Lessons from my first silent retreat

By Shannon Wianecki


Before attending my first silent retreat, I wondered: what would happen? Would I go stir crazy? Would I be shocked by what I discovered inside myself? That was 10 years ago. I was a beginning yoga and meditation student and the idea of being totally silent, alone with my thoughts for nine days sounded both enticing and terrifying.

My job was to wake before dawn, meditate, practice asana, journal, help cook meals and swim. I was at a beautiful oceanfront camp with several other attendees. We were instructed not to speak to one another or even exchange glances. We were unplugged; I wasn’t able to check my email or phone or social media accounts. The world would have to find its way without my input for nine entire days.

At first, I felt anxious. My hands wanted more to do. I felt guilty for taking so much time to myself — a rare luxury. But slowly, I felt a growing sense of freedom.

By day three, I started to notice that most of my thoughts weren’t important. The near-constant critiques of myself and others, vague worries, and attempts to control situations were reinforcing my unspoken negative beliefs about the world and myself. This space junk adrift in the galaxy of my mind wasn’t just useless, it was potentially damaging. I realized that I would be better off silently repeating a prayer or mantra than letting my mind rehearse this unconscious chatter. In fact, I’d be better off saying “flamingo, flamingo” over and over than most of what I was repeating to myself!

As I began to settle into the daily routine of meditation, asana and journaling, I learned that life goes on regardless of how hard I think about it. All those things I worry about? They are going to happen — or not. What really matters is my connection to my deepest self. What I accomplish does not matter as much as who I am. I began to understand that urgency was an invention, a diversion created by my mind. It simply wasn’t necessary. Things that truly need my attention will get it, without a bunch of bluster and melodrama.

My biggest discovery? That I am a human being not a human doing. That knowledge has carried through to all areas of my life. Now, whenever I feel urgency, I ask myself: Can it wait nine days? Most of it can.

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