Reclaim Your Self: Silent Retreat as a Healing Tool

meditation self improvement

This blogpost was written prior to March 2020.

If Seinfeld and Woody Allen had a love child, it might have been me the week of my first silent retreat experience. The neurotic detritus of my mind even started to make me smile inwardly with compassion. After this sit, I’ll go pee, then I’ll make myself a mint tea. No, a green tea. Did I bring those matcha sachets? No, that might make me too alert. What about a chamomile. No, too sleepy. Ok, I’ll do yerba mate, and I’ll do some stretches around the side of the building. No, it might be too cold in the shade there. But I didn’t bring a hat, so I don’t want to burn in the sun either. How many more sessions for today?

This high-level internal strategery surfaced around day 3 when my mind had already dumped a few blogs, some “this is how I think this experience fits in to my understanding of the whole” insights, and every possible to-do item I’d have to deal with upon returning home to the Matrix. I had some distance to traverse before I’d have the opportunity to reengage the responsibilities of daily living, however, and there were moments where I wasn’t sure I would make it. Those moments felt something like an Edward Munch Silent Scream (and were largely mitigated by the fact that my best girlfriend had already survived two of these particular retreats). And then I would, in my usual fashion, make fun of myself, saying, really Kelly? This is too hard for you? All your meals prepared, Bob Ross-level vistas at every turn, and no obligations beyond moving my body to a certain location at certain times. Seriously, first world issues here.

So why was the experience of no speaking, no note-taking, no music, no eye contact, and no reading so excruciating?

Because in the decades of my adulthood, I have never simply been with myself for a week. And certainly not in the company of others. I have never actually experienced boredom, thanks to my expert self-distracting skills and my love of thinking, reading, and communicating. A word-dependency that stems from several programs including "productivity is the source of my worth," "the one who is the most intelligent in her communications is the most powerful," “I must help others make sense of the world” and "I am invisible if others do not reflect to me that I exist." Lots and lots of habits and well-worn patterns that worked until I began to develop a creeping awareness that nagging sense that I was missing out on my actual life experience - you know, the one happening before my 5 senses. Right. Now.

It turns out that silent retreat can be behavior rehab for the habits of the conditioned self...for the self that you think you are. Your persona, your personality, your this is who I am and how I do life avatar. An amalgamation of conscious and unconscious programs that lead us to interact with the world in the particular way that we have become accustomed to.

Why to silent retreat

I got more than a few Why would you do that?! inquiries before leaving for retreat. It’s a good question, and one that we were prompted to ask ourselves during the first talk on our arrival evening. My reflexive answer was that I wanted to learn how to be more present. After many a dark turn of my spiral, I have been delivered to a seeming plateau of joyful richness in my Miami life, and I wanted to learn how to be present to this reality. Heart open, mind aware, in the moment.

What I didn’t fully perceive, however, was that I would need to begin to heal my relationship to death before it would be possible to extinguish a neurotic, busying, distracting impulse to fix all the problems that are and might ever be, and to be always in search of something that isn’t eminently available in the moment.

In the months preceding the retreat, I had moved through the deepest rupture of my 6.5 year romantic relationship, and specifically, one in which I was able to actually glimpse life without my partner for the first time. Our container shattered, and we were presented with a choice - level up to individuated but deeply connected love, or run away. I saw how a commitment to resolving attachment and dependency afforded us a new kind of love experience - one with more reverence and also more lightness. And then, in the 48 hours before I would board the flight to the retreat, my beloved kitty slipped out my back door and into the Miami wilderness. I spent 14 hours heaving with grief, certain I would never see him again. This being who had been a teacher for me from the moment we adopted him. In both of these experiences, and in all of the deaths that have graced my life, I felt pain, and then judged that pain as simply bad. I wanted to feel better, and I thought that feeling could only come through reconnection to the object of my attention.

But what if reconnection, and connection to begin with, starts with me? Me connected to me. What would that look like?

I learned that it is as simple as noting the one who is aware. That one...that awareness is what survives death. It is what is always, eternally, unperturbed. It is beyond concepts and words, past history, and patterns. This is the me that simply is. And I can invoke this me to contain the emotional swirl of any experience, any time.

The one who is aware accepts and allows everything that is.

Responding from this space, even speaking from this space, is a totally different experience than speaking and acting from the reflexive mind. I had a microcosmic moment of this in action when I passed a gathering of majestic trees I considered sitting under during one of my breaks except that there was a white plastic bag that had been left there and it felt like an eye sore. Every time I passed this area with the bag, a part of my viscera winced. When I decided to finally sit down, I chose to close my eyes so that the bag wouldn’t be in my otherwise unmarred view. And then I invoked the practice for a few minutes and noted that when I opened my eyes, it was clear that I should just pick up the bag and dispose of it. Why was that obvious choice not clear before? Because so much of my mental energy had been hijacked by my resistance and refusal to accept reality as it was as the baseline for my interaction with it.

What is a silent retreat

 We sat for about 6 sessions a day, 40 minutes each, and had several breaks and also an hour of lecture from Adyashanti, and two hours of Q&A with audience members. There were about 225 (yes I counted) of us, and I had a roommate who spoke to me only through snoring each night. I was amazed to note, within the first day, that if someone came near me, my musculature would brace, almost to prepare for what they might say to me or need from me. It was subtle, and sad, telling of a life lived with the hopes of mitigating suffering by managing the expectations of others, often despite myself. I also noted a persistent reflex to explain what I was doing so that others would be put at ease. For example, at one point, I moved my cushion after the first sit so that I could see the teacher. I felt preoccupied with wanting to explain that to the two people I had been next to so that they wouldn’t be offended if they took my move personally.

I noted, as well, that in silent relationship to a community, the mind makes any effort to connect ranging from attempting to convince me that I knew about 70% of the people based on how familiar they looked to me all the way to endless comparison considerations and judgments. I made a practice, every time I thought something like Omg that guy is so gross. Does he really need to clear his throat like that?! to reflect on how, when, and why I might be holding that same judgment of myself, and I always found it. The mirroring in this space is profound if you’re willing to look.

I found that the behavioral conditions that were relaxed, relieved, and otherwise paused for the duration included:

  • Social niceties (there were no thank yous, bless you’s, or I’m sorries allowed)
  • Conversation (starting it, maintaining it, ending it)
  • Representation of my identity (as doctor, mother, dancer…)
  • Considerations of appearance (beyond clothed/unclothed)
  • Consumerism (no money exchanged or credit cards used)
  • Domestic responsibilities (no cooking, cleaning, dish washing, prepping)
  • Complaining (if ya can’t talk, ya can’t discharge fears through negativity!)
  • All cell and computer tech including internet searches and picture taking (woah)

The nightly Q&A sessions really threw me off, however. I didn’t want to hear anyone else’s voice, and I didn’t want to deal with even considering whether or not I had a question. After the first session, however, a question did percolate and it was in response to the many minutes of “coronavirus” precautions the retreat leaders encouraged that we take and the fact that I had been presented with the option to wear gloves after (silently) refusing Purell at mealtimes. I was going to step up to the mic and break silence to ask:

My mentor used to say that conventional medicine is religion hiding in plain site. I think he said this in part, because, like other dominant religions, it displaces the sacred from the material realm of the body so it becomes easy to see the body as dirty, fundamentally flawed and rife with random and meaningless problems that we can only pray for mercy around. So, I always note in spiritual contexts when this conventional perspective isn’t acknowledged as just that: a perspective, or a belief system. For example, in my awakening process, I’ve come to no longer believe in germ-based contagion and all of the precautions that I’ve been asked to take this week. I transformed my belief, initially, because of research into the microbiome that says there are literally trillions of micro-organisms in and around us, so singling out one villain is a bit silly, but also because I have come to view illness as purposeful, meaningful, and ultimately deeply personal, and it also just feels freer to believe what I do. I am very interested in spiritualizing the practice of medicine, so what are your thoughts on the reluctance that spiritual communities might have to think outside of the box when it comes to their medical perspectives?

 I spent the first two nights waiting to be called on, and even convinced myself that it could be a service to those in the audience to present a different perspective they might not otherwise ever be exposed to (spiritual bypass)...that was until I stopped raising my hand midway through the fourth night recognizing that this question was just my identity trying to assert itself, and I coaxed her back to her resting place for the remainder of the week (until this blog!).

How to silent retreat

 As a seeker deeply invested in relative mastery over the techniques and practices I have collected, I was refreshingly confronted with Adyashanti’s non-technique technique. No breathing instruction. No visualization. Just being with what is and taking note of the awareness present.

I recognized, in the simplicity of this practice, that my ego is the one that has been meditating for all these years. Doing a good job efforting at meditation.

With this practice, we were encouraged to gently invite the “one who is meditating” to relax. Adyashanti described that meditation is likely what simply happens when we relieve tension around the belief that we don’t know what meditation is or how to do it...ok! So, I don’t have any idea what it actually is or how to do it. That’s when we can relax into the awareness that he sometimes describes as the “ground of being” and make contact with who we are that isn’t any of the things we thought we were.

Takeaways from my retreat!

Freedom. We all have an impulse toward it, a striving for the experience of the infinite, of what is beyond the confines of the seeming self. But we sacrifice freedom all the time for the illusion of safety and comfort. In America, this has been our trajectory since the beginning...we trade our freedoms because we believe that safety can be afforded by some external authority, aka the government. But what is freedom, really?

I like to think of freedom as knowing and experiencing love even when it isn’t felt or actively perceived.

This is a means of unhooking our inner ok-ness from any of the details of our lived experience or environment. When we have this ground of knowing, loss is an experience that does not destabilize. Neither does conflict. Or disagreement. Or the impersonal expression of another’s fears. We always know that love is there.

In fact, is it possible that all emotions are simply different expressions of love, existing in direct reference to it?

Anger: I don’t love

Fear: Love can be lost

Shame: I am not lovable

Sadness: Love isn’t here

Perhaps it’s disconnection that better describes the hell that so many of my patients have lived in and called depression. But feeling is something that we simply don’t have practice with, perhaps because we never learned to make contact with the consciousness that could hold these energies and tell us that we are ok even when we feel anything but.

When we attract experiences that bring feelings to the surface, perhaps our Victim Stories and the fear that ignites them, are actually there to leverage the feelings themselves, into expression. Then, when we have given our feelings permission to exist (and we have contact with our adult self or our unperturbed awareness), we might find a gap wherein we can actually exercise a choice. We can recruit our mind as an ally to our heart and begin to story into meaning and acceptance, sending ourselves that internal signal of safety we were seeking from the external fix.

Okness with not being ok. Comfort with discomfort.

Over the course of the week, I was given the opportunity to see how much my relationship to sensuality, communication, and connection can distract from intimacy with the essential self within me. The cosmic self, if you will, relative to my worldly human self, and my divine child self. I am newly committed to translating the insights that grew from that ground of being I sat in over the course of the retreat so that I might know being and not just doing. So that I might know the self that isn’t the self I know.

Here were some of my action items (doing in order to not do?):

  • Cell phone reclamation. Leaving the retreat, I was finally ready to exercise discipline over my phone so that I might never again find myself staring into it as I walk in the street, load laundry, go pee, or have my daughter trying to get my attention. I’ll be testing out my new ground rules in our next digital detox in Vital Life Project, as well as documenting my journey of transitioning off of a “smart” phone for good.
  • A non-practice practice. With all of my time reclaimed from my phone, I plan to sit or walk and do a non-practice of just being every day.
  • Sharing about the you that is ok. I plan to teach my daughters about the fact that there is a part of them that is always ok, all the time, no matter what. Don’t you wish someone had introduced that concept to you before your teen years?
  • Annual attendance. I plan to attend a silent retreat 1-2x year every year because every human deserves a pause.

May we all make contact with the love that exists beyond transaction, with ourselves, and with others. The love that’s there even when we don’t earn it. The signal of safety that we can recruit anytime we are telling ourselves stories to the contrary. Because only you have the authority to give yourself permission to feel what you feel. And only you can access ok-ness even when there is no evidence of it to the five senses. Noble silence can take you there.

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About Dr. Kelly Brogan

KELLY BROGAN, MD, is a holistic psychiatrist, author of the New York Times Bestselling book, A Mind of Your OwnOwn Your Self, the children’s book, A Time For Rain, and co-editor of the landmark textbook Integrative Therapies for Depression. She is the founder of the online healing program Vital Mind Reset, and the membership community, Vital Life Project. She completed her psychiatric training and fellowship at NYU Medical Center after graduating from Cornell University Medical College, and has a B.S. from M.I.T. in Systems Neuroscience. She is specialized in a root-cause resolution approach to psychiatric syndromes and symptoms. Learn More