The lunchroom was full of people but the only noises came from shuffling slippers on hardwood floor and spoons scraping porcelain. I snuck a peek at the 25 other retreat participants even though I was supposed to keep my eyes to myself. Everyone stared into their bowls like it was their first time eating food. They examined each spoonful of chick pea stew before slowly, and mindfully, putting it into their mouths. I put my head down and continued eating.
I was in Arnprior, Ontario at Galilee Centre. The stone building was built in the 19th century and served as a Christian Mission before becoming a retreat centre meant to encourage personal and spiritual renewal.
The idea of the retreat was simple enough: from Friday evening at 7:30 pm until noon on Sunday there was silence among the 26 participants. It was even encouraged to avoid eye contact. Cell phones were turned off, books put away, and writing anything on paper avoided.
We sat and meditated, we walked and meditated, and the instructor gave short talks centred on Buddhist teachings and mindfulness.
The only time I opened my mouth for two days was to chant.
Yes. That’s right.
There were a number of fears I felt before arriving at the silent meditation retreat.
- The thought crossed my mind that this could be some sort of cult. I imagined mind-control speeches aimed at indoctrinating me into a meditation sect.
- I feared the spirituality aspect of it. My relationship with religion and spirituality has fluctuated throughout my life. Although I am more open-minded and accepting these days, there was still a part of me that felt apprehensive about a weekend of silent meditation with other Buddhists and yogis.
- I feared getting bored. No speaking, smart phone, reading books, or writing for two days could feel like an eternity.
- I’ve read books and blogs trumpeting the benefits of meditation in recent months in order to gain a better understanding around this phenomenon. I believed that people’s lives could be changed with meditation in great ways, but I was skeptical if it was really for me. I think part of my fear of the retreat was being afraid I would actually like it, and become one of ‘them.’
What I’m saying is that I had a few expectations and judgements before arriving at the retreat. I suppose it’s natural before doing something so far outside of my comfort zone.
When I arrived at the centre on Friday evening, Janet, the retreat manager, greeted me with a smile. She was small in stature but her eyes were energetic and she looked like a ball of fire ready to burst. Janet explained some of the technicalities, gave me a form to fill out, and then handed me the key to my room.
My room had a single bed, desk, and sink. A hundred-year-old Oak tree stood outside my window. The room was simple and I liked it.
Dinner on Friday night was served before silence began so I got a chance to meet a few of my fellow participants. I met a nutritionist, doctor, and social work grad student. Everyone seemed normal and my thoughts of religious cults and Kool-Aid faded away.
Dinner, like all the meals over the weekend, was vegetarian. There was a hot dish, salad bar, and dessert. Coffee and fresh ginger tea were brewed all day. There was a jar of Digestive cookies that reminded me of my grandparents’ house when I was a kid, and I would sneak down to the kitchen between meditation sessions to steal one.
The instructor, Daryl, welcomed us on Friday evening in a room with windows overlooking the Ottawa River. She smiled through wiry black hair and adjusted her tunic as she positioned herself in front of the class.
The participants sat cross-legged on pillows, kneeled on small benches, or sat in chairs around the perimeter of the room—I chose to sit cross-legged. Daryl explained the schedule for the weekend and the reason for silence.
She said that the silence was meant to be a release. She said we often feel an obligation to acknowledge and make small talk with everyone, even if we have nothing to say. This retreat was an opportunity to not feel that way.
And then the silence started and meditation began.
I closed my eyes. I listened to my breathing. I tried to clear my mind but my thoughts would wander to my next blog post, the new Batman versus Superman movie I just watched a couple days earlier, or the tightness being generated in my hips from not sitting cross-legged on the floor since I was in kindergarten. I kept trying to bring my attention back to my breath like the instructor told us. I did and it would work for a minute, but my mind would soon be wandering again.
Daryl gave short talks and teachings between meditation sessions. She spoke about mindfulness, how we can simplify our lives, and the importance of eating slowly and appreciating our food. She talked about being kind to others and to ourselves. The messages weren’t hocus-pocus, half-baked ideas; they were relevant to our fast-paced lives.
In the end, I was happy with my weekend. I took walks in an old growth forest after breakfast, I got a lot of clarity on some of the ideas that had been banging around in my head, and I met a few great people even though our time to chat together was limited to the beginning and end of the retreat.
I didn’t get bored. The silence was refreshing and I left the retreat with a calmer mind.
Most importantly, I learned a few things.
Meditation is not easy
Sitting in one place for 30 minutes is really hard.
I tried sitting cross-legged and when my hip flexors were crying in pain I moved to a kneeling position supported by a small stool. At one point Daryl explained that it wasn’t actually meant to be comfortable. She said it takes practice for the pain to go away. It’s normal for your feet and legs to go numb. She said you have to practice every day in order to strengthen new muscles and get used to it.
Not only can the physical position of meditation be tough, trying to limit my wandering mind and concentrate on my breathing took a lot of effort. My brain is always thinking about what I need to do next or what I did yesterday. I don’t often take the time to just be in the present moment because it’s hard. The easy way is letting my mind go where it wants; the challenge is taking control of my own thoughts.
Daryl said meditation had to be viewed as a habit. In order to get the most benefit you have to do it every day. You have to practice and improve slowly, just as you would to learn a new language or train for a marathon.
In that sense, meditation isn’t easy—forming new habits never is.
The weekend retreat gave me a better appreciation of meditation. Before, I thought it was something one could do by sitting quietly and closing your eyes. Just pop a CD of soothing ocean sounds into your boom box and light up a stick of patchouli incense and presto—you find Zen!
But I know now, more than before the retreat, meditation takes pain and commitment if you want to experience the benefits.
Spirituality shouldn’t be feared
Like I said earlier, my relationship with spirituality and religion has been a rocky road. As a child, I went to Catholic Church every week, participated in Sunday school, and became an altar boy when I was old enough.
When I arrived at university my opinions on religion shifted. I became disenfranchised with all the scandals, abuse, and negativity surrounding not only the Catholic religion, but all organized religions in general.
In recent years I’ve moved into a more neutral position. I’ve realized that the majority of the negativity streaming out of every religion is coming from a small group of people. Spirituality can be a healing and guiding force in people’s lives. If it works for you, use it.
Still, I’ve remained on the outside looking in and have never dove back into a religious or spiritual practice, until the meditation retreat. Of course, it scared me to do so.
But Daryl didn’t try to ram any ideologies down my throat. The lessons she shared were universal:
- Be kind to yourself and others.
- Be generous.
- Live in the moment.
- Adopt a more simplified life.
These are all great teachings that I’ve heard before, but reinforcement and repetition is important to actually living them.
Meditation is not for me (at this point in my life)
At the end of the retreat when the silence was broken, someone asked me if I was going to continue meditating.
“No, I won’t,” I said bluntly.
The thing is, as I said above, meditation takes a lot of effort and practice. Daily practice. And for me, that sort of time commitment isn’t realistic right now. And I’m OK with that. There’s only so much time in a day and I’m happy with the other daily practices and habits I’m developing. So instead of trying to take on something new and overload myself, I think it’s best to stay focused on the things I’m already doing.
My other reason for not developing a meditation practice at this point in my life is that I feel like I get the benefits that meditation offers in other ways. Meditation is about mindfulness and having a greater awareness of what’s going on with you—physically, mentally, and emotionally.
When I walk from my apartment to the metro station every morning, I feel mindful. I clear my head, sort my thoughts, and often concentrate on the steps and breaths I’m taking as I go without knowing it.
I love to walk. Whether I’m walking in the park beside my apartment after dinner or hiking 400 kilometres in two weeks, walking brings me to my happy place.
I believe that I’m already mindful; I just don’t call it that.
In the end, I think the most important thing I learned is to keep an open mind and never stop learning new things. For me, a silent meditation retreat was something to be feared. Now, I feel like I have a better understanding and a firmer ground to stand on when I say, “I just don’t think a meditation practice is for me at this point in my life.”
I know what meditation can do. Perhaps someday I’ll want to adopt a meditation practice.
The weekend was about developing mindfulness. I’ve always thought of mindfulness as an ‘airy-fairy’ sort of concept. But take a look at the definition:
Mindfulness: (noun) a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.
I was wrong. Mindfulness is not airy-fairy.
Mindfulness is about living in the here and now. It’s about having greater awareness, focus, and knowledge about ourselves.
I encourage you to take a moment and think about what brings you to a state of mindfulness in your own life. Maybe you find mindfulness in:
- Long walks
- Listening to music
- Sitting in the park
- Watching your children at swimming lessons
- Fishing on a quiet lake, or
- Doing Sudoku puzzles.
However you find mindfulness, make sure you’re doing it often. Be selfish and set aside ‘me-time.’ Take advantage of the moments to slow down, turn off your cell phone, and just be present.
Life passes quickly, and you don’t want miss it.