A few weeks ago, I decided to go on a 5-day silent retreat, which was held at the Magnolia Grove Meditation Practice Center in Batesville, MS. It was something I had always been interested in – the retreat part, not the silent part – but I was intrigued by the opportunity to turn inward and leave behind this crazy world for a little bit. It ended up being the most profound experience I have ever had and immensely influenced my private and my work life.
Turning any task into your mindfulness practice
While at the center, we participated in a variety of meditations – silent meditations starting at 5:30am, walking meditations, deep relaxations and working meditations. The latter was important to keep a retreat for about 60 people going. There were teams to wipe the tables, to clean the bathrooms, to chop vegetables and so on. I was on dishwashing team # 2, drying dishes and putting the clean ones away again. Aside from making the retreat run smoothly, it was a lesson that you can turn any task – no matter how mundane – into your mindfulness practice. Almost all of us bemoan a lack of time, but being fully present with something you’re already doing anyway (washing dishes, brushing your teeth, folding laundry) doesn’t require extra time, only focus.
Missing out on the wonders around us
After the first couple of days when I couldn’t stop my constant stream of thoughts, I finally slowed down and started to appreciate what was right in front of me – the beautiful natural world with all its wonders. The crazy thing was that this was the day we experienced one of those typical Mississippi thunderstorms – with heavy rain and lightning – after which it got really cold. Despite the storm, I felt this intense connection to the natural world around me. The trees, the flowers and the birds around me appeared much more vibrant and ‘real’ – almost like I was just now really seeing them. A few times, I was moved to tears by the simplest things, such as the shape of a leaf or a bird landing on a tree. I couldn’t help but wonder whether I was often missing out on ‘beauty,’ because I was too preoccupied with events and people in the past or the future, instead of enjoying what was going on right here, right now.
How can I keep this focus and mental clarity?
The truth is that I have never felt such focus, concentration and mental clarity like I have during the second half of this retreat. It almost felt like a separate ‘space’ that I was able to plug into which allowed me to be completely focused. Sadly, with this realization and the joy over it, came worry. Worry over how I could protect this precious ‘space’ that allowed me to feel this way. How could I stay grounded and focused when I got back home and was hit with the ‘real’ world again?
While it isn’t practical for me (nor many other people) to live in silence, I believe that the answer to that question is in the practice of mindfulness. So here are some changes I have made to my every day that might be helpful to others as well.
I created a 45-minute timer setting on my Insight Timer meditation app. It starts and ends with the chime of a bell. When the bell sounds, I stop what I am doing and just try to be present in the moment before returning to my task at hand. I keep this timer going while I work, and it reminds me to be mindful and also to take breaks. I’ve also made it a habit to go outside every morning. And it’s nothing crazy – just taking my morning tea outside and enjoying it there, watching the birds and discovering the ‘wonders’ that are right outside my front door. I try not to turn my phone on until after I have had breakfast, so I can get my morning started in a grounded way and not get sucked straight into the world of emails and social media. And lastly, I have made it a point to do less multitasking. Multitasking used to be an accomplishment, something I wrote on my resume or in cover letters, but more and more research has come out that it is actually slowing us down, interrupting our focus and making us anxious and depressed. Only working on one project at a time (instead of checking emails and social media in between and getting side-tracked by what pops up there) has helped me to stay more focused and accomplish my work in a much more efficient way.
Overall, I can tell that for now I have lost the amazing clarity I experienced at the meditation center; however, I am able to focus longer and better than I was before this retreat. And I know that with continued practice, this space will remain open to me.