A few years ago, I went on a 5-day mindfulness retreat at a Buddhist monastery.
It was very spur of the moment. I was going through an emotionally rough time, and it just happened to fall on spring break. So I went, not knowing what to expect at all, just hopeful that I would get something out of this mindfulness experience. I brought my journal, toiletries, a sleeping bag, a pillow, and just enough comfy clothes to last me 5 days.
A few monks greeted me when I arrived, and told me that the registration was up the flights of stairs in front of me. When I finally got to the table at the top of the stairs, I dropped my bags at my feet, and huffed and puffed as I searched for my name.
I found my dorm number, and the name of my “family”– the group of 15 or so others who I would be meeting with on a daily basis to share our stories and our life challenges together. There were a total of about 175 people at this particular retreat. When I made my way to my dorm, I found three sets of bunk beds against each wall, with two occupied so far. I climbed up to the empty top bunk, tossed my things on the mattress, and sat down with my legs draped over the edge. I checked my Facebook for what would be the last time during the retreat.
Up next was the orientation.
The meditation hall was a work of art. A spacious room, lined with rows of small brown floor cushions that lead up to a small altar covered in orchids. We all sat on our cushions, and listened intently to the monk as he explained the days to come. He explained that there would be a bell that would ring intermittently throughout the days. When we heard the bell, it was a reminder to stop whatever we were doing, breathe, and be in the present moment, if only for a few seconds before returning to whatever it was we were doing.
The last thing he taught us about was the practice of “noble silence”. This was a period of time from dinner until after breakfast the next morning where, I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, we practiced being completely silent, and we were going to begin immediately following the orientation. In the beginning, it was hard for me. I felt twinges of anxiety creep up. Itching to check my phone or blurt out a stupid joke or think out loud to no one, but I let the feelings pass.
After a very quiet dinner and a very quiet bedtime, the sound of the mindfulness bell at 5 am woke us up.
We very quietly got dressed and very quietly walked to the great hall for our first morning meditation. The sun wasn’t up yet, and I wasn’t a morning person (still not). The monks instructed us to sit comfortably on a cushion, close our eyes, and focus on our breath. I’m not sure exactly how long it lasted, but when they told us to open our eyes, the sun was finally up and the morning birds were singing louder. It was quite the experience. I noticed that my anxiety, although not completely gone, was maybe 5% less. After we quietly ate breakfast, we were allowed to talk again.
For the first two and a half days, I felt tiny waves of anxiety. It manifested in shortness of breath, racing thoughts, little bouts of crying. After the third day, something shifted.
It suddenly became the perfect formula for finally finding peace of mind. Between the meditation, the absence of technology, being surrounded by nature, and the conversations with my “family”, I felt like my anxiety, at last, was gone. The final three days, I felt the most free and authentic I’ve ever felt. When we were nearing the end of the retreat, we all started dreading going back to the “real world”. How would we survive? It’s so noisy! So overwhelming!
They reminded us that mindfulness was called a practice, because it takes just that; constant practice.
You are never done practicing, because life is constantly changing. New things arise where some days it will be easier and some will be harder to be mindful. What matters is that you practice. The more you practice, it starts to become a habit, and your brain begins to make new neural connections. Mindfulness practice and meditation becomes a tool to add to your tool belt when life gets tough.