The Heart of Silence

Meditation Hall
Meditation Hall

Tara’s Brach’s books are steeped in tenderness, and full of wisdom. After reading her most recent book, True Refuge, I immediately did the right thing and signed up for her mailing list. Soon after, I got a newsletter from Tara with her upcoming schedule that included a 5-Day Silent Meditation Retreat over New Years. I applied, paid half, applied for a spot in the lottery and waited.

I won the lottery.

I was grateful to find a ride with someone who’d been to retreats with Tara at the same location, outside of Baltimore. She knew to arrive at the center early and choose a good spot in the meditation hall. When she put down her cushion on the floor and her shawl on the seat right behind as well, I should have followed. But, I didn’t want to take up two spots. So, I put my cushion on the floor, went to register and get my room assignment.

Room (1)

At dinner that night, I met some people and found out where they were from. Several had been to silent retreats before. This was my first. There were all ages, men and women. I felt excited and curious about the week ahead.

At 8 pm, we found our spots in the meditation hall for our first sit together. We meditated and then Tara talked about what to expect over the five days.

Awakening the Heart of Compassion
Daily Schedule

5:45 – 6:00 —– Wake Up
6:15 – 6:45 —– Yoga with Robyn
6:45 – 7:30 —– Sitting
7:30 – 8:30 —– Breakfast
8:15 – 9:00 —– Walking
9:00 – 10:00 — Instructions; Sitting; Q & A
10:00 – 10:45 — Walking
10:45 – 11:30 — Sitting
11:30 – 12:00 — Walking
11:30 – 12:30 — Group Meetings
12:00 – 12:30 — Sitting
12:30 – 2:15 — Lunch & Rest
2:15 – 3:00 —- Sitting
3:00 – 3:45 —- Walking or Yoga with Robyn
3:45 – 4:30 — Guided Heart Meditation
4:30 – 5:00 —- Walking
4:30 – 5:30 —- Group Meetings
5:00 – 5:30 — Sitting
5:30 – 6:45 —- Dinner and Walking
6:45 – 7:15 —- Sitting
7:15 – 7:30 — Walking
7:30 – 8:30 — Dharma Talk
8:30 – 9:00 — Walking
9:00 – 9:30 — Sitting and Chanting
9:30 ———– Sleep

That’s a lot of sitting – on the cushion, on the floor. For the first day and a half, I could not stay awake. Every time I fell asleep while sitting, I woke up feeling like a cartoon character getting bonked on the head with a frying pan. I was struggling and exhausted. I was frustrated and pretty furious at myself for not being able to stay awake. One of Tara’s main teachings is self-compassion and I finally realized that what this meant for me was A CHAIR.

So, honoring the traditional method of communication on a silent retreat, I wrote a note to the manager: “Can we figure out a place to put a chair for this sit?” folded it and put it on the message board. Later, I found his response, “Not sure. It’s pretty crowded. Come find me at the next break”. Knowing full well how packed the meditation hall was (100 people attended this retreat), I tried another 30 /45 minute sit again on the cushion – the beautiful cushion that my dear friend made for me. That was it. I had tried, I was fried and I needed that chair. Luckily I got one. I promptly leaned back and fell asleep. After a few meditation sessions like that, I was much better off. I must have been very tired. Living in NY gives me a lot of energy, but it takes a lot from me too and I was pooped. After that rest, I was finally able to focus in my meditation and stay awake.

It still wasn’t easy. Rough stuff comes up. For me it was grief, among other things. We met in small groups for an hour twice during the week. We talked about how it was going for us. Then we received guidance and support from one of the teachers.

Every day there was yoga, which was gentle and good. I didn’t miss a class or a sit. That’s me. I looked forward to the Meditation Instructions, Guided Heart Meditations and especially the Dharma talks. These were truly deep and amazing.

On New Years Eve there was a beautiful candle lighting ceremony. Then there were two celebrations you could choose to attend, a silent one and a talking one.
The closing of the retreat was so well coordinated and exquisitely orchestrated. We were given clear instructions on the best way to maintain the momentum of our practice. The schedule of the last day included talking with people that I’d sat with in silence for days. I could sense the most tender parts of these people opening up, first with one partner, then a group of 4. It was all heart. We were asked to comment on what we’d be leaving with; in one sentence. There were many revealing statements. I hesitated to comment, but when I did, I said that I’d been deeply touched by the amazing teachings and especially the sweet, soothing timber of the voices of the teachers, and that I heard that same gentle sound from everyone who spoke (into the microphone with their comments that morning), and that I hoped that I’d someday hear that same softness in my own voice as well.

What’s Golden About Silence?

On the last day of the retreat a few people there had asked, “How was your retreat?” It felt like too personal a question and way too complicated to answer in a few words. It was great, hard, powerful, difficult, sad, profound, and challenging. When I returned home, friends and family wanted to know if I’d gotten what I had expected. Someone else asked how it had changed me. I don’t what I wanted and I don’t know if it changed me. The process is still unfolding. I’d always wanted to do a silent retreat. Listening is easier without so much noise.

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