The Power of Silence

Spiritual Travel — By on June 13, 2012 at 9:01 am

By Shayla Martin
Special to the Lost Girls

This the question I asked myself as I stared at the website for a yoga and meditation retreat located in Maine. The website states “A container of shared silence is maintained during retreat, expect during the [yoga] sessions…This silent community creates a supportive environment in which to surrender to the inner silence, allowing us to question our conditioned beliefs and surrender to the truth of our being.”

What a foreign concept.

As a person who lives in New York City and is by day required to be on the phone or in meetings, I am constantly either talking to someone or surrounded by noise. I practice yoga fairly often, but silence?

Silence is something I “practice” only when I am sleeping. The idea of not talking and then on top of that being surrounded by silence seemed a little daunting, but I decided to take the plunge.

I arrived to Brooks, Maine on a damp May afternoon and was greeted by a beautiful seven bedroom family home. In the open dining room sat nine other women, as well as our teacher Patricia and her husband Surya. I turned off my cell phone, dropped off my bags in my room and joined the retreat participants at the dinner table. We politely chatted about where we were from and why we were at the retreat. Most of us stuck to the elusive “I just needed to get away” response, and enjoyed our wholesome dinner of red lentil soup, salad and fresh bread. We were then led to the meditation room for our orientation and evening meditation.

Patricia opened up the retreat by asking us individually why we decided to attend. This question opened the flood gates. I immediately panicked as women revealed that they were dealing with recent deaths, breakups, and overall lack of passion about life. I didn’t feel like I was going through a major life change, did I really earn the right to be here? When it was my turn, my heart was threatening to beat out of my chest as I admitted that I was considering leaving the working world for graduate school. I could have elaborated, but as far as I was concerned, I had known these people for about 2 hours, no need to spill my guts yet.

After the orientation, Patricia led us in a meditation where she stressed the fact that the theme for the retreat was present moment awareness. She wanted us to stay present by realizing that there was no way to meditate correctly. If we found ourselves drifting away with a thought, we could come back to the present moment by gently pushing the thought away and refocusing on our breathing. After 20 minutes of sitting in silence (and my own racing thoughts) we were told that upon leaving the room we would begin our state of silence for the rest of the weekend.

I folded my blankets and headed to my bedroom, unsure of what to expect in the coming days.

At the unbelievable hour of 9:30 pm, I was sound asleep.

The next morning, we were awakened by a soft gong at 7am, allowing us to prepare for a 7:30 meditation. Not accustomed to that many hours of sleep, I groggily sat down Indian-style on my yoga mat and stared out of the window. We were told to pick a comfortable position and focus on the sounds around us. After about ten minutes my hips let me know that Indian-style was not the position I should have chosen but I forced myself to remain motionless.

Following meditation, we enjoyed a large breakfast of steel cut oats, granola, bananas, stewed apples and raisins, and organic yogurt. I brought my food outside to enjoy the greenery and upon first bite it was as if I had never tasted food before. I slowly chewed the granola and felt the crunch of the almonds between my teeth. I had never focused on a meal so intensely.

After breakfast, we had free time, during which I indulged in a nap. We then had our first asana, pranayama and meditation class. Class opened with a 15 minute silent meditation then continued with open discussion about our struggles with mediation. I admitted that I didn’t feel like I had a clear focus. Would I reach some sort of enlightenment? What exactly was the goal?

I received the frustrating response that having a goal during meditation is exactly the opposite of its purpose. Anyone who attempts to meditate with a goal in mind will never be able to clear their mind and achieve complete silence. This wouldn’t be as easy as I thought.

We finished the class with sun salutations and another ten minute meditation. Following lunch, we dispersed for two hours of free time. I threw on my swimsuit and headed to the spring-fed pond. After a 15 minute walk, I discovered the secluded pond and took a seat in one of the two wooden chairs on the dock.

I stared at the water and was not comfortable with the fact that I couldn’t see the bottom. Although I had been assured that there were no creatures in the water, my mind immediately went to “I am alone right now and if something happens when I jump in, I will drown and no one will know.” In the silence, I immediately noticed the absurdity of my thoughts. Why did my mind have to go to the worst possible scenario? What exactly was I afraid of?

I closed my eyes and felt the sun on my skin. I realized that my fear over jumping in the pond was a representation of fear in other areas of my life: fear of taking an unconventional route with my career, fear of disappointing others, fear of regret.

As I noticed the connection, anxiety flooded my body as my chest tightened and my breath rate increased. I stood up and put my toes to the edge of the dock and looked straight ahead. I said aloud “if you don’t jump now, you never will,” as I cannon balled into the pond. The cold water rushed over me and oddly enough, I felt like I could finally breathe. The anxiety washed away as I climbed up the ladder and sat back onto the dock. I did a quick body check to make sure nothing bit me, and laughed as I realized that there was absolutely nothing to fear. If I could jump alone into the unknown waters of the pond, I could jump into other unknowns and have confidence that I ‘d be able to handle whatever came my way.

The styles of mediation varied throughout my stay, but the lesson remained the same: in the moment, it’s OK to acknowledge our feelings and to let those feelings come. In the Western world, we are taught that if we have an uncomfortable emotion, we must find a way to make it go away instead of sitting with it.

Why? What’s so bad about feeling angry, sad or fearful once in a while? If we allow those emotions to come, they will seem less unfamiliar over time. Guess what happens when an emotion becomes familiar? You learn how to react to it.

Since the retreat, I have meditated almost daily and it has had a major affect on my mentality. I try to spend the majority of my morning in silence so I can allow myself to stay present with my current physical and emotional state.

The most important concept I learned is that the body is the truest form of measurement as to how you feel about something. The mind is a trickster and will tell you that you are ok when you aren’t, that a situation is fine when it’s not, and that you can’t do something when you can. In silence, it’s so easy to check in with your body.

I returned to my regular life with tools I never knew I needed.

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    3 Comments

  • courtney says:

    I never knew silence could be so soothing. though I have never ever considered such a vacation/retreat, this article has inspired me to read about meditation retreats and spread the word about them. Shayla, your descriptions made me feel like I was there. I found myself relaxing as I read about your weekend experiences. excellent piece. thank you

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