snooze button so badly! Soon I got used to it though and already on the second day I noticed a shift. I no longer had to negotiate with my mind about whether or not to get up from bed once the alarm went off.
Being in complete silence for 7 days was the easiest part of the retreat
I was surprised about how easy it actually was to be in complete silence for 7 days. I have always enjoyed being on my own. Being alone with myself and my thoughts was nothing new for me, so that might have helped. It felt like my mind and soul had been longing for this week for so long. We were allowed to look into each other’s eyes so body language went a long way. for any concerns or questions we used post it notes. On the last day when it was time to break the silence, I would actually much rather have continued for one more week. I cannot even describe it, it felt so free and calming to know that I wouldn’t be communicating with anyone that day - there was no responsibility or pressure.
Being in the present is powerful
So often upon waking up we immediately grab our phones and tune into what the rest of the world is doing. We read the news, check our messages and scroll through social media. Just within the first hour of waking up we have let other people and the outer events shift our state of mind and we are drawn into the past and the future. We are never truly present in the moment and present to our own energy. Not having Internet for 7 days was a refreshing experience. I could be fully present in the moment, present with my food, present with my thoughts and feelings and present with my body.
You can feel connected to other people without any verbal communication
Before we entered into complete silence we did not have any chance to get to know the rest of the group. We were 22 people from all over the world. The only thing we I knew about the other participants before entering into silence was their name, home country and what they were hoping to get out of the week ahead. I still felt like I knew them and I felt super connected to all of them throughout the week. I could sense when someone was going through a rough time.
Your mind will try to talk you out of the experience
The monkey mind is real, with over 60.000 thoughts every day. Most of these thoughts are the same thoughts as the previous day. The first two days were the hardest, witnessing my own thoughts and monkey mind. The intense meditation practice where we were sitting in meditation for over 6 hours per day required a certain amount of self-discipline. The mind was saying things like what are you doing? What's the point of this? And let's go home now. It doesn’t matter how much you meditate, you cannot stop the thoughts from coming. So even trying to force yourself to stop thinking will not do the trick. But you can learn to become more aware of them and instead of going into the stories of your mind just watch them from a neutral space.
Sitting for long periods is challenging
Sitting on the ground, with the support of cushions, for hours each day was a whole new challenge for me. It definitely pushed my limits. My body was aching from the uncomfortable sitting position and my mind was telling me to change my position. The idea is to try not to move your body parts at all during the meditation, so whenever I was stronger than my mind and didn’t move a bit, my legs were instead tingling and went numb.
I don’t need music
Don’t get me wrong here, I love music!!! I listen to music daily, because it raises my spirits and I’m able to process my emotions through music. But it’s gone to the point where I have 4 different headsets and earbuds, so that at least one of them always has battery - and 80% of the time I’m listening to something, whether it’s music, podcasts or audiobooks. I had never gone running without music before my silent retreat. I had asked the retreat leader in advance about whether I could go for runs with music and he said it would be better not to listen to any music during the week. So I accepted the challenge - and I realized that I could go run without any music! I'll be honest with you though: my run was not as enjoyable and I felt like I didn’t have the same energy or motivation to keep running for longer distances, compared to when I have my music.
The silent retreat was fulfilling and rewarding in so many ways. I will definitely attend more of them in the coming years. This one week in complete silence shifted a lot for me internally. I've been a high-achiever all of my life, constantly on the go and on the lookout for the next goals to achieve. Previously I would feel bad for taking time off for myself where I wouldn’t be improving myself in some way or learning something new. I would feel like I'm just wasting my time if I wanted to watch Netflix or lay on the coach. But after the retreat I've been more mindful and let myself just BE.
If reading this blog post made you intrigued and inspired you to attend a silent meditation retreat, go read my other post where I share helpful tips on how to prepare for your first ever silent meditation retreat and your must bring items -list to rock your retreat!