“WHY are you going off on your own after the year we’ve had?”
This was my aunt’s first question after I told her I was escaping to the country on a silent retreat for three days.
It seemed counterintuitive to want solitude in the middle of the pandemic but no matter what I did (yoga, sea swimming, a very, very long hike) it seemed, I couldn’t get away enough.
Over the last year, many of us have watched as different parts of our lives have bled into one another. We take a work call while we feed children. We exercise in our kitchen. We hold meetings on park benches. The demarcation between work and play is now a permeable membrane. If you struggle with compartmentalising, this is both novel (discussing a work project in long grass) and stressful (never not being reachable).
“At this point, I would pay someone to take this away from me,” I replied to my aunt, pointing to my new enemy: the phone.
It was with this intention that I arrived in Teach Bhride in Co. Carlow, in mid-July.
I carried out exactly no research before the trip. I didn’t want to have any preconceived ideas about what the experience would be, and I am lazy.
Of course, I did have some expectations, one being it would be completely silent. As I walked toward the building I whispered solemnly to my friend on the phone: “Yours will be the last voice I hear for three entire days, wish me luck”.
The person leading the retreat, Marjó Oosterhoff, did, of course, speak. She explained the timetable to us. We would have a sitting mediation in the morning (this and all meditations would be led by her), followed by breakfast. Then we would meet again for a sitting and walking meditation before lunch. We would meet twice more for meditations and then dinner.
The in-between times were for thinking or writing. Each person had their own bedroom and talking amongst one another was discouraged.
At this point, I was sure I was going to do the retreat incorrectly. I have never been able to meditate and was once told I have the aura of someone late for a bus and short of change.
However, I am experienced in daydreaming. In the midst of an ongoing conversation, I am most likely in my head having a different one. As the retreat leader spoke, I found myself daydreaming (ruminating) about an upcoming meeting.
I decided early on I would take a vow of complete silence (I failed.) My plan was to ignore the 20 or so other people at the retreat. The idea I would not smile at or acknowledge anyone in my presence was very alluring. Whether by cultural or gender conditioning, I am one of the many people in this country who likes to over-accommodate in conversation. I once smiled and nodded at a man who had openly insulted me in a queue. It wasn’t until I left the shop that I realised what had happened.
Observing others at the retreat, I saw I was not alone in my apologetic nature. When silence was broken it was mostly with ‘I’m sorry. Excuse me. Whoops.’ Too often we think we have two options: be with others and lose ourselves in the group (depending on our character), or, go it alone and feel isolated. A retreat like this offers a third option: be with yourself, with others. By not speaking there is no opportunity to misrepresent yourself, no opportunity to be misunderstood. The presence of the group provides, simply: living, breathing human energy. This is enough to ward off feelings of isolation. Feelings that might otherwise interfere with the practice of staying with yourself. In this scenario, you cannot give yourself away or abandon your feelings. It highlights the fact that if you and yourself are not on good terms, you are unlikely to be having a good time, at a retreat or in life.
Because of the silence, there is no opportunity to form alliances within the group. ‘The girl wearing the same mismatched socks every day, what’s her problem?’ (This was me. Pro tip: pack socks.) You are invited to direct all communication and commentary inward. It is one long, uninterrupted conversation with yourself and it exposes how frequently we outsource our queries and problems.
A new layer of thought reveals itself when we don’t have access to the internet or a friend for a second opinion. The alliance you work on is the one you have with yourself. The stronger this is the less likely you are to become lost in other people, places and things.
Another presumption I arrived with was that it would afford me the opportunity to get to the end of my thoughts. I would clear the mental debris and emerge calm: not late for the bus and not short of change.
In reality, all that happened was that the signal of the noise around me turned down and the signal of my thoughts turned up. Like most people, I didn’t get to the end of them. They are unending and relentless.
Over the course of the three days, the retreat leader gave us directions on how to walk, sit and breathe. My first thought when she demonstrated how to walk was, ‘What a waste of time. Come on. Hurry up’. By the second day I realised I did, in fact, need directions on how to walk, sit and breathe. I was rushing through one to get to the end of the other; unable to be measured and deliberate in anything. I was rushing the experience I had paid to have, which was designed to teach me how not to rush.
Back in the real world, my aunt asked how the retreat went. I told her it was the calmest I had felt since the pandemic began. She booked in for the next one.