Today, in this week’s installment of my series dedicated to sharing some things I’ve found that help me to feel a little more comfortable when I’m having a Terrible, Horrible, Very Bad, No Good Day, I am very excited to be hosting Joy Agcongay, from whom I’ve been learning about the practice of Going On A Silent Retreat
1. How were you first introduced to Silent Retreating?
I was interested in creative writing and joined a local weekly writing group. Sharing my writing was hard and the weekly pace was difficult for me to keep up. The writing teacher offered weekend workshops, a format which I found worked for better me. I liked having the time to go deep and explore without distraction.
I continued to follow what interested me, trying out other forms of creativity beyond writing. I’ve explored different mediums and approaches including art journaling, painting, welding, encaustics and bookmaking.
A few years ago, I discovered that a local poet offered silent writing retreats at a monastery in Big Sur. In all honesty, I was drawn to the writing and the location. Writing in a monastery, YES!
The silent part was more of an intellectual curiosity. It was a challenging, yet powerful experience for me. I love going deep and exploring. I love the solitude. I loved being witnessed and not critiqued. I was surprised to find that I enjoyed being silent in community.
I got hooked. I now do silent retreats twice a year.
2. How did you transfer/translate the idea of going away from home to attend a retreat at an actual retreat center into something that you can do whenever you want, wherever you are?
Outside of retreat, I’m prone to anxiety and not as gentle and kind as I want to be with myself. I was talking with a friend and said, “I feel more like myself when I’m at retreat. Too bad I can’t feel like this when I’m at home.” Well, DUH!
It’s become an important part of my self-care.
Achieving an emotional state at home similar to what I feel when I’m on retreat is sort of a quest for me in the same way people want nirvana or enlightenment: exploring but haven’t found it.
Our daily lives are full, so I find it a constant dance to find flow and space in any given moment.
I still overcommit myself and get anxious. But I know silence is something I can pull out of my toolbox at any time to reconnect with what’s true for me, not anyone else or anyone else’s idea of what I need to be doing or feeling. It’s a work in progress.
3. Was it hard for you at first to be alone just you and your thoughts? Have you found things that have helped to make that a bit easier?
Yes, I found it hard at first even though I think of myself as a quiet person. My inner dialogue at first wanted to rebel against it! I do think it’s normal to struggle with silence. As a society, we think that silence is not as powerful as being loud. We’re drowning in information. We numb out when we go online, or watch TV.
You know the saying, “The end justifies the means”? We’re lauded when we sacrifice parts of ourselves, our experience, journey and the process for the sake of efficacy, productivity, or the end product. We’re not very mindful as a people. We don’t want to face ourselves.
As we excavate the layers, oftentimes we get uncomfortable. It can be part of the process of settling into the silence, but sometimes silence is welcome like a soft, warm blanket on a cool night.
When I attended my first yoga class, I found corpse pose, savasana, to be excruciating. I could not lie still. And that was only a few minutes! Call it meditation, or prayer or mindfulness, but giving yourself permission to start a practice of intentional silence like that is one way, even if you start out doing it for 30 seconds.
My tolerance for and ability to be alone with my thoughts have increased over the years. That’s not saying that it doesn’t get uncomfortable at times, but I have built enough resilience to trust the process and ride out the discomfort. It may not seem like it, but it always passes when I greet it with loving self-compassion and forgiveness instead of fighting it every step of the way.
4. Can you give us some examples of how you Silent Retreat as you go about your everyday life?
In the car, I sometimes choose not to listen to music and stay present. I notice how hard I’m gripping the steering wheel or if my shoulders are hunched. I check in with my breathing. Oh, and I imagine I’m riding in a bubble, so I don’t pick up anyone’s road rage!
When I’m at home, I’ll fold laundry or wash dishes without distraction. Something about the circular motion of my hand sweeping around the contour of the rim of a dish soothes me. I think about how the rituals of tending to the details of your home is important…dare I say, sacred. Sort of a metaphor of tending to the spirit with care and intention.
I garden, so I pay attention to the sound of hummingbirds, the crunch of a leaf under my foot or take in the smell of the soil and how it crumbles between my fingers.
If I am not at home, or running errands and feel like I’m living out of my head too much–I start tripping and bumping into things, which is a sign that I’m not paying attention–and need a change in environment, I can get close to the spirit of silent retreat with a walk on the beach, in the forest or other natural setting, a museum, nearby park, bookstore, library or my garden.
I’ve been known to visit Catholic churches, temples and shrines and other sacred places when I travel and need a break. The need for places of silence is pretty universal.
5. Can you give us some suggestions for how a “newbie” can start to make some space in their lives for Silent Retreating?
I am not someone who subscribes to the concept of silent retreat being centered on “seriousness” and even stillness. Sitting still in silent meditation is challenging!
But I do turn distractions off, such as TV, music and my computer. I would also let people in your environment know that you are entering silence.
Walking meditation is a great way to introduce yourself to silence.
If you do yoga, at the end of class you have time to integrate what your body has done, called savasana. I’ve found it’s good training to be comfortable with silence, especially in community.
Driving or commuting in silence.
Being mindful and silent when preparing a meal, or preparing tea, or eating the meal, or drinking the tea.
It’s translatable to many things we do. It’s ultimately about creating an intention and doing what you need to do to support that intention.
I don’t know if this is true for everyone, but having a “start” and “end”, a signal or ritual that you are entering and leaving silent retreat also helps frame the time as something slightly out of ordinary time. It’s a way to honor the process. Some people bookend with the lighting and snuffing out of a candle. I tend to keep it simple and declare in my mind, “I am entering silence/going into silent retreat” or “I am leaving silence/silent retreat.”
As I mentioned earlier, you can get close to the spirit of a silent retreat being in nature, a park, museum, bookstore, library or place of worship.
6. What are some of the things you’ve received from your Silent Retreating?
I’m more grounded and solid. Yes, I can be perfectionistic and a taskmaster. I get anxious and I can get really, really angry. I cry a lot. I laugh. I care deeply for animals. I eat fried food. I’m an unapologetic nerd. I must be part monk, but sort of an everyday mystic type. Silent retreating contributes to a deeper appreciation of my whole experience as a human being. It’s all OK and I accept all those experiences as part of who I am. I can certainly laugh more at myself.
I find that I more easily discern between noise and important information better because I’m just slightly more attuned to what doesn’t resonate for me. So I suppose you could say I’ve developed more self-trust and connection to my intuition.
I’ve gotten more in touch with what’s true for me without the layers of what I’ve been taught, societal expectations. When I get quiet, I’m aware of my inner dialogue, which can be so very unkind. I catch on sooner when I’m making up rules that aren’t real or if I see that I’m making things harder on myself than they need to be.
When I’m in a group in a social situation and feel safe, I’m comfortable enough to say what I think instead of keeping it inside. I may not pull out the “I’m on silent retreat” and dramatically leave the room, but I will take in a breath and say something like, “No need to worry about me. I’m just feeling quiet.” I notice that gives other people permission to relax into more calm. I think that’s been one of the more surprising things about being comfortable in silence…you give people permission to do the same.
Joy Agcongay is a gentle marketeer for overwhelmed entrepreneurs and avid creative/silent retreater. You can find her marketing website at joyagcongaymarketing.com and occasional chronicles of retreating at adventuresofjoy.com. In 2012 she’s offering a Playful Marketing Expedition for entrepreneurs who want to learn a gentle, slower-paced approach to developing a marketing practice. You can sign up for the 2012 Playful Marketing Expedition notification list here.