Hello dear reader! Please allow me to pass along some thoughts based on my attendance at the 8 day silent retreat in Monchique. As a 37 year old American that followed the traditional American life path to focus on building a successful career, it was a week of many “firsts” for me: first serious meditation, first yoga class, first silent retreat.
Please allow me to segment this post into two broad sections:
1. (Hopefully) helpful hints on your pending decision to join a retreat, and
2. Post-retreat thoughts and feedback
There is a lot of good information in other posts on this site, but if you have any questions about my comments below, please feel free to e-mail me directly at email@example.com.
Part 1 - Helpful Hints
Personally, I struggled with the decision whether to join this particular retreat or not. I was new to meditation and yoga, and it was difficult to understand what criteria I should use when selecting a retreat. Was it better to pick one that offered surfing and hiking in addition to yoga and meditation? What type of yoga did I want to practice? Were the teachers — and attendees — going to be experienced enough? Could I eat vegan food for 8 days straight? Did I need 14 days, or 3 days, or 8 days, to achieve my goals? What were my goals in the first place? It felt like I had analysis paralysis, just like when you are endlessly scrolling through restaurants on Uber Eats. You’re really hungry, you just can’t choose.
There’s really no wrong answer: I am sure all of these experiences give attendees a safe place and time to explore different aspects of themselves. But for such a big time commitment, I wanted to make sure that I had chosen the best that I could given my limited information.
For me, at least, that meant trying to find a retreat that wasn’t too short (3 days — just long enough to get settled in), and wasn’t too long (14+ days — if I hated it, I didn’t want to be stuck). Eight days seemed the right amount. I had already been on vacation prior to the retreat, so I wanted to focus on putting in real work via meditation and yoga rather than trying to balance recovery time with self-reflection time. And although I was open to spiritual or mystical experiences, I felt that I needed a grounding in basic methodologies — learning more about the inner workings of my mind.
Thankfully, this retreat checked all of those boxes and more. Hamid, the leader of the retreat, was kind enough to schedule a call via Whatsapp to discuss my goals beforehand, what I was hoping to get out of it, and any pre-read materials that might be helpful in getting up to speed. As a self-professed newbie, I was incredibly grateful that he took time out of his busy schedule to give this hands-on, personal treatment.
From talking with Hamid during the retreat, and several times after the retreat, this personal treatment is a hallmark of his incredibly kind nature. He is genuinely interested in creating a community of people that care for each other, regardless of sex, age, ethnicity, or religious background. In a world that is unfortunately filled with grifters that are hoping to push their own brand, disguising their pursuit for power in a veneer of spirituality, Hamid’s humble and conscientious approach just made me wish that we had clones of him in every major city. (And no, he’s not paying me to write this post. :-))
Let me summarize some additional thoughts before moving on to part 2 regarding my post-retreat thoughts:
- The vast majority of people will benefit from the silent retreat and should absolutely sign up for it. It is an incredible opportunity to learn about yourself, learn about your relationship with others around you, understand the power of verbal and non-verbal communication, and learn about meditation.
- If you are looking for the “fast lane” to a spiritual experience, connecting with a divine spirit through a guided meditation experience, then discuss that goal with Hamid. Zen does offer that type of experience, but based on what I have learned, it’s unlikely to happen in your first eight days of practice.
- If you are stressed out, overworked, overloaded with responsibilities, and have not had a chance to relax in a while, think about whether you will be in the right mental and physical state to approach zazen. Zazen, even with the guidance of an experienced master, is a difficult undertaking both mentally and physically. If you will be thinking “why did I decide to spend eight days sitting in a room instead of relaxing on a beach?” Or “why did I decide to spend eight days sitting in a room when I could be tackling my personal to-do list back home?” Then the retreat will still be helpful, but may be frustrating at some points.
- Be prepared to feel like you don’t have enough guidance. In our daily lives, we are constantly bombarded with information on the right way to do something, or how not to do something. We expect that someone will distill the most complicated aspects into easily digestible content for us. The approach to zazen, however, requires a lot of self-reflection and finding our own path. There is no “right way,” necessarily, and there is no way for a teacher to tell us exactly what to do to progress down that path.
Part 2 - Post-retreat Debrief
Instead, I want to tell you what it was like for me to be — just be — for a week.
I, like many of the participants, and perhaps also like you, my dear reader, had many things to think about during the retreat. My life had changed dramatically in the past few years — job, divorce, death of loved ones, the shockwaves of the pandemic, and so much more. The future was also uncertain, with pending decisions weighing heavily on my shoulders. I won’t bore you with the details, but I fantasized that giving myself an enforced adult “time out” would be the answer to these issues, past, present and future.
In a way, it was just such an answer, but from a completely unexpected angle.
Under zazen, you are not actually supposed to think. The intent of practicing zazen is to realize that you, my dear reader, are not actually comprised of only your thoughts. The physical brain, and our concept of the mind that is “us” actually is not the whole of our selves. It is a figment of our imagination, a sometimes helpful, but often limiting, construction that we use to frame our perspectives.
If we can find a way to distance ourselves from those thoughts, just enough that we can observe them as an interested bystander instead of being controlled by them, then we can start to truly embrace our whole selves. A word of caution, though: the mind is a greedy, controlling thing, and it is very used to being in complete control. It does not give it up easily.
In my case, it took three days to work through the backlog of thoughts running circles in my mind. After three days -- meditating a total of six hours each day -- I could start to see the patterns in these recurring thoughts, allowing me to grasp and, ultimately, try to release them. Eventually, I ran out of things to think about, which greatly enabled the practice of emptying my mind.
There were other enablers provided throughout the retreat. Hamid's talks at night, and sometimes in the middle of meditation, were timely and insightful. The daily routine and time schedule allowed focus on meditation instead of distractions. Petting the resident dogs was also extremely therapeutic.
I found the last several days of the retreat to be the most efficient in grounding myself. As I continued to focus on keeping my mind clear, I found that flashes of insights would strike me at seemingly random times. Usually, in my fully-mind-engaged method of thinking things through, I can logically trace trails of thoughts from inception to conclusion. However, I found that, increasingly, the most profound insights -- those that resonated so deeply and clearly that it brought a sense of amazement that you hadn't thought of it before -- came out of nowhere during this meditative state.
They came when I was just being.
During the last days of the retreat, you have an opportunity break silence and hear from others regarding their journey. Hearing the stories from other participants was incredibly powerful and motivating. There were many similarities, but also many differences -- in approach, in impact, in outcome. This is further reinforcement, in my mind, that the path that we walk is a very personal one, with many different roads leading to a similar finish line.
To wrap up this overly long missive, please let me share a short poem scribbled in the margins of my journal:
"Let Me Be"
When the world comes calling
Saying “you must buy this!”
Give me the discipline to say
Just let me be.
When the world comes calling
Saying “you must do this!”
Give me the strength to say
Just let me be.
When the world comes calling
Saying “you must achieve this!”
Give me the courage to say
Just let me be.
And when the world comes calling
Asking finally “please, tell me, why am I not happy?”
Give me the compassion to stretch out my arms and say
Come, just let us be.
With all my love,