a week of zen & holy silence
Updated: Jul 1, 2022
This article was written by Linda & David, who joined our retreat in October 2021. It was originally published on their website, Art of Euphoria.
Rarely in this busy life do we ever get the chance to be in complete stillness and silence. As simple as it is - it seems odd, mysterious, and almost completely out of reach. What does silence convey? What does it hide and what does it reveal? Can it possibly change or affect our consciousness and the way we experience things - in contrast to a life full of noise? Recently we decided to give it a taste. To see what silence feels like and what it has in store for us. So we joined our first ever silent retreat, in the hills of southern Portugal.
A silent retreat?
The retreat was organized by Hamid Ebadi, an amazing human being whose journey has taken him to study philosophy and psychotherapy, explore Eastern & Western meditative practices, encounter a Zen master, and become a Zen monk himself, for over a decade. He now shares his knowledge through meditation retreats, lectures, and therapy sessions. We spent seven full days in complete silence as a group. Although the retreat was more relaxed than a Vipassana-style retreat (a more traditional frame where people are not just expected to keep silent but also follow other strict rules such as avoiding looking at each other), the aim was to respect and maintain noble silence throughout the whole week. For this reason, it was also recommended not to listen to music and to turn off all communication devices, making space for stillness with minimal stimulation. Aside from silence, the main focus of the week was the practice of Zazen meditation. Contrary to most known meditative practices, which can be guided or lead the practitioner to focus their attention somewhere specific (like the breath) - Zazen translates to “just sitting” and is really about doing nothing else but just sitting and contemplating the Self as it is in the moment. Our schedule included four Zazen meditation sessions a day - of which two were in the morning and two through the afternoon and evening. They each lasted about 1h40 and were divided into 3 sets of 25 minutes of seated meditation and 10 minutes of meditative walking breaks in between. We also had a daily yin yoga class every morning, a meditative walk every afternoon, and a talk delivered by Hamid every evening. The space where this whole experience took place was really special: a retreat center called Karuna, nestled in the mountains - with a spectacular view stretching all the way towards the sea. A very silent place where we could hear nothing but the whispers of Nature herself, watch the stars at night, have access to a beautiful temple and sacred space, and enjoy some nourishing food cooked with love by the people there.
We knew that this experience was going to be something special, something worth documenting.
That is what intuitively led us to write about it. Many, many things came up for us during this time of introspection - and we had lots of things to journal about during the whole length of our retreat. We decided to structure this article in a way that captures our experience like a diary. Capturing the essence of what we felt before, during, and after the retreat, from a very personal point of view (and how we each experienced it on an individual level). It was tough to sort through all of our input and make sense of it all. It took a whole lot of time and a whole lot of reflecting, but it all really helped us to integrate our experience. We’re really grateful to have lived it and to now be able to share it with you. We hope that it will inspire you and give you a very intimate glimpse of what retreating in silence can actually do.
“SILENCE ISN’T EMPTY. IT’S FULL OF ANSWERS” LAO TZU
Part 01 | The Anticipation
My curiosity was growing very fast.
I told myself not to research anything about ‘silent retreats’. I wanted to ‘dive into the unknown’ and experience something real and deep. Something unforgettable. The anticipation was creating a lot of discussions around the subject. At some point, we had to set boundaries, not drift on assumptions, and things that could create too many expectations. I remember us sitting at the airport just before boarding the plane, writing a quick list of things that we were looking forward to and the things we had resistance to. I had wished to feel something happening in my mind. I wanted to be present enough to be able to realize that a shift was happening. I wanted to observe my thoughts. See how they come and go. Analyze ‘where’ they go after so many meditations throughout the day. I had barely tried a few little sessions of maybe half an hour, at home, with music, on my bed. Nothing that could compare to what we were about to experience. Analysing ‘Sound in Silence’ was also on the list of things I wanted to experience. I always have music in my head and sometimes you wish you could turn it off.
I was looking forward to observing how was I going to deal with no music at all.
No listening, no playing, no singing, no humming. Just the music in my head. The ‘human interactions with no words’ were something I wanted to explore. The aspect of my relationship with Linda as well. Knowing that we spend 24 hours together and that we can talk a lot. Finally, I also wanted to see how I was going to feel with no connection to social media, and news about the world in general. No family news, no nothing. It wasn’t mandatory by the retreat or anything, but I was very happy to turn off my phone. On the other hand, I was mostly afraid of group talks. The whole sharing part freaks me out. Somehow with the year, I see a rise of anxiety and mild paranoia in social encounters and situations when meeting with strangers or groups of people. The ’sitting down’ for such an extended period of time was also of some concern. I had pain in my lower back for the past two weeks. The anticipation was creating a lot of tension in that area for some reason.
LINDA I am about to go on the first retreat of my life… and it’s going to be a silent one. Ironically, I am writing these thoughts in the busiest of places: a crowded airport terminal. It is so noisy here, stimulating and I’m finding it hard to focus. The timing to experience stillness feels as right as ever. An invitation to release and surrender, after weeks of being busy, birthing new creations, bringing new visions and projects to life, being in a trance of “doing”. As much as we live a slow-paced life in our sweet mountain home - we easily get caught up in being hyperactive and not really knowing what to do with stillness other than, well, creating. Being in nature inspires me endlessly. I hear ideas in those moments in between and often find myself filling the gaps with new daydreams and projects to explore in and out of the studio. Things to paint, to write about, to create. It never stops. As much as I love that active fire of creativity, it is sometimes too much. Sometimes it takes me down a rabbit hole of anxiety and fear of never having enough time to bring all these wonderful visions to life. I have found it hard to quiet my mind recently - so much that it has started affecting my sleep. The anticipation of this retreat is bringing a lot of excitement, questions, and of course, some resistance. I am looking forward to switching off all my devices and being completely offline for a whole week (I honestly do not remember the last time I turned off my phone). I am curious to experience relating to others in non-verbal ways, especially as a couple - and witness how we can feel intimacy without speaking. How will it be, be around each other, without words? I am interested in quieting my mind. Curious to engage in a new state of being and see what the silence will highlight.
What could it possibly bring up? Could this transform the way I engage with the world and impact my creative processes?
On the other hand, I am feeling resistant to simple things like waking up before dawn. Fear of not being able to make it. Fear of feeling discomfort and pain in the process. I am a relatively calm person, but to be honest, I am not really used to silence. I do not know what it’s like to go without music, conversation, creativity, or something to engage with. I do not know what it’s like to be mute, to be bored, to just be without attachment. Total stillness scares me.
Part 02 | Arriving
DAVID On the first day when we arrived in the evening, the silence did not start right away. We all had a quick diner together and there was a lot of ‘small-talk’. I’m far from being good at this so I tried to minimize the talking. I could not wait to actually start the silence. Waking up at 5:30 am was not so hard the first day. It had been a long day already and everybody went early to bed. I remember waking up with very vivid dreams on the first morning. We had bought a small alarm clock the day before to not be using our smartphones. Waking up to this new sound, in this new place, with this new strict routine, really marked the beginning of something new in our lives. As soon as we went into silence, I felt a sense of liberation. I was free of not having to go into small talks. I was free of any verbal situation. I was in a bubble. Everything felt extraordinary.
LINDA We just met the group at it warmed my heart. I got to connect with a few people, exchanging stories and thoughts. I am feeling supported in this container and so relieved to know that I am not the only one who has never experienced a deep encounter with silence. We arrived at the retreat location. A magical place, nestled in the wilderness, deep in the Portuguese hinterland. The mountains and hills around us are covered in Eucalyptus - one of my favorite trees and plant allies. There is freshwater coming from the mountain. The land that we’re on and the buildings on it, feel inviting and brought to life with so much care. It is an off-grid haven. My inner child gets lost in the stone pathways, discovering the presence of Myrtle, Pepper, Aloe, Roses… I notice a painted labyrinth - the same one from the ancient myths of Crete. I look up at the night sky, in awe. It is so clear out here. We settle in our simple and cozy bedroom, arranging our things with care. We head down to the kitchen to gather for dinner. It is warm, the food smells delicious and so many conversations are happening simultaneously. I notice cats and dogs are also living on the property and it brings a smile to my face.
“Well, this is really nice”…
We then head to the temple. A gorgeous space that feels sacred, featuring a massive stone wall, a wooden floor that makes a delightful sound, and large windows facing the hills. I am curious what this place will feel like tomorrow morning. We gather here to be given further instructions about the retreat and the last chance to ask questions before entering in silence. Then, that moment finally comes: we enter into the silence. Instantly the energy changes: it feels eerie, strange, and compelling. We head up to our rooms to rest and sleep. We’ll be back here in silence, tomorrow morning - to practice our first Zazen meditation with the sunrise.
“REST IN NATURAL GREAT PEACE THIS EXHAUSTED MIND BEATEN HELPLESSLY BY KARMA AND NEUROTIC THOUGHTS LIKE THE RESTLESS FURY OF THE POUNDING WAVES IN THE INFINITE OCEAN OF SAMSARA REST IN NATURAL GREAT PEACE REST” NYOSHUL KHENPO RINPOCHE
Making our way down to the Temple
Part 03 | The Start of Silence
DAVID During the first couple of meditations, the sitting down part was hard. As much as I tried to be comfortable, my body did not adapt so easily. The meditations in themselves were extremely simple. Sitting down and just be. But when we first do, there is a lot of noise in our heads. At first, the music or ‘songs’ in my head were very loud and it was extremely hard to stop them. I was trying different basic techniques to abstract this active energy in my mind, like focusing on my breath or repeating a mantra. I remember having vivid visions with patterns and textures on the first days, which reminded me of visions I had when I first started to smoke cannabis. On the second day, I had realized how much ‘white noise’ is constantly present. I’ve started to use these very high frequencies as a focus point to hook up my attention. The first day felt very long. I was constantly thinking about time. And for some reason, about food. I went to bed exhausted with the thought of ‘tomorrow’ being exactly like ‘today’ - and the six following days. Everything felt long, but in a good way. I liked the afternoon walk and the yoga sessions a lot since the beginning.
LINDA Zazen meditation is hard. A lot of it feels like waiting. Waiting for the next moment, the next activity, the next block of meditation to come. I am exhausted. My mind is bombarding me with visions and ideas. Things like artworks and creations, projects of living on the land, random and endless creativity going like a fast-speed train. I am having so much trouble facing that restless mind. It makes me angry. I feel stuck, like a monkey in a cage during these long meditation sits. Lost between the mind chatter and the body aches, the inner clock that tries to anticipate what’s next. I try to forgive myself. To allow it, to have compassion.
But it is incredibly uncomfortable. I find a little joy between meditation sits, in those random moments in the day. The silence is creating so much space. It invites me to be intentional. Intentional about the way I eat, the way I walk, the way I engage with others. It also invites me to be creative about how I relate with David: to make more eye contact, to support one another energetically. Still, I wonder how he’s doing. Sometimes we leave each other a little written note, which feels like a surprise. Our daily yoga sessions and walks quickly become favorites. They bring such a soothing opportunity to connect within and without, in between the discomfort of facing my mind during Zazen. Hamid’s evening talks blow my mind. I don’t know how he does it, but every one of the words of wisdom he is sharing is perfectly appropriate to what I am experiencing, echoing a truth that hits me to the core. I feel a little targeted, in fact, so much this truth hurts. Between the paranoia and the hurt, it brings up, slowly I surrender into trust, in awe of this perfect synchronicity. I notice more things in this silence. The way the light shifts through the day. The dancing steam of my morning coffee. The varying energy of the people around me. The berries on the Myrtle bushes. It stimulates my creativity: my inner child is dying to go outside, explore, and collect treasures from nature. To use this silence as another opportunity to play, to dance. I use the time available after lunch to allow myself some short experiments. I started making a little altar by my meditation spot. And began to make a mala by stringing Myrtle berries together. It soothes my restless hands and brings me into another, more focused state of meditation. My first days fluctuate between frustration and joy, anger and release, a little delusion, and a lot of bliss.
I feel guilty. Guilty of overworking, overthinking, over-processing. On the third day, I feel a lot lighter. Forgiving myself for not being able to practice Zazen perfectly. Letting go of expectations. I notice how this practice simply allows me to observe myself - as I am. Observing all those aspects of being “me” and sometimes letting them intertwine with what feels like a grander whole. I know I am on the right path, here, where there’s actually no aim or achievement to attain. I feel a lot of gratitude for having a resilient body that supports me.
Linda’s ephemeral altar and myrtle mala