Sunday, June 27, 2010

Why Go on a Silent Retreat?

“I don’t know if I could go a whole day without talking!”

That’s a common response I hear when I tell people about my experience with silent retreats. I’ve mostly done 10-day retreats without speaking – and loved it (mostly) - but even the suggestion of 1 day spent in silence can be intimidating. Yogis and meditators have praised the benefits of silence for millennia. What’s so great about not talking?

It’s fairly obvious that air comes out of our mouths when we speak, but less apparent that we are also expending prana (life force). Think of how exhausted you feel after a party where you’ve been talking constantly for hours. It is not that speaking takes great muscular effort, but it excites the nervous system and often activates stressful mental patterns (“Does this person agree with me? Should I say something different? How could they say that!”) So when we deliberate restrain our speech, we are conserving energy. In a retreat, we use this conserved energy to deepen our practice.

As I discussed in my last post, one of the purposes of going on retreat is to change momentum. Consider a river – the water has considerable momentum as it flows downstream, but it’s not apparent when viewed from afar. The best way to discover the power of a river is to try to stop the flow. Place your hand into a stream - suddenly the momentum of the water is very apparent as it pushes strongly against your hand.

For most of our days, words flow out continually and unconsciously as speech, email, status updates, etc. The strength of this river of speech is only apparent when we place a barrier across it – the practice of silence (called mauna in Sanskrit). Then our words build up like water behind a dam, and we can see the contents of the river much more clearly. For this reason, practicing silence can actually get very noisy – all the words we would typically speak get “backed up” and swim through our minds.

At first, it may seem like our minds are actually getting more active and restless than usual. In fact, we are simply seeing what is usually unconscious. That’s a good thing! We must first see our habits clearly before we can change them. But it isn’t always pretty. Without the escape valve of speech, all our petty resentments and irrational fears are exposed. It’s like cleaning out a dank basement. The techniques of yoga will help us clear the air as quickly as possible, but we still have to sort through all the old stuff. This is one of the central practices of yoga – swadhyaya, the study of the self.

In mindful silence, the Witness emerges – that part of us that is pure awareness, without preferences or plans, yet full of loving-kindness. The more we learn to rest as the Witness of our experience, the more space we have to make clear choices, rather than be swept along in the current of habit. A retreat reconnects us to what is really true, and helps us cultivate the skill to put that truth into action in our lives.

Finally, a silent retreat gives us permission to step out of all our roles – parent, child, spouse, friend, employee – and just be natural, as we are. What a relief! To drop all responsibility and artifice is to rest deeply, to soothe and heal the body-mind. No amount of vacation on a tropical beach can do this.

At Grateful Yoga, we try to offer at least one retreat a year.  See our website for details.

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