Monday, September 15, 2008

Reflections from a Silent Retreat

I had to write a reflection paper about my silent retreat experience.
Rather than providing excerpts, the entire paper follows:

            "No, thank you." These were the only words I uttered during the twenty-four hours that would comprise my silent retreat. When I began the retreat, I had resolved that I would not break the silence by the comfort of my own voice. Unfortunately, I bumped into the custodial staff on the way out for my walk in the rain, and they asked if I needed service in the cottage that day. I couldn't think of a clever non-verbal response fast enough, so I spoke. Only six hours had passed since I last spoke, and, surprisingly, my voice sounded foreign to me.

            I began my silent retreat around eight o'clock in the morning on September 12. Although I had some anxiety about doing the retreat so late in the term, in retrospect I could not have chosen a better time. It was the day after World Day of Prayer at Unity Village. I had been to two prayer services and read names at the Silent Unity Chapel. That night was also choir practice for the Unity Southeast Chorale, of which I am director. There's a saying that those who sing pray twice, so I considered that more prayer time. I also saw a performance of "Les Miserables" at the Starlight Theater that night. My favorite line in the musical: "To love someone is to see the face of God." So I considered myself prayed up. My timing was perfect for another reason: it had been raining for two days and today promised more. I was staying the Harmony House cottage at Unity Village so I practically had the grounds to myself since the rain kept virtually everyone indoors.

            I was also anxious about the retreat because this was the first retreat I vowed to honor the silence completely. I did not take any books, only my journal for jotting down any insights that should come. There was no TV or computer. The biggest stretch was not taking my Zune (ipod-like digital music player) that contained my collection of almost 7,500 songs. I usually never leave home without it, and I usually always have music playing in the house or in the car except during sleeping and some meditation times. Music feeds me in ways I cannot describe other than to say I feel empty in its absence, whether I'm listening or creating. I did take my other piece of electronic comfort: my BlackBerry. Under the guise of being a 'responsible parent' I rationalized that I needed to have it, but that gave me access to emails, text messages, and the internet. I reluctantly admitted I needed to go without it so I locked it in my car, trusting that all would be well without me for at least one day – talk about an ego trip! Besides, if there really was some emergency my wife Jen knew where I was and could get a message to me.

            By ten o'clock I sat to meditate in the too comfortable recliner with only the patter of raindrops as accompaniment, and woke up three hours later (note to self: no more meditating in the too comfortable recliner). I evidently could not deny the exhaustion I was feeling, and succumbed to rest the first chance I gave myself. I woke up rested and hungry, and after eating lunch in silence I decided to try a walking meditation. Aside from breaking the silence with the custodial staff, the walk was a source of insights. I preface these insights by stating my own belief that nothing of itself has meaning except that which we give it. "What does this mean?" and "Why did this happen?" are, in my opinion, cruel and unnecessary questions. I believe it is of greater value to ask, "What does this mean for me?" or "What is mine to do?" or even "What is mine to give or love?"

            As I explored the grounds of Unity Village in the lightly falling rain, I realized I could divide them into three sections. The first section comprised professionally manicured areas (golf course, campus) that obviously got attention on a regular basis. The second section was the natural woods where the wildlife (deer, turkeys, bobcats, who knows what else) live and seldom visited by humans. The third section was made up of separate areas that looked like ruins or dumping grounds. I drew a parallel between the grounds and my Self. The manicured sections reminded me of the areas of my life and Self I am actively working to improve, such as my spirituality, physical well-being, and intellect. The woods reminded me of the untapped spiritual potential that I access from time to time and is home to the true wonders of who I am. Then the ruins: those scars of past hurts or my personal failings that I want to ignore until hopefully there are overrun by the natural forest growth. And like the actual village grounds, those areas were partially overrun with growth and wild flowers bloomed, just as divine love shines light into those dark corners of my soul. Yet remnants of what was originally there will remain until real work is done on them.

            During the walk I kept running into spider webs. This happened most often when I was off the walking path and exploring the woods. I was initially frustrated by the repeated icky feeling of the webs on my face and arms, but then I realized this was a lesson in awareness. When I took the time to look, there were signs that I was about to walk into a web: small leaves floating in mid-air, suspended water droplets, thin branches bent against gravity's pull. In life, especially in unfamiliar situations, I don't have to be a victim of the unknown. I can increase my level of awareness and look for the signs that can guide me to right choices.

            Another interesting lesson came to my attention during my walk in the rain and it was thanks to my raincoat. The humidity was so thick my walk was really a swim, and as perspired, it became unbearably hot and sticky under the coat. At the time the rain was just a light drizzle, yet I was becoming soaked from the inside. The very thing that was intended to keep my dry was having the opposite effect by trapping my perspiration and soon I was dripping with sweat. I weighed my options and took off the jacket, betting that I wouldn't be as wet from the drizzle as from myself, and sure enough I started to cool off and dry off a little even though it was still drizzling. It made me realize how often I think things (namely having more money) will grant me safety and security yet are the source of great worry and anxiety. Sometimes it's god to have a raincoat, but only if it's doing what it's supposed to, otherwise time to let it go.

            I did eventually settle into times of sitting meditation later that evening and the following morning. I became acutely aware of how much noise and busyness are in my life, and I need to cut back on both. I survived one day without the music to keep me company; perhaps I should have a no-music day at least once a week so I can hear what else there is to hear. The retreat also made me aware that my prayer practice is not currently a daily one and it needs to be. Today is Monday and so far I have met the goal of daily prayer, although I'm admittedly playing music while I type. Rome wasn't built in a day, and my day of silence will come later this week.

            I have realized the value in the Silent Retreat and will take at least one, if not two, each term. Doing it during the last week of term (aka 'Crunch time') helped to ground me during a time I have usually grown more stressed, and I am grateful.


Jess said...

Insightful, personal and well-written. I think for a person like me, a silent retreat would do a lot of good seeing as it would be more difficult, perhaps, than for some people.