On a saturday evening a few months ago, at an unknown hour (am I the only person who relies entirely on their phone to tell the time?), sat cross legged facing my ‘sharing partner’ on a squidgy red cushion in a hexagon shaped room lit with tea lights and smelling like incense, I opened my mouth and muttered my first words in 2.5 days. TWO. AND. A. HALF. DAYS.
I wish I could tell you the first thing I said was something profound & meaningful. Something that a yoga teacher should say, like that I felt fully at one with my soul, or that I had seen my inner child, or that I had worked out the meaning of life or even that my chakras felt balanced or even just a long, resounding AUUUUUM (can you imagine if I had actually broken silence with an AUM..take me home to the ashram now)…
Nope, it was none of those, it was…drumroll….: “Well, err, wow my voice is back! (I had left it in the Atacama desert — it missed the flight home and then got diverted to Easter Island on the way back to Santiago) so the silence thing.. yeh, erm, it was a lot harder than I expected it to be’. No. Shit. Sherlock. Not talking for two and a half days is hard. Really hard. I didn’t take any books with me because I had committed to making it as hard as physically possible for myself (classic..why would I ever want to make it easier for myself..) but I did have a journal & a pen. My journal and my pen became my best friends. Almost to the point where I would go into a mild, silent, panic when I had forgotten where I’d put them. My only voice out into the world. My home. My escape. My sounding board. The only way to escape the monotony of my own internal dronings (credits here to WHSmith at Heathrow Terminal 5 for providing me with such an invaluable feat of engineering in the form of my journal).
Here are some of the gems of my brain which I found whilst scanning through the pages of my journal yesterday (in chronological order):
“Silence has started (as if this wasn’t obvious in the title of the page ‘SILENT RETREAT NOTES..Well done Lucy). I love the peace, it settles my mind” / “Not speaking for a night and I already feel so much more peaceful” / “So frustrated and irritated by everything” / “Why do my feet tingle in meditation?” / “Why does my chest and throat feel tight in meditation?” / “Why do I feel so panicked about not having enough food when I know I have almonds in my tent” / “Why do I not cry as much as everyone else?” / “I’m so glad I’m not crying” / “Why didn’t I bring any dark chocolate with me?” /”It’s lucky I didn’t bring any dark chocolate with me” / “Had to leave the chanting because the human pizza oven was so claustrophobic I thought I was going to die in there” / “Who actually am I?” / “Peaceful” / “Yoga solves everything”.
As an homage to my experience of silence, here are some of the things I learnt through the process:
2.5 days is longer than 16 hours
Yes. I have finally grasped the concept of time.
In all seriousness, I did silence practices through teacher training & tried to integrate them into my life once I graduated. It would amount to committing to silence, no phone, books, TV, music etc. from the time I left work until I got in the next day (or if I did it on a weekend until about 11am). That amount of silence is, for an extroverted introvert like me, absolute bliss. It’s the perfect amount of time to S L O W D O W N and disconnect from the frenetic lives we all lead. I treat it very much as a routine which I need to keep myself sane. Effectively, it just gives me the space I need for my thoughts to slow down a bit, for me to have a bath & to wake up the next morning and not automatically check my phone & instagram & emails & WhatsApp. This is the kind of silence which is genuinely sustainable & something which is really easy to implement in normal work life (just warn your housemates/ partner/ dog/ fish beforehand).
Two and a half days, on the other hand, is 3.75 x 16 hours (maths. sure. look at me go). Two and a half days means two mornings of waking up and not automatically checking instagram, two mornings of not saying ‘morning’ to anyone, two lunches sitting silently on my own, two dinners sitting silently on my own and what sometimes felt like two thousand hours sitting in meditation. Once the initial joy of the sudden peace of the first 16 hours started to normalise, the only thing left to do was to sit with my own thoughts. There is nothing else to do apart from watch what comes up — not to say it was all negative & that I spiralled into some kind of self loathing abyss, one of the things I realised was that actually most of my inner chatter is pretty innocuous, more that I just find it painfully boring after a while to not have anything else to do but be with myself. Humans are naturally sociable creatures — hence why we’ve evolved to speak. We need to be able to speak. I need to be able to speak.
Why do we feel the need to share fear?
The first day was easy (ex mild boredom), I loved the peace, my inner chatter was calm & happy and I found a stillness in meditation that I’ve rarely experienced before. All was good & well until we went into our evening sound meditation. For the majority of the group I imagine it was utter bliss — sitting in a circle, chanting, with a fire crackling, moon light streaming in through the window — the type of image you’d imagine at some teenage American summer camp where you’d spent the rest day jumping in crystal lakes and playing volleyball and eating toasted marshmallows before sharing stories around a camp fire & singing together. Unfortunately my brain doesn’t work this way. For me, it was like something from one of those horror films where you see the people walking into a room & you’re thinking WHY ARE YOU GOING IN THERE YOU MORON before they swiftly get mauled by some kind of demon hiding in a cupboard. Ok, there was no demon, or mauling (thank god) but just to give you a little insights..my thoughts went something like this: “oh, what a lovely idea — singing around the fire — I’m so at one with myself, this is great”. “Oh wow, this room is pretty small”. “Oh god, there are quite a lot of us in here”. “Wait a second, is there only that tiny hole at top letting fresh air in?”. “Phew, we are keeping the door open so I can breathe”. “Oh god, no we aren’t. We are shutting the door. THE DOOR IS SHUTTING. Oh. My. God. There is someone sitting in front of the door. I can’t get out. I can’t get out.”. “Was that the door creaking shut, as in creaking shut so it will never open again. We are stuck in here. I can’t move. I can’t breathe”. “Wasn’t it in Chile where those miners got stuck in a mine for like a month. What if we get stuck in here for a month. The door is never going to open again. I can see it in the newspapers now, ‘cult group stuck in fire pit’”. “But we would die before that because of the fire. The carbon monoxide would kill us.”. “Ok Lucy, Breathe. Breathe. This is ridiculous”. “BUT THE CARBON MONOXIDE”. This continued.. for probably about two minutes before I *BROKE SILENCE* and had to whisper ‘I’m so claustrophobic’ before burying my head in-between my knees.
Why did I feel the need to say something? What is it about fear which means I felt the need to share it? In reality, there is nothing anyone could have done to help the situation except myself (by leaving, which I eventually did), but in sharing, for a short moment, the claustrophobia disappeared. Almost as if I had just passed the baton of fear to someone else for a couple of seconds so I could compose myself. So that my brain could come up with a more rationale thought pattern in the momentary pause before the claustrophobic monkey brain tried to take over again. Clever really.
Communication is so much more than sharing words
I was in silence with 25 other wonderful humans. It’s difficult to put into words the strength and power that came from doing it as a group. For the first day, I tried my very best to not communicate at all with anyone, to the point where I tried to avoid eye contact as much as possible in an attempt to ‘get the most from the experience’ (again, a bizarre Lucy imposed rule to make things harder for myself). I really tried to cut myself off from everything external because I had committed to delving into the depths of myself to see what I found, but even in doing that — there was an energy across the group that kept us all connected in our struggles to stay committed to the practice. By day two, after the pizza oven experience, I’d abandoned my strict rules & committed to sharing the experience with people in any way possible whilst respecting the silence. There is such pure, childlike joy in the shared laughs at something as simple as someone snoring through meditation. The shared smiles, nods & belly rubs sharing a silent meal. The shared glances between friends when, without words, you know exactly what the other person is thinking: ‘Hmm I think we should wait for the guide before walking that way’, ‘Gah, when will this end’, ‘Wow, that was trippy’, ‘Hmm isn’t bread just the best’, ‘Oh dear god, that is genuinely a tarantula on my bed’. The hands on shoulders when you can sense someone is having a tough time. The hand holds. The hugs. The shared tears. There is community and communication in all of it. It’s not about sharing words but sharing experiences.
Honey is hugely underrated
When you aren’t speaking for days — Honey Is Life. Honey on bread. Honey in tea. Honey in water. Honey on a spoon. Honey mixed with butter. Honey. Honey. Honey. There is comfort & home in that stuff. It’s magic.
I’m bad at looking for things
Just pre pizza oven (it was a traumatic evening), I thought I’d lost my invisalign. This, in itself, isn’t really an issue, my teeth might move a bit without it but it’s not really life and death (like pizza ovens). That said, when you’re in silence and trying to find a transparent, tiny, mouth sized thing on a sandy floor by moon light without a torch, you can look a little bit strange. There is no way to explain what you’re doing when you spend 30 minutes staring down at the ground, shuffling slowly around smoothing the sand left and right with your feet & periodically leaping down to the ground to grab something and then put it back down again when I realised it was a rock. (Note: I hadn’t lost it. I was in my pocket. I am terrible. terrible. at looking for things)
Brain chimney sweeps
Over the two and half days I sat in meditation for approximately 6 hours. About 3.5 hours of this was guided, the rest was my trying to ‘make the most of it’ by sitting and meditating alone (do you notice a theme? why. why. why.). Sitting for that long does a huge amount of good — I really did get to the depths of myself in a way which I find difficult to do in shorter meditations (more on that later) but it also means I got a very sore bum & knees and felt like a lot of the things that had come up through the meditations were all a bit stuck. Like they’d diffused through cell walls and into the ether of my being but didn’t have anywhere to go. This left me feeling a little bit ick (technical term). I felt like my brain was a bit cloudy and stagnant, there was energy but it was all a little bit dusty, like I needed a chimney sweep for my brain to sweep it all away. That chimney sweep came in the form of my good old yoga mat. I rolled it out by the side of the plunge pool and as everyone else relaxed & snoozed in the sun (like more sane people do) I flowed through my usual flow, but unlike usual, when I use it as a form of meditation, I was using it as a way to come out of meditation and back into my body. After about 30 mins of moving, I felt right as rain. Brain clear. Energy shifted. Ready to sit again.
Two days of silence fixes a voice
If you lose your voice. Try silence for 2.5 days. It will be back by the end of it. And if it hasn’t, you’ll be on another planet by the end of it and not want to speak for another half day, by which point it’ll definitely be back.
Be careful of boxes
Firstly, well done for getting this far. This piece has become a bit of a slog, so I’m seriously impressed that you’ve come this far with me. My final learning is the crux. The final hurrah (until next week when I ramble about something else). The summit of the mountain after all those false summits you got to along the way where you thought…. this has got to be there end, right? Well here it is, the big one.. my biggest learning of all & the one which, although may sound like a bit of an anticlimax, is actually huge for me.
I’ve spent the last four years on a bit of a self development and personal growth mission which has been made up of ALL the courses, yoga trainings, therapy, retreats, meditations, hundreds of books & podcasts & documentaries & journalling. I realised a while ago that I was carrying a couple of things that I really wanted to ‘get rid of’. Old stories which had resulted in me feeling easily abandoned (& therefore avoiding all potential abandonment), being terrified of rejection in all areas of life & feeling like I constantly needed to prove something to someone (I still don’t know who?). This mission almost became a bit of a personal brand, a cardboard box I built for myself to sit neatly in whilst I got the wrapping paper and bow ready to make it all pretty & ready to go & live. The thing is, the wrapping paper and the bow have been sitting next to the box for years, they’ve been ready for a while but I’ve been so deep inside the box trying to make sure that it’s all watertight from inside that I didn’t notice that they were there. I didn’t see that all the work I’ve been doing has pretty much done it’s job already & that, actually, I’m pretty good. I’m probably more than pretty good, I’m good. The thing is, I found safety in the box — the idea that I was working on myself giving me an excuse to not fully commit to anything because I wasn’t yet fully cooked. I wasn’t ‘done’ enough yet. I wasn’t perfected enough, shiny enough, self developed enough. What I found from the silence was that, yes, the box might still have a couple of little holes in it — but it holds all the contents just fine, it’s strong, it might be a little moth eaten around the edges & under intense pressure might leak a bit but the wrapping paper that I worked so hard for is damn pretty, the bow is shiny and the postage is all paid for. I don’t need to keep waiting to live properly. I can live now, as I am, in my non perfect box. Who wants a perfect box anyway?
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