What I Learned From a Weekend of Silence

I sat quietly on the floor, my legs crossed beneath me, my hands clasped in my lap. I took a long slow breath in. And a long exhale out.

“You can do this” I thought to myself. “Be still. Just relax.”

It didn’t take long for my brain to churn. “Why are you not out backpacking right now? Why did you sign up for this again? Are you crazy? If you tell your friends what you’re doing they won’t believe it.”

“Shhhhh.” I whispered to my brain. “Focus!”

I took another deep breath in and out. My body would NOT stop fidgeting. I felt the restlessness coming up from deep down inside. I slowly, sneakily opened one eye and glanced around the room. 12 other people sat around me in seemingly peaceful, quiet meditation.

“Fuck. Why is this so hard?!”

Monkey mind. noun. A constantly chattering, unsettled, restless mind—like a monkey who reaches for a branch, swings, then lets go only to grab another.

Yep, that’s me. Restlessness is my superhero power. It was also the reason that one sunny weekend last summer I found myself sitting in the unlikeliest of places: a silent yoga and meditation retreat.

How did I end up here? Well, it was a crossroads of sorts…

The gorgeous grounds of the Aldermarsh Resort on Whidbey Island. Not a bad place to find yourself in silence, huh?

Last January, almost a full year ago, I hit the magical 40 milestone and with it came a lot of introspection. Although I’ve been fully present for a lot of great moments in my life, it never takes long for my mind to start thinking about the next adventure, the next place, the next thing. It’s always “what’s next?” and never “what’s now?” I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being ambitious and wanting to experience… well, everything! But it IS a problem to be the human embodiment of a ping-pong ball.

After 8 years of freelancing, mostly because I could swing from one project to the next and never stay in one place for very long, I went back to full time work. After exhausting nearly everyone I’ve ever been in a relationship with, I finally met a guy I didn’t want to exhaust. It became apparent that my crazy little brain needed to slow down and find some stillness, both for my health and the health of those around me.

So what did I do? Well, I pretty much revealed my life secrets to my amazing rolfer, Kate Bradfield.

Huh? Rolfer?

Rolfers are structural integration therapists who do deep tissue massage and connective, fascial tissue work. I’ve been seeing Kate for many years and she’s treated every injury I’ve ever had, which isn’t a trivial task. Twice a year she partners with Jenny Hayo, a spiritual teacher of yoga, Buddhism, meditation and pranayama, and they lead a 3-day silent yoga/meditation retreat at the beautiful Aldermarsh Resort on Whidbey Island.

She told me I should join since it would be completely opposite from my normal. “It’ll change your life” she told me. To say I was dubious was an understatement but hey, Kate has an incredible energy. Either that or she’s a Jedi.

I signed up. Then afterwards I read a few blog stories about other people doing silent retreats and the general feelings went something like:

“Oh my god, my body can’t take the pain of sitting here another minute!”.

“You’re forbidden to gesture, to make eye contact. It’s like hell on earth”.

“Sitting here, suffering for 3 hours unable to move while meditating is NOT my path to enlightenment”.

What had I done!? Though I’d been practicing yoga for over 6 years, it had never been in a room below 120 degrees. I’d never been on a silent retreat and as far as meditation, well… I downloaded an iPhone app called Headspace and completed exactly 3 10-min “learn how to meditate” sessions so I could try to prep. I barely sat still for 5 minutes of any of them! I didn’t know the first thing about taking a pause. Or how to control my mind. And I was going to a silent retreat!?

Kate assured me this retreat would not be hours of torture and it turns out she was right because by the time I left the retreat a mere 3 days later I couldn’t believe how much it had changed me. I felt an ease and awareness that I’ve never had and a peaceful calm I’ve never experienced. I learned a lot about myself, both expected and unexpected. What I learned from a weekend of silence:

Structure is freedom.

Yep, this is coming from me, the person who hates structure. I loved being a freelancer partly to take a stand against the traditional and embrace the freedom my anti-schedule afforded me. I’m a big list person and like the idea of letting my day unfold as it will, checking things off as I go. Without a schedule though, I often felt like I was sleepwalking through my days with little direction. Unstructured time is a tricky thing.

What scared me most about the retreat? The schedule! Each day, from 6am-8pm our day was planned with yoga, meditation, meals, and a few slots of free time. When I first saw it I panicked. As the retreat unfolded; however, what I thought would feel restrictive and oppressive was quite the opposite—it was liberating! What was happening!?

Well for one, the schedule kept me moving through the day. There wasn’t a choice to make about what to do or when to do it so I became fully engaged and 100% present in the activity for that specific block of time. When I had a break all to myself I made the absolute most of it, never once thinking about the other things I had to do because hey, there was a time for them, and that time wasn’t now.

I realized how little freedom I was actually receiving from my lack of schedule and routine. The retreat taught me that although I don’t want to schedule every minute of my day, planning ahead and blocking out time for specific tasks keeps me focused and present. When I DO hit that block of open time, my brain is completely free to make the most of it!

One of the favorite parts of my day at Aldermarsh: our hourly nature walk. Since every part of my day had a purpose, it was easy for my mind to be completely free during my walks.

Early morning intention changes your entire day.

I’m not a person who prides themselves on their morning routine, so I super freaked when I saw our day started with a 6am meditation. My crazy metabolism dictates I feed myself immediately upon waking, which meant a 5:15 wakeup each morning to fix coffee and a light breakfast. 5:15!?!?

Usually my morning routine is hitting the snooze button at least 20 times, sleeping in a bit too late and then rushing around frantically to catch up and get organized. I spend the rest of my day feeling like I’m behind the eight ball and by evening I’m ready to curl up and zone out.

It turns out that being first to the coffee pot must be a huge motivator for me because I not only managed to get up every morning of the retreat at 5:15 without the use of the snooze button, but I also looked forward to it. Again, what was happening!?

Well, that first morning was rough, no doubt, but there was this wonderful peace in getting up early enough to relax with a cup of coffee and a piece of toast, watch the sunrise, and know that I had 45 minutes all to myself before my day really started. There is a pretty special feeling only the early morning hours bring. It changed the entire tone of my day.

Finding freedom in gorgeous quiet mornings at Aldermarsh

Ok, I admit that after the retreat I never woke at 5:15 again. I’ve had fails where I’ve taken a dive back into my frenzied morning disaster, but I feel like life is constantly a work in progress. The retreat made me mindful of my morning routine more than ever and I’m happy to say that in the year since, my mornings have been generally less stressed.

Maybe the lesson isn’t necessarily in getting up super early, but in giving yourself time at the beginning of the day, without distraction or phones, to just “be”.

Silence reboots.

Being in silence with 12 strangers is definitely a bit awkward. The first day was a challenge as everyone fumbled around the kitchen, awkwardly smiling at each other. As we grew comfortable with the silence, it evolved into some pretty powerful magic.

Enjoying the day in complete silence was a gift. No chit-chat, no drone of voices, just the beautiful grounds of Aldermarsh and the sounds of nature. There sure isn’t a better way to enjoy a fresh cup of coffee in the morning!

Spending a few days in silence with strangers creates some amazing bonds and it sure doesn’t hurt when your views look like this!

In silence, it becomes quickly apparent how much noise and stimulation there is in the world and how much non-verbal communication is overpowered. Despite not speaking the entire weekend, I felt as if I knew every single person at the retreat and shared a special bond that only we communicated.

I tend to hike alone for silence and consider myself very aware of my surroundings, but after 3 days in silence it’s incredible what you suddenly notice and hear! It’s as if your senses have become amplified—everything smells stronger, tastes better and sounds clearer.

With all the noise and stimulation in the world, our senses become dulled and numb to what is happening around us. It’s good to simply be quiet sometimes, to watch someone, and listen. Silence reboots your senses and brings you in tune with what’s really happening all around you.

Listening takes practice.

On the first day of the retreat before beginning our silence, we did an exercise where we partnered up with someone else and each person took turns as a speaker and a listener. We each answered the question “What have you recently learned about yourself?” The person listening was forbidden to speak, only to listen.

It was a surprisingly tough challenge! I found myself wanting to say “me too!” or “I understand!” As a speaker it was tough to just stand in silence when you were done and time remained on the clock. Most (myself included) would drone on to fill the silence.

At the end of the retreat we repeated the exercise and suddenly listening had become so easy! It was an incredible transformation. Being in silence was no longer strange, we could say a few words and be satisfied. It was so easy to focus on the person in front of you, watch their emotions, and truly listen to them.

I think many of us are better at listening than others, but in our busy frantic lives, it’s tough to just sit and really listen. We fiddle with phones, we look around, we think about our emails, we wonder about what we’re going to say next. All the while we’re doing ourselves and the person we’re engaged with a disservice and we’re teaching ourselves that it’s ok to not be present.

True listening takes intent. And practice. But it’s easy to learn. I learned in barely 72 hours.

It’s incredible how many small sounds we drown out every day. Silence retunes our senses and truly listening is an awakening experience!

Meditation really does improve your health.

Meditation and mindfulness are certainly the buzzwords as of late but as I slowly learned how to meditate I found my stress diminished while my concentration, self-awareness, and general happiness increased. I felt more in touch with my body and my thoughts than ever before.

At the retreat, we rarely sat for long, which made it easy to embrace. Our meditation sessions were 30 minutes at most and combined with nature walks, yoga movement, silence, and the gorgeous grounds of Whidbey Island’s beautiful Aldermarsh Resort, I was able to find a peace inside myself I never had before.

At the beginning of the retreat they said we’d all have a “moment” that would change us. “Bah!” I thought. “I’m just going to be in hell sitting here all weekend.”

On the last day of our retreat, my restless mind surfaced and wandered off to all of the beautiful trails I could go run once free. As wonderful as the weekend was, I was ready to bust out of the cage like a wild animal. As we had our final retreat circle, Jenny Hayo said that “oftentimes, how we leave the retreat is how we leave other things in life.”

Full stop.

I finally saw it—my “moment”.

Why am I always one foot out the door? Why do I always feel like a caged animal? Why is my little monkey brain always thinking of the next, the next, the next.

I told my monkey to sit down. It protested loudly, but I dismissed it, and just like that, it was gone. I sat in complete stillness and when I finally got up again I realized it was perhaps the first time in my life I had successfully quieted my mind. It was silent. And it was both powerful and scary at the same time.

My eyes have certainly been opened to the power of meditation.

The power of a timeout.

Sure, I frequently get outside, unplug, and enjoy the silence from time to time, but this retreat rebooted my system in fantastic ways. As a person who works with technology for a living, I equally love it and hate it. I think it’s made our lives more wonderful in many ways while numbing us to everything around us and splintering our time into an unfocused multi-tasking nightmare.

At the end of the retreat I felt more aware of myself and everything around me. I could truly listen again. My senses were in tune to my surroundings and though it was just a start, my eyes had been opened to the power of meditation.

When Kate and Jenny announced a January retreat a few months back, would you believe I was one of the first to sign up? And tonight I go back to Aldermarsh again for another 3 days of discovery. I’m just as apprehensive as I was the first time and I’ve tried to talk myself out of it all week, but you know, it’s hard to defy a Jedi master like Kate!

It’s hard to say no to spending a few days rebooting my brain in a place as beautiful as Aldermarsh. Here’s to finding more peace!

Need to cultivate some stillness in your life?

If your life feels a little frazzled, Jenny Hayo teaches meditation classes at the 8 Limbs Yoga Center and Kate Bradfield is nothing short of a medicine woman. Her rolfing office is located in Capitol Hill. Information on their retreats is on Jenny’s website.

If you’ve never tried a silent retreat, I would highly recommend it! You never know what you’ll learn about yourself and it’s an incredible way to unwind and reset. Expect to be really fidgety at first until your body settles in.

In the meantime, try to schedule time in every day to just sit and be. If you don’t already take time for yourself at the beginning of your day, do it! It’s amazing the changes you’ll see. I think all of us can benefit from a little stillness and silence in our day – don’t you think?