On 4 Jan 2020 I went to a 5 night silent retreat, which is effectively an intensive meditative workout. Here is my account (c 3,000 words).
Off to a silent retreat. This time I booked with Western Chan Fellowship, which I found online as I’d like to try something different. Website says there are some communication exercises so it won’t be totally silent.
The place is very isolated. A cottage among farmland in the Welsh hills, no phone or internet reception and no electricity. There are 13 people including 3 support staff so it’s more intimate than Gaia House where I've been going previously.
Arrive in the evening and we are introduced to the format: 5am wake up, with a schedule of meditations, communication exercises, discourses, work periods, a walk in afternoon and bed time at 10pm. A detailed schedule almost by the half hour.
We have a meditation session, some Tibetan chanting which I find a bit weird, and go to bed.
Out at 5am. Cold clear starry sky. Some exercise which is a combo of qi-gung, stretching and squats. Cup of tea and into the meditation hall. 30 mins quiet meditation.
We get told what the communication exercises are about. They’re a Tibetan practice called Koans where one ponders a given question talking to a partner uninterrupted for 5 minutes. Then the listener and talker switch around. We do this 3 times each, so 30 mins overall with the same partner.
All first timers to Western Chan get the same question “Who am I?”. And we’re to partner up with different people in future 30min sessions, the idea being that we pair up with everyone and nobody more than twice during the 5 days. All sounds rather weird. And certainly not silent.
The exercise is rather odd. "John, tell me who you are." It certainly feels very awkward. “I’m John”, “I’m a father” etc… what else? How do we fill these 5 minutes? Awkward silence. “I’m awkward”,” I’m confused”, “I’m wandering what all this is about..”
And on to the next five minutes. And the ones after. What does one say? “I’m a combo of molecules and atoms and feelings and thoughts…”
Breakfast is at 930: porridge and bread with spreads. Rather nice. We have our allocated sitting space, crockery and utensils for the duration of the retreat. Each washes their own at the end in a rather strange way, apparently like they do in traditional monasteries. Rather eccentric in my view, but efficient.
Work period to clean up the place and prepare it for lunch.
Back into the meditation hall for 30 mins sitting in silence, 30 min Koan communication exercise and so on, into lunchtime. Another work period follows, then back into the hall for the usual meditation and Koan.
There is also a discourse by the facilitator which is rather poignant and encouraging. He seems to be fully aware of what is going on. Our feelings and doubts are natural. It takes time for the mind to acclimatise. We’re following a well-established practice, put together and fine-tuned over generations and everything is going as planned. Let’s have some faith in it and remember we’re not here to rest but to better ourselves and this requires going into difficult challenging territory.
There is also a ‘chanting period’ where we do the yoga “Aom” sound for 30 mins. By then I’m no longer concerned about awkwardness. I can sense the sound vibrating inside me and it feels rather nice. Reminds me of a gong bath.
There is also a 45-minute walk, done in isolation and mindfully. The views and nature are beautiful. We are instructed to keep the question alive whatever we’re doing.
There is tea, back to the meditation hall, dinner, back again and the day reaches an end.
Overall I’m drained, still not sure of the purpose of it all. The meditations, and even more so the Koan/communication exercises are a rollercoaster of emotions: frustration, embarrassment, as well as interest when I find myself pondering something poignant.
Slept quite well. Same format for the day. I’m continuing to find the Koans challenging. We’re reminded the question is “Who am I?”. Responses in the biological sense, or roles such as “father”, “manager” etc refer to “What am I?’. This makes it even harder and more frustrating. We’re also told that there is an answer and generally people find it after a few days when the mind has settled into a more grounded, intuitive state. This is important because the solution is not an intellectual one. What does that mean – not intellectual- I wonder.
Also the purpose of the exercise is not to find the answer, but to go through the process of questioning. Once we find it we’ll be given a new question anyway. We are also told that the facilitator will be calling us for one-to-one ‘interviews’ during the coming days to check how we’re getting along. We can also ask for one ourselves if we have any concerns or have found the answer.
As the day goes by I notice that at times I am more grounded and very present, while others I’m more ‘in my head’ using the analytical part of my brain. Always changing and coming up with a different response, a different answer.
I have an interview where the facilitator ask how I’m doing and whether I’m finding the question helpful. I’ve been exploring a lot of things that I identify as ‘me’ so yes, it is. And I’m happy to stick with it.
In today’s discourse the facilitator brings up the notion of ‘impermanence’, how everything changes, from feelings, to bodies, to planets and stars.
Later in the day I think I may have found the answer. Since my response to “Who I am” is always changing then I must be ‘Impermanence’. Maybe this is it. It certainly feels in the right direction.
I’ve been starting to experience times where I’m fully present, clear and at peace with myself and during those times I ‘know who I am’. It’s a feeling rather than a word. Infact, whatever words I use as an answer feel right. This makes me think that if I always know who I am during that state of real presence then the answer is that particular state. The facilitator did say the answer is not an intellectual one and the whole exercise is a process. This all sits well with me. I think I’ve found it. The exercise is drawing me to that state, wanting me to have more of it, so the answer is “the-state-I’m-in-when-I-know-who-I-am”. Yes, I believe I’ve got it. I will ask for an interview.
I sit with the facilitator and he asks “John, tell me who you are”. There is a piercing intensity in his eyes as if he’s seeing right through me. This knocks me off a little and after my explanation he responds that it’s not the answer. I’m making good progress but there is still some hesitation. I argue that if I was in my ‘fully-present state’ there would not be any. He clarifies that the answer is independent of state and usually it comes as an ‘aha, eureka’ moment. There is still some work to be done.
During Koans later in the day I notice that some peoples’ questions have changed. “What is love”, “What is peace”, “What is freedom”…They have found the answer and moved on. They all have a subtle glow in their expression. Almost radiant.
In this evenings’ discourse we’re reminded not to get caught up, that finding the answer is secondary to the process, which after all, just continues with the new question. I’m still disappointed. I want that glow.
There is also a reminder about responding to “who” rather than “what”. “There is tension in my shoulders”, “there is frustration arising” are what-responses. We need be with what arises at any given moment, to be brave and take ownership. To take a risk and just express what is here right now.
So I decide to drop my analysing, and my explanations. I’m feeling frustrated. I am frustrated. I am Frustration. At this given second I am Frustration. I voice it: “I am Frustration”. Now I’m confused. I state “I am Confusion”. A cocktail of emotions come and go. And each time I voice it, I own it. And somehow it feels liberating. “I am Anger”. I’m feeling it and living it. My partner drops his gaze. I can see the unease in his expression. But it’s not going to stop me. “I am Power”. Feels good. Feels good not shrinking at the thought of making someone uncomfortable. He’s a big boy. He can take it.
And so these five minutes go by, as does the next hour and I’m expressing who I am, working on myself, for once only on myself, free from the fear of what-others-are-thinking, of what-others-are-feeling. Wow. It’s so liberating. So powerful.
I go to bed and in a small way I’m different. Still uncomfortable with upsetting others but I see how it transpires. And I see how often it does: “sorry, you go first”, “happy to eat where you want to…” And for every one real situation there are 10 that I create in my mind: “what if someone else wants this seat?”, ”if I leave early they might think I don’t like them…”
Till now I’ve been blind to the multitudes of ‘small-upsets’ I experience day to day and to my knee jerk reactions. Now there is awareness, some flexibility in the response when my discomfort is within a manageable limit, and the opportunity to stretch out this limit. How strange that such a small thing can feel so liberating.
I’m feeling pretty at ease and I think it has to do with yesterday’s experience. I’m ok not to find the answer and just continue exploring. With my meditative practice which had become pretty much 24/7, my default state has tended to be ‘metacognitive’, where I’m observing myself almost like an outsider. However yesterday evening found I myself more immersed and it felt rather liberating. Immersed yet grounded. I may have been giving too much credit to the state of metacognitive awareness. It’s time to stop observing myself so much and go back inside, go back home.
It all feels quite interesting and I’m content having got this from the retreat. I’ve been focused, grounded, present, frustrated, so many different Johns throughout these days and I’m sure many more to come before the end. I’ve had some kind of shift. I can feel it in my body – that something is brewing, a kind of tingly, wavy sensation.
As I go from meditation to communication exercise, I feel that the answer is bubbling inside and close to the surface. Somehow who I am has to do with everything I’ve been through. Somehow, I am everyone I’ve felt I am, the happy John, the thinking John, the powerful one, the faker, all.
The facilitator calls me for another interview. The same stuff is bubbling as I’m walking to the room and my eyes start welling up. When he asks to tell him ‘who I am’, I know and give him my answer in one word.
Later I realise that the purpose of the question was to help me accept who I am. The word I said didn’t matter, what mattered was that he saw acceptance. He’s happy for me and asks how it came about. He finds it interesting that it bubbled over the morning rather than being a eureka moment.
Now on to the next question. I mention that I’d like to explore “what is power” as this is a prominent topic currently in my life. Apparently, it’s not a question well suited for this exercise, perhaps because there are many connotations of power. He asks what I want to get out of it.
My issue is that I have found a vocation in ‘exploring-and-communicating-mindfulness-and-other-mind-training-techniques’. I don’t know where it’s taking me. I’m walking on a foggy path yet have full conviction that it’s the right direction. I know that people are increasingly drawn to becoming more mindful and that in the future, be it 10, 20 100 years, we will be living with a greater understanding of the stuff we’re made of. We will be more in tune with our thoughts and emotions, act and communicate with greater clarity, which will lead to fewer misunderstandings and less violence in all its forms. And I know I will play a role in coaxing this change.
Yet while I’ve know this for about 7 years and have the urge - I would go as far to say the calling - to communicate what I’m learning, my insecurities and ego hold me back from shouting it to the world. What a shame it would be, that the world does not benefit from what I’ve been given to pass on, due to my stupid insecurities.
He contemplates it and proposes the question “Tell me what your true nature really is”. I feel that this calling I have is linked to my ‘true nature’ so I’m happy with the question – it’s leading in the same direction.
So back to the hall, the meditation and Koan exercises, now with my new question. It has similarities to the first, although this one is “what” rather than “who”. I wonder if this too requires acceptance of some kind for the answer to arise.
The process starts all over again almost as if it hadn’t stopped. Whilst at first it seems easier, in a few minutes I’m lost for words. My true nature arises when I’m being true to myself and the world and I can recall experiences when I’m communicating with clarity and confidence.
Yet what about when I don’t? What about when I’m clenched and insecure. Is that part of me not true? If so, what is it then? False? What about calm versus aggression? Is a morning breeze more natural than a volcanic eruption?
And so the morning goes on, with tugging and pulling in all directions, seemingly like an endless workout.
At some point the same effervescense starts to arise. It feels is as if there are microscopic bubbles in my body popping everywhere particularly the head and torso. Reminds me of resting my hand on the surface of a fizzy drink. Then, I feel my face soften and a surge of un-contained bliss. I know I have found my answer though I have no words for it. I cannot intellectualise it yet, but I can feel it. There is some kind of loosening, resetting, some kind of ‘acceptancing’ going on. So strange, yet pleasant and I go with it. A moment later I put it to words. I know “what my true nature really is”.
Looking back, I realised that somehow it was my body, rather than intellect, that first ‘understood’ that the bad, weak and unwanted, were also part of my true nature. Somehow it sunk in that a leopard cannot change its spots. This is who I am, warts and all. I may want to have a better memory but maybe I just can’t. I may want to be more extrovert and assertive but maybe I never will. I may want past regrets to stop haunting me but maybe they never will. Oh my gosh, what a relief.
What a relief.
I can stop beating myself up.
What a relief.
Then memories come of times when I’ve endeavoured to do things and doors have opened and further doors thereafter, without me even asking for them. Where a wish to do something materialised into reality. Where power was at play.
I noticed that in some situations I was confident and well versed, yet in others I was out of my depth nervous and insecure. And I noticed a thread linking them all. That in all of them I was acting from the heart. Whether I was having a good day or feeling confident was simply icing on the cake. All that mattered was that I was speaking my truth.
And so, moments later I also learn “What power is”. I learn that I have what I need to realise my vocation. I learn that when I’m feeling doubtful, rather than building confidence or memory, I need to tap into the feeling of my heart, into my ‘truth’.
So ended an eventful Day 4.
We’re finishing this afternoon and thoughts of home start creeping in. The facilitator gives us useful advice for the transition. Whilst we all feel normal, our minds are operating differently and will need a few days to re-adjust. It is wise to wait before making any important decisions. Also, to know that friends and family may not be interested to hear all about our experience, however profound it may have been.
Some other notable memories are:
- During one of the Koans in Day 2 I was having hallucinatons, seeing my partner’s face as that of a beige wet-clay-like deformed monster. I could switch in and out of them at will, which made it quite interesting and entertaining. Likewise, in Day 3 I was seeing someone as my aunt Aliki.
- The facilitator was amazing. Unassuming, humble and funny, with a knack of making you feel that he’s directing the retreat to you.
- By the end I had adjusted so much to the environment that going back into the daily grind felt alien.
- There was a very good discourse about compassion and wisdom, how they need to be combined. Giving compassion without wisdom can be irritating. Passing wisdom without compassion can be blunt.
- The facilitator and coordinator do not get paid. Whilst I’m not a believer in working for free, it adds a quality to the teachings.
What have I got, looking back a week later?
- I’m still at peace with my weaknesses and with the ‘what-ifs’ of the past.
- When it comes to my vocation, I know I have what it takes. I know that my insecurities will not block me.
- The 'metacognitive state' where I'm observing myself, somehow detached from my thoughts and emotions, is not better than being immersed in them. It's wise to learn the time and place for each and to be able to switch accordingly .
- Power comes from tuning into my Truth rather than being Alpha.
- I’m aware of when my fear of upsetting people arises. I’ve been experimenting with stretching the boundaries, for example, relaxing with being late and not remembering things in meetings, two of my biggest bug bears.
Will I go again?
Asking myself now, the answer is no. It was very hard. Of course later, when the difficulties are forgotten and I see how the gains will be impacting my life, it may be a different story…
What were the answers to my questions?
Whilst the words don’t really mean anything they were:
- Tell me who you are: John
- Tell me what your true nature really is: warty
- Tell me what is power: my true nature.