By Marybeth Stern
Does the idea of an “At Home” silent retreat sound paradoxical? In the Mindfulness - Based Stress Reduction curriculum, strategically positioned to occur after Class 5 or 6, there is a one day silent retreat. Often in the orientation, which is a preliminary overview of the entire course, it is this component that sparks the most intense response: concern, curiosity, perhaps even a bit of anxiety. “Is it really for the whole day?” “We’re expected to be silent even through meal time?” “Can I journal during that time?” From a teacher’s perspective, this is perhaps the first opportunity to explore with the group the universal tendency of the mind to jump ahead. The pull to be drawn into future thinking and the hunger to know details of an event that is scheduled for six weeks from the present moment is strong. Add the descriptor of “at home” to the All Day silent retreat and curiosity and yes, sometimes anxiety, abound. The reassurance that an abundance of information will be provided and questions answered as the date grows near is usually sufficient to restore ease, along with the invitation to engage the perennial mindfulness question, “What’s here now?”
The dictionary definition of retreat “ the act of withdrawing…” implies a stepping back, a shift from the mundane activities of daily life into “a place of refuge, seclusion or privacy..” Indeed, the traditional notion of retreat often did involve going to a remote place, usually a place of natural beauty, far from the maddening crowd. I smile as I write this in early April 2021, fully aware that the refuge for many is the threshold of a closed bedroom door and the source of natural beauty, perhaps a potted houseplant, badly in need of watering. The conditions of a pandemic society redefine the crowd not as maddening, but for some, the object of longing. For many, the “act of withdrawing” began in March 2020 and was experienced not as a choice, but as a challenge necessitated by an invisible enemy.
To choose to spend a day in “Silent Retreat,” is not a choice to withdraw, but a decision to engage. Silence is simply a condition that supports the engagement. Throughout the day one gets to linger with awareness, hardly an act of withdrawing. This is a rare opportunity. Saki Santorelli, in his book, “Heal Thy Self” tells us: ‘The deep desire to move on almost always robs us of our life.” On this day, we offer ourself a gift: we get to notice that desire and dwell within the moments of life without the urgency to do, to go, to be anywhere but “here.” The practices include sitting, standing, walking, eating, moving, seeing, hearing, smelling, thinking, feeling, caring. It is an experience of deep solitude and undeniable connection. There may be moments when the chaos of internal mental chatter seems interminable and then suddenly the stillness, the spaciousness in and around thinking, worrying, judging offers a soft landing place to just be.
To participate in a silent retreat from home offers unique and potentially lasting benefits. It is an opportunity to see the familiar landscape of a small bedroom or office, family room or kitchen with new eyes as the light is perceived in the present moment reflecting off a shiny object or peering in through slatted blinds. Listening practice might include the sounds of breezes and birds out an open window as well as the sounds of your bickering teens from a room down the hall. Sounds that soothe and sounds that bristle. The sight of a cherished photo that you’ve become blind to, and a new appreciation for a tree newly in blossom. In this time of restricted travel, the frontier of the familiar lies waiting to be explored. It is a journey of no miles, the cost of the fare, simply a willingness to see things freshly.
Periodic participation in silent at- home retreats is an ideal way to renew and reinvigorate one’s practice. If you choose to give yourself the gift of this day, there are a few preparatory steps that can optimize the experience. Enlisting the support of those you live with and asking for what you need in terms of quiet, privacy etc. is important. Explain that though they might see you occasionally in the course of the day, you plan to be in silence.
Setting an intention for the day and preparing the physical space that you plan to use can create an atmosphere of seclusion, refuge, safety and comfort. Having what you need in the space - a yoga mat, meditation cushion, chair, water, snack, socks, light blanket, whatever comfort items you think you may need, can save you from unnecessary distraction as the day unfolds. You also might want to prepare a light easy meal for mindful eating during the mealtime break. A bouquet of fresh flowers or the scent of lavender oil can make even the most familiar of spaces feel special. As the day arrives, a good way to start is to review your intention and sign on a little early to meet any technological issues and hear preliminary instructions offered by the facilitator. As you drop in, an attitude of appreciation and self care is essential. An open mind and an open heart can lead to extraordinary discoveries even in the most ordinary of places:
“…the time will come when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror..
You will love again, the stranger who was yourself.”
The stranger that you seek may be there, resting in your own backyard!