I’ve been interested in silence for a long time, and have made silence through solitude an important practice in my life. By inviting stillness and quietness into my daily routine I have discovered benefits to my mental and emotional health, as well as to my work life, and I enjoy keeping up to date with research on the therapeutic benefits of solitude and silence. Time outdoors is a key component to my solitude practice and walking, in particular, has been a route into the practice of silence and solitude that suits my need for motion and embodied engagement.
Pursuing quietness enables me, through an opening-up of the internal space, to connect with my inner voice and intuition, to regulate (and care for) my natural stress response to working with people in crisis, and to learn about myself and the world beyond me through a process of internal inquiry, listening and noticing, and contemplation. I also find that in stillness I am called to action. Silence has revealed my deepest callings and yearnings, and helps me direct my energies into the things that matter to me.
Some time ago, then, I decided to take my practice further, and felt drawn to enrol on my first silent mindfulness retreat. I leave for Spring Retreat today, and will be staying in a monastic community in the south of France until 19th May.
The days are structured entirely around mindful living and include sitting meditation, walking meditation, mindful eating and mindful working. Meditation is punctuated with Dharma teaching, and Noble Silence is a binding feature of the days. We will begin at 5am and sleep from 10pm. We will be a community, but largely in solitude and silence.
I suppose I was drawn to this retreat because I was ready for a ‘step up’. I’d heard anecdotally that to retreat in silence for prolonged periods is physically, emotionally and mentally hard. I know myself that a lot ‘comes up’ in the silent spaces we create for ourselves, have created for us or have foisted upon us, and to endure that alone (but not wholly alone) hour after hour is something I feel called to experience. But I was also drawn to Plum Village as an admirer of Thich Naht Hanh’s zen teachings and community vision. What he has created is a tradition of mindfulness that also cultivates joy and gratitude. Whilst I am not Buddhist, much of my thinking is heavily influenced by Buddhist ideas, and there is a strong tradition of the Buddhist approach to nature and the outdoors in the outdoor therapies, which invariably I have taken on board without being wholly conscious of it.
As I await the retreat’s beginning, I have been considering what it is that I am hoping to ‘achieve’ whilst I’m there. On the one hand, I don’t want to freight it with my westernised expectations of achievement – after all this is the mindful art of doing nothing much at all externally – and so to want something out of the experience feels too transactional, and to miss the point entirely. At the same time however, I am aware that I am hoping for a deepening of my spiritual practice with silence and solitude. I am not used to a practice of mindful silence alongside others, but I sense this is important as I move ever deeper into a vocation of compassion, and an awareness of how important community and connection is for human healing.
So, yes, I hope that this time inhabiting a new routine, with no online contact, will connect me more deeply to the world I know, will further expand my empathy and compassion, and will open up new ways of thinking and feeling. I say I have no expectations, but it’s clear that they couldn’t be any larger than this.
On a bodily level, I am also looking forward to a new way of appreciating food and the feeding of my most treasured ‘machine’. As I continue to really warm-up into my Bosnia training, I am keen to temper that effort with a more profound and soulful connection to nutrition, and to become more aware of how I can look after my body’s needs.
I’m not at all sure how I will do without digital connection, how I will miss my favourite humans and animals in the quiet abyss, how I will cope with the deepest and longest silences that go beyond my own comfort zone, how I will suffer the physical stillness of sitting, how I will manage my worries about missing out on work correspondence, how I will be in the company of others who are also in their own sphere of solitude. There are so many exciting and anxiety-provoking unknowns. All of them rich, and inevitably growthful.
I haven’t prepared as well as I might have – I have been on my phone and emails to the 11th hour, I have spent barely any time in silence this week at all, I don’t know any yoga for stretching out the pain in my back and legs when it comes.
But I am determined to go all in. That is, I want to enter fully into the spirit of what’s ahead with as little clutter as possible – physical and mental. I have a small carry-on bag packed with just a few loose linen clothes, my running shoes for the times when exercise is invited, and several notebooks. These are important for me. I must journal. I have nothing to read and my phone will be left on flight mode. My only weakness at the moment, is a supply of snack bars that have become an emotional safety net that I hope I won’t have to turn to.
In all, I am ready but with an important and humbling sense of unreadiness. I feel as if I’m on the edge of something, giving just one last look back.