The Gift of Silence

May 30, 2017 by School of Medicine Webmaster

Incorporating mindfulness into our everyday lives requires practice, and a principal way to practice is by meditating. Taking time for daily meditation is the best foundation for doing this regularly. In addition to practicing meditation daily, practicing for longer periods of time can also be very beneficial. The Mindfulness Center offers daylong silent retreats as part of every eight-week mindfulness course, and anyone who has taken an MBSR course in the past can attend these as well. The next daylong silent retreat will be July 22.

In addition to daylong retreats offered by the Mindfulness Center, there are even longer opportunities offered at retreat centers. Why practice for longer periods of time? There are several reasons for this. One is the greater ability to focus just on meditating when not enmeshed in all the usual activities of our daily lives. Things are simpler on retreat. We make the commitment to disconnect, and to just be with our present moment experience as it arises.   This makes it easier to pay attention to walking, to eating, to whatever might be occurring. Silent retreats in the insight meditation tradition that underlies MBSR often have a very similar structure, just like the daylong retreats in the classes. Participants commit to silence, to not speaking to other participants, and to not interacting in other ways as well, including by not making eye contact. Reading and writing are also usually discouraged. Then most of the day is devoted to formal meditation practice, alternating periods of time in sitting and walking meditation, often with perhaps an hour for a movement practice like yoga or tai chi. There may also be a talk by one of the teachers. Meals are in silence so there is the opportunity to eat mindfully as well.

This routine creates a setting that is conducive to contemplation. With the lack of other distractions, it is an environment that also brings us face to face with ourselves. We can then see boredom as it arises, or agitation, or contentment. When any of these occur, we can practice just being with them without trying to escape or distract ourselves, or to want more or less of our experience as we so often do. When things are unpleasant, we usually try to make them go away. When they are pleasant, we often want them to continue. On retreat, when there is no where else to go, nothing else to do, we can practice just being with what is, with kindness for ourselves and our present moment experience. In this way, we may experience greater insight into our own reactivity, noticing how we want things to be a certain way. If we can begin to just accept things more as they are, we may find we are less reactive and more open to whatever arises, and gain greater equanimity as a result.

In addition, we may find our minds become quieter, and that the periods of time between thoughts may become longer which can also contribute to equanimity. I was speaking with someone recently (my wife) who had just returned from a multiday silent retreat. Her principal observations about the experience were that she had noticed these longer periods of focused concentration, as well as a greater awareness of her own desires. As a parent and a professional, she had not realized how focused she had been on the needs of others at the expense of her own. The retreat experience allowed her to become more aware of this, and to make choices about how to respond to her own needs with greater awareness as a result. When we take time for ourselves, such as the gift of silence on a retreat, it is easy to feel we are being selfish, yet if we really want to be of the most service to others we have to make sure we are also taking care of ourselves. If we fail to do this, we run the risk of becoming exhausted or detached instead.

Filed Under: Monthly Musings