I’m getting ready to go to another silent retreat this week.
Which makes me remember my first silent retreat. The one where I went batshit crazy.
I was out of my mind with rage at the people meditating around me who felt the need to swallow. Or cough. Or sneeze. The place was like a Nyquil ad.
I loathed the whole lot of them as I sat there trying to meditate. In fact, for days, I didn’t so much meditate as I seethed.
There would be a swath of blissful silence when the room was perfectly still. And just as I started to sink into the meditative state I was trying so hard to achieve…
…someone would cough.
I almost shot off my cushion and shrieked, “Jesus Christ you people! Can you, for the love of god, stop coughing for 10 minutes, I’m trying to be spiritual here!”
I didn’t do that.
Instead, I continued seething. Just for kicks, I threw in a bunch of self-hatred at my inability to control this anger. After that, I judged the person next to me for swallowing. Then I went back to judging myself for not being a nice person.
I was a walking freak show.
And then, on about day 4, something happened.
I stopped fighting myself. I let myself hang out with me. Like the coolest friend you’ve ever had. The one who loves you even when you’re a hot mess.
The edginess dropped away. There were frogs outside around the meditation room singing their hearts out. And as I sat listening…all of the trying-so-hard-to-make-something-happen just stopped trying. The judgment released its grip.
And the silence of the silent retreat became profound. Not because I reached a wildly mystical nirvana state. But because awareness simply took over. And all the labeling, chattering, yammering, judging and controlling fell away.
I simply was.
These days, I set up my year so I can attend two 7-day silent retreats. Even with my own busy event schedule, these are non-negotiable.
The Unrestrained Lure of Noise
When people hear that I’m going on a silent retreat, the reaction tends to be about the same: Horror.
They say something along the lines of: “I could never do that.”
My friend Phil said, “You mean night after night you just go to bed, and you wake up to more of the same, just silence? That sounds like a horrible awful time.”
He has a point.
Noise is compelling. It grabs at you. It distracts you. It stimulates you. It’s like crunchy food that’s got salt and sugar.
Space is, well, boring. There’s no drama. There’s nothing to hook you. It’s soft and endless. You can’t achieve anything out of it. It’s a bowl of steamed broccoli.
So, understandably, people want to know why I would do this to myself. They want lists of the results I’ve gotten so they can let go of their images of me in some kind of cult, clutching my dixie cup of Kool-Aid.
The Soft Squishy Everywhere-ness of Silence
But I don’t have lists.
I don’t even have a satisfactory “why.”
I’ll do my best here anyway. I’ll share three things I’ve experienced from intentionally creating these spaces for silence during my year.
Then, you can weigh it out for yourself.
Thing #1 – Ceasing the relentless pursuit of input
Most of us aren’t comfortable with space. We’re doggedly addicted to adding some kind of stimulus or content or opinion to every freakin’ moment.
Consider the little two-step everyone does when faced with even 30 seconds of space…
…reaching into their back pocket and pulling out their phone to stare at it.
Ahhhh, input. The culturally-accepted needle to the vein (or brain) that feels so good.
Whenever I finish teaching a session at my events, I look out into the room to see everyone heads down on their phones.
At the gym, when someone finishes a set of back squats, they grab their phone.
It happens in a restaurant when you’re waiting for your friend to show up. It happens at stoplights. It happens when you’re bored at home.
We crave input. We can’t deal with the discomfort that shows up when faced with space.
Why does this matter?
Well, if you want to spend your days on autopilot just surviving until the end of this game, it doesn’t really.
But most people don’t want that.
Most people tell me they want to create, to be real, to be autonomous. So if that’s you, then your ability to be creative is directly related to your ability to be with the discomfort (and uncertainty) that arises in stillness.
And creativity is not just about writing a song or making a painting. Being creative is about making wise choices in your business, your life. It’s about living your life, not reacting it. It’s about decisions and questions and choices.
Space is where we find our answers. The ones that we most need. The ones that no one else can provide. Space is also where we truly see ourselves.
And no, you don’t have to condemn yourself if you realize you’re an input addict. You don’t even have to condemn iPhones.
Like any addiction, there’s a gift here. The gift is to get aware of why you can’t extricate yourself from it. Why are you so relentlessly hungry for input? For other people’s agendas. For news. For opinions. For whatever. What are you so scared of?
Only you can answer that and see if you can let silence just be there. Even for a few seconds.
Thing #2 – Creating a space between stimulus and response
We’re in a 24/7 constant stream of thumbs up’s, thumbs down’s, here’s-what-I-think’s, and I’m gonna give you my take on pretty much everything whether you want it or not’s.
And make no mistake…this is brain training.
We’ve trained our minds to believe that these lame little opinions of ours are who we are and that they actually matter. “I have a thought or emotion, and the world needs to know immediately.” Think of the last email you received that completely side-swiped you with a knee-jerk reaction to something you unintentionally said. (Or hell, even the one you sent.) Was it necessary?
I call it Opinion Porn.
And much like the input that keeps us in a trance, our opinions trap our hearts and souls beneath the clutter. We’re obsessed by these meaningless waterbugs on the surface of our consciousness. In the end, they’re just projections and reactions that keep us distracted from something deeper.
More liberating is to pause and witness the triggers and thoughts. Why this tiny event on this one brief day is dragging so much emotion out of you.
So if silence – and all the seething I’ve experienced therein – has taught me anything, it’s that my thoughts are just thoughts and that I can dive after them and clutch them as if they are valuable treasures to show everyone and obsess on for days and weeks.
Or I can recognize that the ticker tape parade of my thoughts – like all else that seems so important – is, 98% of the time, not even remotely true.
Thing #3 – It’s not about being “Spiritual.”
When I was heading off to my first silent retreat, I told my assistant, “If I come back and start saying ‘Namaste,’ slap me, okay?”
I have nothing against Namaste or people who say it. (I live in Asheville. I’m steeped in Namaste.)
But a spiritual practice (or any practice, for that matter) can simply become just another mask you put on. Another identity. “I’m a spiritual entrepreneur, you know this right?”
Even something as simple as going to silent retreats…
…there was a sneaky ego part of me that thought I would stop running a company and start, you know, wearing sensible shoes and mala beads.
Again, if that’s your jam…go for it.
But there was an ego trap here. The part of me that wants black-and-white answers was wondering if maybe Jesus himself would show up and say, “Give up your business and begin this new direction I have seen for you.” (Maybe he would even add something slightly biblical about taking my yoke.)
But that didn’t happen.
In fact, the message I did receive (though Jesus never showed) was this:
Use your work and your business as your practice. Stay with it fully. Especially when it’s uncomfortable. (And oh yeah, there’s no new shiny identity in any of this for you. You’re still you.)
Which means I still experience times when I seethe. I still write articles about ideal clients, getting people to click through on your emails and hosting your own retreats. And yeah, I still say fuck occasionally.
There’s no new identity to put on. This is a bummer if you’re sick of your old stories and patterns. But the good news is that your stories and patterns are actually your teachers. You learn this the way you learn everything else in silence…by sitting there and seeing them clearly.
So, you don’t have to head off for 7 days to prove you can be silent. Instead, just tell me…how do you make space for silence and stillness (or avoid it!) in the busyness of your everyday life?