“You must experiment. You do things in which you eliminate something that is perhaps essential, but to learn how essential it is you leave it out. The space then becomes very significant.” — Henry Moore
A few weeks ago I was afforded a rare opportunity to step away from everything that I deem essential in my life. Work, phone, social media, my friends, my family (by far the most essential one… basically my life as I have come to know it. I wasn’t on a vacation per se, rather an intentional break from the normal routines of my life in order to connect with myself on a far deeper level.
This pause came in the form of a seven-day silent meditation retreat, held at the IMS Retreat Center located just north of Boston in Barre, MA. Now you probably read the "seven day" and "silent" part with curiosity and skepticism. Did I actually not talk for seven days? Yes, I did. Besides a daily group meeting for five minutes, I actually did not speak for seven days. There were 100 other retreatants there with me and we all managed to coexist for seven days without uttering a word to each other.
To say it was a powerful exercise would not do it justice. To list my entire personal takeaways would require two to three blog posts, so instead I’ve decided to share my top five. Here are a few of the themes I brought back home to Prince Edward Island following my silent retreat:
1. The Power of the Pause
For me the simple nature of completely pausing and disconnecting from the world was immense. Around Day 3 I realized how desperately I needed the break from the demands of my busy life, (my wife had been cautioning me on that for months, if not years) and also how difficult I find it to take real vacations: the ones where you leave work behind, disconnect yourself from your phone and which leave you feeling like a new person. I’ve always been the type who takes an infrequent ¾ break, never sufficiently removed from my work to be a full recharge. That changed on this retreat. Work was no longer the single most important parameter by which I defined myself. In fact, one of the talks was on Self-No-Self and this was essential to helping me release the grip that “work” had on my notions of Self.
I’ve always been the type who takes an infrequent ¾ break, never sufficiently removed from my work to be a full recharge.
2. The Container
The job that the staff and teachers at IMS did to create a safe container from which to practice meditation was astonishing. They almost seamlessly created both a safe emotional as well as physical space in which I felt completely held in compassion. In doing so they created the necessary container from which I could do some deep diving into my own psyche. Creating a safe container for a diverse community of retreatants is no easy task and they made it look effortless. You knew instinctively that there was a group of folks behind the scenes taking care of all the minor emergencies and details, but they were invisible. More than once I reflected on the importance and nature of creating a similar feeling with regard to the people we lead. Creating a workplace in which our employees feel safe and respected invariably changes things for the better.
3. The Value of Silence
Upon landing at the center, my first thoughts were “what have I gotten myself into?” and “how on earth are all these people going to keep quiet?” After a day the first question evaporated and by Day 2 I began to understand the immense power of a large group of people moving together in complete silence. There was no need for small talk, no need to fumble awkwardly for the right thing to say, and most importantly we were left to our own devices. Being alone for that long in silence opens you up and allows you to begin peeling back the layers of psyche build-up. A powerful lesson in psychic de-thatching: once the layers of build-up are removed the possibility for light to penetrate and new growth to occur is staggering. In becoming comfortable with the stillness, the wonders and difficulties of life come into sharper focus.
A powerful lesson in psychic de-thatching: once the layers of build-up are removed the possibility for light to penetrate and new growth to occur is staggering.
4. Nervous System Reset
One of the unanticipated effects of the retreat was the profound effect it had on my nervous system. By weeks end my volume dial had gone from a steady 8-9 down to a comfortable 3. The feeling within my body was palpable. The sense of calm was one I don’t think I’ve ever experienced. Now upon returning to the “real world”, the volume has gone up a notch or two, but the positive effects still remain.
Our nervous systems can ratchet up constantly throughout the season for any number of reasons. Becoming aware of how that feels in your body and developing strategies that help turn down the dial can be extremely valuable.
5. We Are All in This Together
As I sat and lived with 100 strangers for a week, I came to realize on a deeper level that we all struggle, we all suffer, and we are all on this journey together. There isn’t anyone you know who doesn't have a tough time occasionally, so tread lightly when it comes to opinions and judgments. It was funny how when you can’t speak to people how reflexive it is to make up stories about them, only to have them melt away once you have the chance to connect with them on a personal level. One of the lines that stayed with me was, “you never meet the same person twice.”
I arrived back home with an immense sense of peace and gratitude. The sacrifice that my family made to allow me the time and space to take on this journey was huge. I am forever indebted to them and cherish them even more. The staff and teachers at the center were simply wonderful and so professional. All of us superintendents would be impressed as well with the state of the grounds and facilities, as they were impeccable.
If you ever get a chance to take on a similar experience I wholeheartedly endorse it. It’s one of exploration, honesty, and heaping doses of compassion. In the end we are all worth that kind of attention and care, and sometimes you need to strip away everything you deem essential to find out what is really vital.
Thanks so much for reading.