January 26, 2015

A Silent New Year

The sticker I attached to my name badge

I'm a talker and an extrovert. So when I tell others that I am going on a silent retreat, the reaction is almost always "Wait, what? No talking? No internet? What do you DO all day?"

Well, my day starts off with a cup of coffee and a healthy breakfast in the cafeteria. Then I return to my room for 20-30 minutes of meditation. Afterwards I do some writing and/or reading before packing a backpack and heading out for a long hike in the woods. Then it's time for lunch, which I eat in the silent dining room. Back to my room for some reading followed by an afternoon yoga class. Finally – dinner, journaling, bath, then to bed with a book.

Waking up to a lovely sunrise on my first morning 

Walking through the woods

Icy tree branches in the creek

Reading at my favorite spot in the woods alongside a babbling creek

Benches with a wonderful view of the mountains

Journaling on New Year's Day 

Walking down to the lake

Sitting at the lake's edge

Sunset on my last evening

Having done this every year for the past four years now, I find there are a few essential factors you need for an effective silent retreat:

1. Beautiful natural surroundings (ideally with lots of hiking trails)
2. A comfortable place to sit, ideally with a view of those natural surroundings
3. A range of quality reading material (I like to bring a mix of poetry and nonfiction)
4. Good music with headphones (this year I couldn't stop listening to this and this)
5. Regular, delicious meals prepared for you

Number 5 is probably the most important one and the hardest to achieve, not to mention the biggest obstacle to doing a silent retreat in your own home. And I'm speaking from experience, because last January, that's what I did and it just wasn't possible to have a restorative experience when your mind is distracted 3 times a day by food preparation. It is disturbing to me how much of my regular mental activity is consumed by thoughts of grocery shopping, recipes, and cooking. And I am someone who enjoys cooking. But all the time I spend thinking about basic human needs, like food, is time I don't spend thinking about bigger things, like what my goals are or how my art is developing.

When I can remove all those thoughts of cooking from my mind, it is amazing how much time and space becomes available for new thoughts about life, about art. While my voice was silent my mind buzzing with energy. I've said this before but it is worth saying again - the easiest and simplest thing you can do to regain some quiet and calm in your life is to stop talking. After a few solid days of this, your focus completely shifts to your internal world and your brain is on fire. At least, mine was over New Year's when I spent three days in western Massachusetts at the Kripalu Center.

Over just three days, I read two books and started a third, I journaled more than I have the entire year, I made drawings and plans for new work, and I made a commitment to myself to start (and maintain) a daily meditation practice. I went on long walks in the woods, I sat at the edge of an almost-frozen lake and listened to the ice forming, and I watched the sun rise and set. I smiled and nodded at everyone I passed in the hallways or on the grounds, but I never spoke.


The re-entry back into the world can be difficult after you've had days of pure quiet and the luxury of thinking only about what you want to, not about what you have to (i.e. food, shelter, money). What helped my re-entry this year was my new commitment to daily meditation. Every year I've done a silent retreat I come back excited about meditation and then life kicks back into gear and I fall off the meditation wagon (or cushion, ha ha). This time I've got a wonderful tool to keep me focused, and I'm proud to say I'm on day 23. I'm now waking up an entire hour earlier than normal (with help from this) and sitting for 20 minutes each morning, giving my mind a little bit of that quiet, that focus it relished during my days of silence.

Another intention I set for 2015 is to blog more regularly. For this I have no handy coach like I do with meditation, I have just you, the readers, to remind me and encourage me. I hope you will continue to do so. Happy New Year.

1 comment:

  1. Megan,
    I really enjoyed this post, and the photos are gorgeous. I have never done a silent meditation, but your experience inspires me to try.
    As for the food prep, I did have an experience like this last year when doing a fellowship at the Klingenstein Institute. I was also amazed at how having all my meals prepped (and dishes done) for me everyday provided so much extra mental energy.
    I hope you can keep up the meditation and the blogging. Does that light alarm really work?
    All the best,