Wisdom from the silence

It may seem like an interesting decision to sign up for a 5-day/4-night silent meditation retreat as an introduction to silence. I have attended a lot of retreats ranging from 1 day to 2 weeks, sometimes with a focus on yoga, sometimes meditation, but never with any focus on silence outside of the practice sessions. I didn’t yet feel ready for a 10-day Vipassana Silent Retreat, which seemed austere and unappealing, but when I accidentally stumbled across Kausay and it’s 5 days of silence and nature in the Spanish countryside, this one felt very right.  I shared the details with Kris, and he immediately felt the same. We booked on within a few weeks of finding it.

Our trip eased us in gently with a night spent in the nearest city, Xativa, the day before the retreat, and an opportunity to start the day with a glorious walk up to a castle on the hill. Even early in the morning, the sky was blue and the temperature already heating up. We arrived at the meeting point for the retreat transfer in plenty of time and awaited our retreat host, Ellen, whilst also noticing other people with bags and cases and wondering if they would be our retreat companions. It turned out they would. When Ellen arrived, our group came together, and we began making introductions; our first chance to meet each other and what we knew would be a limited time to connect before the silence commenced that afternoon.  

Introduction to Kausay

Upon arriving at Kausay, I felt a sense of curiosity and excitement about this place that we would be calling home for the next 5 days, and for the experiences to come. After a simple and healthy, yet flavourful lunch, we were given a tour of the Kausay site and the opportunity to choose which of the two accommodation yurts we wanted to sleep in. The tour included our practice yurt, where all yoga, seated meditations and evening activities would take place, composting toilets, an innovative approach to solar powered showers and various seating areas around the site where we were welcome to sit, reflect, meditate, eat and just “be”. The site also included an organic garden which would be the source of some of our food and our olive oil during the retreat.

Transitioning to silence

After a short time to settle into the new environment, we heard the bell, which would be our invitation to all practices and all meals for the next 5 days. Ellen invited us to choose a space in the practice yurt, which would be our spot throughout the retreat. Kris and I chose mats on opposite sides of the yurt and with a log-burning stove in the middle, were actually obscured from each other’s view. We had travelled to the retreat together, but knew that this retreat would be an inward journey and not something we would experience as a couple. Ellen’s explanation about what to expect and the few rules we would all be expected to follow was delivered with a clarity, kindness and wisdom which we would learn were at the heart of everything she taught and shared.

There weren’t a lot of rules, but those there were needed to be followed. The core of the retreat was about creating and maintaining the silence, something that could only happen if every person played their part. We were to focus on our own experience and not feel that we had to look after anyone else on the retreat, including anyone we had come with. Their journey was their own and Ellen would be on hand if anyone needed external support. In addition to the collective effort to create silence, there was no need to engage in any social niceties or obligations. This included things like holding the door or passing plates. This was an opportunity to focus entirely on our own inner experience without having to worry about what others thought/needed/were doing. A rare, and for some, completely liberating, experience.

The retreat programme

The retreat was more structured than I had anticipated with a wide variety of practices throughout the day. We were told we could go or not go to any of them. And there was no need to tell Ellen if we were not going to attend any sessions. It reminded me of a phrase I love by Glennon Doyle about being both “held and free.” Every day would start with an hour of yoga, followed by breakfast. The morning schedule included guided meditations, silent meditations, walking meditations and on one day an extended hike through the valley. Lunch was always 2 hours with a chance to rest or explore. The afternoon was similar, with the addition of mindful movement and a dharma talk, where Ellen shared elements of Buddhist teachings which were relevant and supportive for our experience (& later to integrate into our lives). Dinner was then followed by an evening programme of activities which involved music, including Himalayan singing bowls and an incredible gong bath. There was an option to sign up for a massage or 1-2-1 sound therapy – I opted for the massage and Kris for the sound therapy, both of which were wonderful additions to our retreat.

Immersion in silence

I didn’t think I had a lot of expectations going into the retreat. I had mentioned to a few people that I thought I would maybe write some poetry, which in itself gave a big clue to what I expected; I write poetry when I’m feeling very peaceful, wondrous and filled with awe. That was, subconsciously at least, the state I thought I would be in throughout the retreat. It probably won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has engaged in deep inner work, especially involving silence, that I didn’t spend the next 4 days in an endless state of bliss. And I didn’t write any poems.

What I did experience was a journey with different stages. The first night in the yurt with Kris and 5 strangers was an interesting one. I slept poorly, which is unusual for me. I awoke multiple times and found it hard to get back to sleep. It was noisy in the valley, with dogs barking in the distance and at various times insects, birds, a very keen rooster and a donkey whose resounding bray rang out across the valley in a way that was quite eerie. The sounds of others sleeping and breathing also challenged my ability to get back to sleep once roused. When Ellen woke us at 7:30am with the gently tinkle of the bell, I felt far from rested as I dressed into my yoga clothes. The yoga sessions each morning were beautiful and gentle invitations to explore our bodies through movement and stretching. It felt good to move, albeit it furthered centred my feeling of pain in my shoulder which I had hurt just before leaving for Spain. I found a lot of my awareness was taken up with the sensation of pain and the stories I was making up about the pain.

I also found that a lot of my attention on the first day was focused on milestones within the day. Getting to the end of meditations. Break times. A lot of focus on when the next meal would be and what it would include. I wondered if emotions or strong feelings might come up in the meditations, but nothing did. If anything, they were quite uneventful, and my biggest struggle was staying awake. I did start to become aware that there was a lot of judgement in my mind. More than usual or at least more than I am usually aware of. I noticed that I wasn’t in the state of bliss and peace that I had hoped for and looked to everything around me for reasons why this state wasn’t arising. After dinner, our evening activity was a session with the Himalayan singling bowls. I think I fell asleep almost immediately through the whole thing and soon after it ended, I was heading to bed for another difficult night of broken sleep and judgemental thoughts.

The second day of silence initially unfolded a lot like the first. The morning included a hike through glorious landscapes, and I enjoyed the changing scenery and the movement of my body, but had a mind full of judgements. Aversions and attractions. I liked the view but was frustrated that we were walking quite quickly, and I didn’t feel able to fully appreciate it. When we stopped to meditate, I enjoyed being in the dappled shade of the tree but found the ground uncomfortable and wished I’d taken something to sit on. We did a Metta (loving kindness) meditation and I found it hard to generate those feelings in a way that sometimes just flow out of me. My comparing mind took me to other occasions, other retreats, places and times where I had found that state of peace more easily. I felt frustrated that I wasn’t there.

Turning towards the struggle

A turning point for me came that afternoon when I decided to journal about my experience. Ellen had advised us to be really discerning about reading and writing and not just use those activities as a form of distraction or a way of further feeding the chattering mind. I hadn’t written or read anything since going into silence but felt that I needed to understand more about the experiences within me. My favourite way of doing this is to speak my experiences and feelings out loud. I find I process best in conversation. As that wasn’t available, I knew the next best thing would be to have that conversation with myself in written form.

My first page of writing was really clarifying. I recognised that I wasn’t feeling peace or bliss. And then I recognised that I wasn’t feeling anything much. Ah. My old friend. I was numb and shut down. Of course. My pattern isn’t to feel intense emotions. It’s to feel no emotions. Nothing. But not the peaceful, expansive nothing of deep meditative states. The cold and fuzzy nothing of dissociation. So now I had a breadcrumb to follow. If I was numb, I had been triggered by something which made me shut down. What had triggered me? Sure, I had all my judgements about aversions and attractions, but none of that was triggering. And then it came to me. It wasn’t my silence that was the problem. It was everyone else’s silence. One of my deep wounds of being ignored and feeling invisible. Of feeling like my emotions didn’t matter to anyone and so I needed to suppress them. My fellow retreaters were doing exactly what they were advised to do and focusing on their experiences, not validating others. Not validating me.

Rather than being distressing, this realisation felt liberating. The more I understand myself, my patterns, and the feelings that come (or more often don’t), the more empowered I feel to interrupt these deep patterns of thought and behaviour, which in yoga are called Samskaras. When these are unconscious and invisible, they can run your whole life. They certainly have run a lot of my life. They have been the unseen and unknown reason for many of the things I’ve done and not done through my life. Often created by earlier life events and wrapped up inside them is a secret belief that keeps us stuck. Some of my deepest Samskaras have the belief’s you are not worthy, you are not loveable, you are not enough. I don’t consciously believe these things anymore. But when I’m triggered and drop into an old pattern, the feeling or cadence of these beliefs seep into my mind and body and hijack my experience. They don’t come as often as they once did. And I’m better at spotting them these days. But they can still arise when I’m triggered and completely take me over.  

My second page of writing had a very different feel. For years now I have had a practice of dialoguing with my innate wisdom, or what I call my true or highest Self. The practice involves posing a question that feels important and writing it down with great sincerity. I then do a centring practice and allow my chattering mind to calm so my mind becomes still enough for the deeper and wiser voice to arise. As I feel ready, I flow write the answer to the question. It doesn’t feel that the words come from my mind, more through it. The tone is clearer, kinder and wiser. This is the place from which poetry comes. This is the place from which I teach and create. I believe that this is the place from which all great teachings and creations come. Certainly, this was the place that that I recognised in Ellen and in the other important teachers in my life.  

Sincerity and joy

I asked the question, “What is the learning for me here?” Below is the response that flowed onto the page:

It’s not enough to just go through the motions. Of course, you can “do” everything on this retreat. You can make it transactional, engage when it’s easy and shut down when it’s hard. But that transactional doing is exactly what you wanted to move away from. It’s time to stop performing yoga and meditation. Instead, let them be a portal that takes you to a deeper place. To find that place… look for it! You know where it is (everywhere!) and how to get there (sincerely). Your judging mind has been driving this whole time. Tight jaw, shallow breath. Wanting to control and judging, judging, judging. Where is the joy? The play? The wonder? Why so serious? You started with joy; watching the flowers dance. Continue to connect with this joy. Do you remember how the universe speaks to you through birdsong? Has there been one minute where she hasn’t been speaking to you? Be careful with your energy. Don’t absorb heaviness or seriousness from anyone else. Spend more time alone and in wonder. Have enchanted walks. Live every moment of each day. Write to hear your wisdom, not to perpetuate the judging and chattering mind. Enjoy your Self.

I closed the journal. So much of yoga is about the interplay of what can feel like contradictory or opposing energies. Relaxed alertness. Easeful effort. And this interplay of sincerity and joy. It felt absolutely true. To engage with sincerity, but without taking everything so seriously! To allow joy and playfulness to arise naturally, without trying to force them. The next activity was a dharma talk where Ellen would be sharing some wisdom teachings. As the bell rang, I felt inspired to hear what she was going to share. And as I have so often found in recent years, the universe continued its dance. The dharma talk was about the importance of not taking meditation too seriously. About being able to find joy and lightness. I smiled inwardly. I nodded as Ellen expanded on this idea and shared ancient teachings about this very subject. I enjoyed the talk and the rest of the day’s activities. There was still a bit of constriction and tightness in my body and mind, but I felt that it was easing. Ellen told us about the full moon there would be that night and what it signified. After the evening activities I walked down the lane and watched the full moon rise over the hill. I went to bed that night with a greater sense of peacefulness and experienced a slighter better night’s sleep.

The next morning, the yoga class felt different. Or should I say, I felt different in the yoga class. I enjoyed the feeling of being in my body and the flow of movement and energy. As I released into Shavasana at the end, I felt the tears well up immediately. I felt the presence of the little girl I had once been who sometimes felt ignored and alone. I felt the sadness and loneliness and pain. Then I felt a flood of love and care towards her from the deep place within each of us that love flows from. I was at once the little girl, the adult and the place where love flows. The healing balm of love soothed and healed that wound of loneliness and the feeling of relief that flowed through me was like the warm glow of the sun on my skin. My body shook and the tears flowed, and the numbness lifted.

The universe dances again

It was the third full day of the retreat and the last day that we would be in silence. That evening we would begin to gradually introduce sound through music, chanting and finally, speaking. After yoga, Ellen had explained that she would be away all morning and another person would hold the time for us in silent meditation and play a recording for the guided meditation that morning. I immediately knew that I would not be there for those practices. Since writing about solitude and nature the day before, I felt that the valleys were calling to me. So after breakfast, I packed up a bag, applied lots of suncream and headed off on my own down the track and towards the lush green valleys beyond.

It was a glorious morning. The sky was blue, the sun was warm and the many greens of the trees and grasses contrasted beautifully with flashes of colour from wildflowers along the route. Ellen had told us the valley didn’t give a circular route so I knew I could walk until I felt like I’d gone far enough and would then retrace my steps back to Kausay. I spent quite a lot of time sitting with the wildflowers and watching the insects coming and going, walking and flying and interacting with each other. When I walked, I would stop often and close my eyes as I listened to the many layers of birdsong, insects and gentle play of the breeze in the trees. I loved the feeling of heat from the sun and cooling breeze over my skin. I liked looking at tiny things and big things and feeling like both an observer and a part of the world and its happenings. I crested a hill and saw that just off the path was a patch of rough grasses and big rocks with something that looked like a canyon beyond. I scrambled over the rocks and found a lovely peaceful spot to sit and feel the sun and the breeze and the birds and to simply be. I wrote down some reflections about my retreat experience to share with the group later that evening. As I journeyed back to Kausay, I felt a little bit like I was floating.

The remainder of the retreat felt like a beautiful and connective experience. I loved the afternoon of gradually reintroducing sound through music, movement, chanting and then sharing our experiences. It was humbling and inspiring to hear from everyone in the group how they had found our 3 days of silence. It was interesting to hear about the various experiences each person had had, with many highs and lows. It was clear that the retreat had been profound and moving for everyone who had attended. I loved that after the sharing, a campfire had been created and we were able to sit round and engage in deep conversations with each other as we started to process what we’d experienced individually and collectively. We stayed up talking until 1:30am, which was quite a contrast to the 9:30pm bedtimes during the silence!

The following day was one of transition and farewells. I enjoyed getting up early, despite the late night, and wandering down the lane to watch the sunrise. I also enjoyed doing a self-led yoga flow in the yurt and then hearing from Ellen as she gave us some last teachings to take on our journeys. It was wonderful to spend more time with some of our new friends through the day, having lunch together in Valencia and even catching the same flight as two fellow retreaters back to the UK. By the time we got back to our car at the airport and it was just me and Kris, we were tired, but deeply grateful for an experience that we know will stay with us for the rest of our lives.