What:"It is only through meditation that you can undertake the journey to discover your true nature, and so find the stability and confidence you will need to live, and die, well. Meditation is the road to enlightenment". The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche
Benefits:There are many benefits of meditation: it can reverse your stress response, thereby shielding you from the effects of chronic stress. When practicing meditation, your heart rate and breathing slow down, your blood pressure normalises, you use oxygen more efficiently, and you sweat less. Your adrenal glands produce less cortisol, your mind ages at a slower rate, and your immune function improves. Your mind also clears and your creativity increases.
Irony is...running away from a retreat...
In October 2009 I returned from a 4 day, 'Insight meditation & Qigong' silent retreat at Gaia House, in Devon.
Now the retreat started on Friday and I 'escaped' on the Saturday night - 4 days it most certainly was not; well not for me anyway.
Before the retreat began I was unsure as to whether it would be the most sensible time to embark on such a unique and presumably intense experience, but in my usual bashful manner I thought, what the hell, it's already booked and how hard can sitting around all day actually be?
In the lead up I had arranged an appointment with my counsellor to discuss how difficult I was finding my emotions; how sensations and snippets of memory were once again returning in an ad hoc manner. That of course sounds wonderful; the very thing I was striving for however the reality of such an experience is significantly more destabilising. It was good to talk it through and I made a contract that if the retreat became too much then I would 'speak my truth' and remove myself to a safe place. I begrudgingly agreed; though I wasn't entirely sure what she was on about - I can hear me now, 'I'll be fine?'
As I entered Gaia House and settled into the retreat everything seemed OK; there were lots of people which felt reassuring. The evening meal and meditation were in complete silence; no mobiles, notepads, books, mp3 players, watches, non-verbal or verbal communication from this point forward. The evening went well; I slept comfortably and I was ready for a good day on Saturday.
The morning meditation however proved really quite difficult; very difficult in fact. I found myself crying; silently, but crying nonetheless. It was like I couldn't stop thinking about the recent memories, emotions that had popped up and what they meant; words I could hear myself as a child uttering. I felt so incredibly fragile, lost and completely alone, bizarre really considering I was in a room full of about 80 people.
The day was staggered between sitting meditation, qigong, sitting meditation, breakfast, work hour, sitting meditation, qigong, sitting meditation etc.
It felt like mental torture but at the same time I didn't want the sitting practices to end; for all I was experiencing vulnerability like never before I was also appreciating what it meant for me to feel such a thing.
I'm a girl who doesn't freely cry; who always tries to be strong; who acts like nothing bothers me; acts like I don't feel hurt but in the silence I could feel my raw emotion; I could feel what it's actually like to be me.
At first I thought the feelings of sorrow, vulnerability; abandonment were alien, something entirely new but the longer I sat with them the more I began to recognise them, like an old friend from the past; like a wound that never completely healed. Deep inside the chords resonated with an unsettling familiarity.
It was agonising, like the contractions of labour I couldn't stop the emotional surge from forcing its way up. This was no baby but instead rose the disowned parts of my 'self' the parts that had lay hidden within my sub-conscious. These were the behaviours, the character traits that I had unconsciously fought to deny, to repress; to dissociate from yet in the stillness; in the silence of the meditation hall they were all I had - they are who I am.
With each practice the feelings became more and more intense; I'd never realised how noisy total silence could be; my mind filled with 'chatter' and confusion. I was sat in an environment where I couldn't reach out; I couldn't shift the focus of attention onto someone else and I couldn't distract myself. In truth I felt completely exposed; pathetically so.
As the evening sessions drew in I flagged up my need to talk with one of the staff. I sat in the room consumed by my own fear. What a weak, pathetic fool; I couldn't even cope with a day and a half of silence. I decided to give it another shot and returned for one further sitting. This practice was 90mins - this proved too much, way too much.
At first I tried to rationalise, then in a futile effort I tried to regain my composure, 'c'mon girl, you can do this, concentrate on your breath...breathe in...breathe out; breathe in...count each out breath'.
Before too long my mind had once again wandered; I was lost, as my eyes streamed I experienced an overwhelming desire to scream; to shout out from the bottom of my lungs but nothing came.
I endured further and towards the end of this practice I kept opening my eyes, glancing around at everyone apparently in a peaceful meditative trance and here I was in absolute turmoil; my mind fragmenting.
As soon as the practice had finished I rushed to the staff room and expressed my need to leave the retreat. It was explained to me that this often happens and how being in complete silence with no distractions can bring about intense feelings. I understood that, what I was struggling to understand was that it was happening to me; that I was capable of experiencing such an intensity of feeling; a prospect which frightened me immensely.
On leaving the retreat the teacher, a complete stranger asked me, 'what is it that you need right now?'
I thought back to the time I had come off an expedition on the Northern icecap. Whilst in a hostel in Cohaique, my pyjama top had read, 'I need a hug'. On seeing it someone had commented, 'Em I can't imagine you ever needing a hug'. At that time, and for the majority of my life that statement was exactly right, but on leaving the retreat I felt a lump rise in my throat, before I could stop or even elicit any control over it, a tiny voice crept out 'a hug'.
Jeez keep me silent for a few days and look what happens; I was a complete emotional wreck - exhausted. How ignorant had I been in thinking, 'how difficult can sitting around in silence all day actually be?'
Hindsight is a powerful thing and looking back I can now appreciate that in that brief moment I had access to my inner child. The tiny voice that asked for a hug was from the same little person who had always wanted a hug but had never known what or how to ask for one. For me, settling into silence was far from easy, but I appreciate now I simply had to go through that process in order to learn. In that environment the silence exasperated a feeling of bottled-up energy, of forced-down feelings, when in actual fact those feelings were all of my own doing; my struggle had simply been with my 'self'.
The words of Sharon Salzburg, Co-Founder of the Insight Meditation Society resonate, "It's easy to confuse silence with being silenced, yet silence serves not to close us down but to open us up. Silence doesn't separate us from our inner world, it links us to it."
I'd never considered myself as soft, fragile, needy or vulnerable but it's allowed me to see how much personal strength, resolve and courage it takes to acknowledge, integrate and respect such aspects.
A famous Kahlil Gibran quote reads, "I have learned silence from the talkative, tolerance from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind; yet strangely, I am ungrateful to these teachers".
...So next time I sit in silence for an extended period I will do so with curiosity, compassion and respect, for surely those are qualities any great teacher deserves.