By the time you read this I’ll be back in ‘reality’ but right now I haven’t spoken for six days. No phones, no computers, no CNN, no TV, no books (apart from ones exploring Silence), no talking. And it feels fantastic.
I’m sitting on a rock watching six seals chilling out in Monterey, California and I’m wondering how to distil this feeling into everyday life. I realise I’m lucky to have the opportunity to be on this retreat and this is a world away for most but there are a few discoveries which I think can be applied to us all.
It’s been a journey to get here in every sense of the word. I’ve wanted to do a silent retreat ever since my last Chopra Center programme in 2006 but then I got married, became a mother and the idea of traveling back to California from the UK where I live, to spend a week in silence felt too self-indulgent regardless of the benefits. But then a gift arrived. I received an email saying that as it’s 10 years since I certified with the Center as a wellbeing instructor that I had to attend a silent retreat to recertify. So I roped in my supportive husband and parents, recorded daily videos for my kids to watch, made cuddle bears with my voice inside for us to hug when missing each other and here I am.
A silent retreat, or vipasana, means insight or silent witnessing. Through focusing only on the sensations in your body you create distance from your thoughts and become aware of that which observes the mind, or the ‘I’ behind ‘I think’. It’s hard to describe but it’s incredibly liberating. The daily routine includes four group meditations starting from sunrise with two yoga classes, walks in nature and daily satsangs (listening to an enlightened person) from Deepak Chopra. So here are the epiphanies which may seem obvious but have really hit home –
1. Our most profound thoughts are the quietist – Just from unplugging and shutting up for a while I’ve had inspiration on how to become a better teacher, mother, wife and how to grow my business. If you pack every moment of your day when is there time for those deeper thoughts to emerge? I always meditate twice a day so I should know this but I overfill the remaining 23 hours and that’s a mistake. We all need make time to pause within our everyday routine. The simplest way to achieve this is just to take a moment to focus on the sound and sensations of your breath.
2. Mindful eating is delicious – Food never tasted so good and it’s not all down to the cuisine. Every meal has tasted like the first food after a fast. If you observe Yom Kippur or Ramadan or have ever done the 5:2 diet you’ll know what I mean. When you eat in silence with no distractions (no emails, headline news or facebook feed) the flavors are so much more intense and you recognise the sensations of fullness sooner so you don’t overeat.
3. Switching off tech is truly liberating – Now I’m a hypocrite. I teach about the joy of stillness but when I’m not practicing it I’m glued to my phone. Walking to the station to get to work I call my mum, in the elevator down to the platform still talking until the connection goes, on the train I know exactly where the wifi hotspots are etc etc. A 2016 research study found that on average we touch our phone 2,617 times a day. Frightening. As a generation, we’ve become addicted to the dopamine loops achieved by Googling and finding information online. When you make time to literally and metaphorically switch off, you begin to appreciate simple pleasures again like people watching and enjoying nature.
4. Nature is the most natural tranquiliser – Unlike humans nature doesn’t play different roles. It doesn’t try to be anything other than it is. Birds don’t try to be swans, trees don’t try to grow sideways. Observing how nature literally follows its true course and being surrounded by it brings out your intuition of what is right for you. Spending time in nature can help you realise who you are rather than who you’re trying to be or what you’re trying to achieve. Tune into your senses – see the waves, hear the bird song, smell the flowers, taste natural food. It doesn’t take long to uncover the calmness buried beneath the tech induced constant whirring thoughts.
Now of course I’m writing this whilst I’ve been in the company of Deepak Chopra for almost a week. Anyone who has heard him speak will know how it leaves you feeling simultaneously exhilarated and overwhelmed by your own existence.
I’m also writing this whilst ‘heavily meditated’, a condition I can only compare to receiving a hit of post-operation morphine. I’m loving everyone and everything around me. Tricky when you can’t tell anyone. In fact it’s probably a good thing, otherwise they’d think I’m a nut job.
So taking this all into account my thoughts are somewhat disconnected, but they’ve emerged from a unique opportunity to step off the hamster wheel of everyday life, to connect within and just observe. I’m hoping some of these realisations and practices will stick and that by sharing this personal journey I might open you to the calm within. As Deepak says “in the midst of movement and chaos, keep stillness inside of you.”