I had often thought about doing a silent retreat, but the opportunity had never quite been there. Then an organised retreat came up at a convenient location, and I had a free weekend in the diary. I knew this one had my name on it.
A spa without the saunas?
We were to be in silence from Friday evening until Sunday afternoon. I was worried I might be bored (I took some books along, just in case). I thought it would be nice and relaxing, a bit like a spa weekend without the saunas and massages. I was wrong on both counts!
I arrived, found my room, and met my fellow retreatants over a cup of tea. We were encouraged to sign up for periods of meditation in the prayer room. With some misgivings I put my name down for 2.30am until 3.30am that night. I like a challenge, but I also like my sleep! This was going to be interesting.
Phone switched off!
I switched off my phone and put it away – something I rarely do. My family had an emergency contact number, and the rest of the world could survive without me. I immediately felt an unaccustomed sense of lightness. What next?
We sat in the chapel on the first evening, after supper. We were told that this was a journey into the desert. We would be leaving the familiar and safe places of our lives. We had chosen to let go of our daily distractions. We should expect discomfort, discovery and freedom.
My main experience that first evening – and on and off for much of the weekend – was one of utter tiredness. I felt completely empty; exhausted in body and mind. Not exactly the charming mini-break, but the beginning of letting go. I knew I was here to receive, and not to give. Defences could go down – no one needed me – it was safe to have nothing to offer.
Meditation at 2.30am
2.30am prayer felt very dark indeed. Sitting in a warm room lit only by candles, I found myself revisiting some painful memories. Difficult visions of my past and my childhood. Well-buried moments of loneliness and loss kept emerging. But I felt no fear – only sorrow and weariness. It felt rather like vomiting up an indigestible meal, while being held in loving arms. A necessary cleansing.
I returned to bed and slept well until morning.
Toast tastes amazing
At breakfast I discovered how wonderful food tastes when eaten in silence. Very ordinary, mass-catering-style cereal, toast and jam had become utterly delicious. Every meal of the weekend, though simple, was an absolute delight. Apple crumble and custard was a particular highlight!
Saturday passed surprisingly quickly. I found plenty to do. I drew pictures with chalks, walked under trees in the rain, sat in the prayer room, wrote in my journal and dozed on my bed.
The feelings of tiredness and heaviness persisted. But at the same time I felt safe, loved and accepted without any need to impress or achieve.
Valuing my achievements?
I am a doer and a carer. I am nearly always active. I rush around all day long, making things happen, caring for other people. Mostly I am quite good at what I do, and I tend to assume that my value lies in my achievements. If I keep working hard and doing well, people will like and value me.
Here in the silent desert, I stopped. I didn’t do or achieve anything. I didn’t look after anyone. Nothing was required or expected of me. Nobody was testing me or checking up on me. This felt desolate to begin with; all my normal sense of purpose had disappeared. But then it began to feel both simple and safe.
I am precious and loved
I began to realise that I am precious and loved, irrespective of anything I have ever done or might ever do. I have nothing to offer, and that is enough. I am enough. I am loved.
By Saturday evening I felt exhausted all over again. Very sleepy late night prayer was followed by a thankfully unbroken sleep. It was the satisfied heaviness you feel after a hard day’s work. You wouldn’t expect to go trekking into the desert and not get tired!
Sunday began with with another amazing breakfast of toast and jam without distractions. There was more time for prayer and journalling. I was loving the silence now, knowing it would end all too soon.
In this together
The weekend drew to a close with a time of sharing and celebration with all the retreatants. I had travelled in silence, but I was not alone. Everyone’s experience was personal and individual, yet we all felt we had been in this together. Different baggage, same desert.
I left for home full of gratitude, and with several resolutions:
· To try to turn off my phone for a 24 hour period once a week.
· To pray more for my Yoga and therapy clients.
· To make home made apple crumble!
Nothing like a spa – but priceless!
The desert was nothing like a spa. It was sometimes painful, empty and exhausting. But the sense of love, community and liberation was priceless. I will definitely be repeating the experience.
Karen Lawrence is a Yoga and Meditation Instructor and Reflexologist in Billericay, Essex. She is also Mum to seven children, and an all-round busy person. She loves nurturing others, personal development and spiritual journeying.
You can see more about Karen and the ways she loves to support people and help them relax at her website