Without going as far as a silent retreat, how often to you actually just have time to sit at home? Not doing anything in particular and not feeling the need to.
Just one little hour away on your own. As much as you love those kids, they barely sit still. Your partner can never find whatever it is they are looking for. Work is quite frankly demanding and exhausting.
The thought of a whole day of silence, with no-one calling your name, would be better than any holiday.
Or maybe you can’t think of anything worse. Minutes, hours and days just left to your own thoughts, what’s fun about that?
Ever wondered what people get out of silent retreats?
Well, this summer I spent a few hundred euros on one only to find it cancelled thanks to Covid. Well, not entirely cancelled. It changed location and, as many things have just recently, found its way onto Zoom.
Silent retreat at home … really?
Yes, that’s right. I was all set for a few days off the beaten track in the hills between Alicante and Valencia. Instead, I start to psychologically prepare myself for the relative comfort of a cushion in my living room.
I am one of those people who loves silence. Am I antisocial? I don’t think so. I just like some time out. My family isn’t overwhelming. In fact, it’s just me and my daughter so our house is pretty chilled out.
I just like quiet time when I can sit and stare at a wall for half an hour. Just spending some time in the here and now.
There is a cockney comedian who calls it “doing old school f*ck all”. People also refer it to it as mindfulness nowadays. It makes it feel like a new concept, when in fact I think the former sums it up well as it’s simply an art we have lost in modern life.
In fact, we have come so far from doing old school f*ck all and not feeling guilty about it, that we now pay to go somewhere else to do it.
And now here I am, looking at my own familiar four walls.
Previous meditations come to mind. “Nothing to do, nowhere to go.” That’s what we are told.
I certainly wasn’t going anywhere for the next five days. Damn that virus.
What is the purpose of a silent retreat?
A silent retreat is about getting away from daily life?
You’d think so, right? Some idyllic location where all stress has been banished to a faraway place.
Spiritual retreats have their roots in many religions. They allow time for reflection and prayer. In Hinduism and Buddhism, they are a way to deepen the powers of concentration and insight. And not all retreats are silent, but they do tend to have at least some periods of silence to encourage this process of going within, without distraction.
So yes, maybe moving out of your everyday context allows you to break away from the white noise and find your own answers.
But actually, a retreat isn’t about turning away from yourself and your experience but more turning towards it. And logically you can do that from anywhere.
At least that is what I am telling myself as I settle into our introductory session and look at a sea of faces from across Europe smiling out at me from my laptop.
“Wherever you go, there you are,” as we are reminded.
Here I am. In my living room. Let’s give this a whirl.
Silent retreat at home: back to basics
And so, I find myself in my living room staring at the low dividing wall between my kitchen and dining area. In my direct line of sight from my cushion, it is a wall, as it turns out, that could decidedly do with a clean or a lick of paint.
And so start the challenges of this retreat.
Mindfulness encourages us to be in the present moment. Whilst aware of our surroundings, our thoughts and our emotions and yet not necessarily engaging with them. As much as I wanted to rejuvenate that wall, it would have to wait.
In fact, this is the backdrop to the whole week.
On the second day, I project in my mind an entirely different layout to my living area.
The beautiful sunlight that comes streaming in my window on the third day, turns into a reproachful spotlight throwing up dust in places that dust couldn’t ordinarily get to.
By day four, I start noticing cobwebs up in the ceiling beams. First one and then more. How have I never seen them before? Is my house dirty? Aren’t spiders actually a good sign in a house? A sign of lack of humidity? I can’t quite remember.
“If you were in Spain right now, you wouldn’t give a shit about the cobwebs in their rafters,” I say to myself. And yet here I am itching to get the hoover out.
And that’s when it hits me: this is where mindfulness gets interesting. How do you actively bring it into your every day here and now? How do you sit and just look at your own cobwebs without judgement and without jumping on the desire to sort them out?
What is a silent retreat like when you need to talk?
Only two hours into the retreat, I also find myself talking. I am not struggling with the silence as such, but it all happens when I go to pick my daughter up from her archery lesson.
“When I do archery, mummy, it is just like letting all the dust from the week slowly settle down and I see things more clearly,” says my daughter in a somewhat synchronistic way as she jumps into the car. This exact imagery had been offered to us during the retreat to depict thoughts in our mind.
And with that, so she continues to speak in a most eloquent, uninterrupted way about some bullying she has been victim to at school.
The more I listen and say nothing, the more she speaks. By the time she finishes, we have arrived home. I stop the car and take her into my arms and say, “Thank you for sharing all that with me. We will sort this out together if you want to.”
She reminds me, with a slightly worried smile, that I have broken the rules by talking. I remind myself that there is what we call “being” and “doing” mode and I need to be in the latter just for a few moments to reassure my daughter. And that that is absolutely fine.
Mindfulness is not about not having the worries. It’s not about blocking things out. It’s about how you respond to them. My “normal life” may have been put on pause in Spain, but it wasn’t on pause now.
Another little thought flitters around my mind. Would she have found the space to share her problems on the way home, had I been talking away? I don’t know.
The best silent retreats allow you to challenge yourself
And so, the five days flow into each other and merge into one home-based silent retreat. I have invited mindfulness into my life.
“Take a seat,” I said. “Don’t mind the mess!”
As we close the retreat and share experiences, it hits me that I never could have had such an experience in Spain.
Yes, I would have gone inside. I would hopefully have gained some wider perspective and some mental momentum. I would have undoubtedly had some rather nice tortilla and red wine just to round off.
But I wouldn’t have brought that mindfulness right into my every day. I wouldn’t have experienced so closely the interaction between being and doing and explored with real life examples where the two can meet.
And I live in France, so nice red wine – albeit not Spanish – is an easy ask too. And somewhere in mindfulness, I think there is a place for gratitude for what we do have.
DIY silent retreat
Maybe you think I could have done all that without forking out 300 euros and maybe you’re right. For me it was money well spent as it allowed me to experience a very valuable lesson.
But you don’t need to sign up for a silent retreat. You don’t even need to spend a whole five days in silence in order to invite a little mindfulness into your home.
Yeah, you know where I am going with this.
Get online and download a meditation. Or if you don’t want a meditation, a nice piece of music.
Or you want silence then just find a wall to stare at.
And just take 30 minutes to sit doing some of that old school f*ck all!
Let me know how you get on ;o)