I sat in silence for six days in the desert. It was two hours northeast of Los Angles in a unpopulated, sparse landscape surrounded by mountains, bunny rabbits, birds, and sand.
The first fews days were brutally boring and dull. We did not do anything. Reading and writing is not allowed. No swimming. No speaking. Lots of meditating. Eating. Walking. When you arrive they ask you to hand over your phone. After two days I was frustrated and numb from doing nothing. After six days I felt a sense of wonder, appreciation, gratitude and greatfulness for the experience.
I didn’t exactly rough it, at least physically. Driving there from LA Google suggested the back route. We did not even pass a Starbucks. When you drive near Joshua tree they have vegan roadsite cafes but the Lucerne Valley is different. We passed Route 66 and much deserted landscape.The retreat took place in a valley surrounded by mountains. The place itself was one of the most stunning spaces I have ever visited. The grounds fill with stunning landscaped gardens, fountains, nooks, and fine creature comforts. The rooms were unexpected luxury, the vegetarian food was delicious, and the sunsets, distant mountains, and nature all provided a very special backdrop.
Why sit in silence ? To many it sounds ridiculous. They express disbelief and disdain at the thought. If you mention you are off to climb Mount Kilmajoro they must express a shared excitement.When I told a few people I was off to sit in silence in the desert it was a conversation stopper.
I shared the ride there with Tanya and Rachel. Tanya, a late 40’s mother of teenage kids, college literature teacher and community worker, lives in a university town in Oregon. She wanted six days of silence away from the business of her everyday experiences with everyone depending on her. This was her third retreat in the past 6 years. Rachel, a 27 year old psychologicst from New York, was about to start an internship and wanted the silence to check in with herself. I was there looking for insights. I know of the feeling of gratitude and joy but many days are spend with bouts of anxiety and depression. I have always known these feelings but only labelled them in the past few years. The silence provides a space to evoke inside ourselves a feeling of wonder and joy.
James, a 40 year rabbi, father of three and recent Phd recipient from the University of Chicago, led the retreat. He lives with his his family in a one bedroom house on a kibbutz in the Negev, Southern Israel. He began meditating twenty years ago listening to tapes of Jon Kabbat-Zin. It was during a time when he lost movement in his lower body. His body fully recovered.
He explained during the retreat we are not looking for a single truth or idea to believe in. The aim is to find comfort with the dynamic groundlessnes or impermanence surrounding life itself. From that place we can live the fullest.
In private and group meetings during the retreat he provided unabashed guidance and wise techniques to overcome the individuals issues each person experiences while sitting with themselves. Many things can come up. Emotionally charged memories, experiences, histories, and feelings all arise from the mind. In his opening statement he stated that everyone had come for something they wanted to resolve.
I meditated a few times at age nineteen. Nothing happened. I did not get it. It was boring. I was a spiritual seeker looking for ways to connect but meditation never worked for me. In Toronto I attended a two day seminar on the Kabbalah by Rabbi Phillip Berg. He provided a spiritual language I did not have.Years later Madonna and other celebrities would flock to Rabbi Berg so I may have missed something. It left me intellectually curious but did not provide any practices.In Jerusalem I sought out mystical masters to give answers. I met some people who had amazing glows around them and whose eyes shined of a great light. I never experienced ways to reach the source of their light.
I first experienced a silent retreat in my early twenties. I was doing a film about my spiritual journey. Rabbi Arthur Green suggested I attend a conference at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. The small gathering had people such as Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg speaking about what brought them to meditation and Buddhism, and why they didn’t find relevance in Jewish practices. Goldstein and Salzberg are pioneers of bringing silent retreats and meditation practices to Westerners. Back then I had never tried meditation and did not think of it as a spiritual path. I was still looking for Jewish practices – the “true” way.
The Insight meditation society has a retreat center and a conference center. I arrived at the retreat center. I walked inside. It seemed weird. It was lunchtime. The tables were full but there was a strange silence. I asked a few people where I could check in. The first two did not reply. The third person pointed to the sign on the wall saying that they were in silence. The people looked crazy. Twenty years later I attended my first silent retreat.
I imagine how my life might have changed had I done a silent retreat back then.
The mind is a complicated thing. The silent retreat is one way to focus the mind and reboot it, like rebooting a stuck computer. It’s an unclogging of the brain towards our natural inclination to appreciate the wonders of life, the world, and experience gratitude.
With meditation we learn to watch our thoughts and not be reactive to them. The benefits of being able to do this are quite huge.
I teach meditatoin to new students. After sitting in silence for fifteen minutes we discuss the experience. Many remark that they never noticed how many thoughts randomly enter their minds. They are quite stunned by this observation.
Keeping track of the thoughts and focusing the mind becomes a muscle one learns to use. The results of this use promotes overall well being, reduce anxiety, depression, and make us happier, healthier, and maybe even kinder. A study showed that after an 8 week meditation course people acted more generously towards others.
The first two days of the retreat were the hardest for me. It was boring, very boring. You just sit on your cushion all day and focus on your breathe, or some other meditative technique. In between you also do walking meditation walking very slowly for thirty minutes. Like sitting around waiting for two days at a bus stop with no sign the bus will ever come. Each minute seems like ten, and the mind become restless. What is that sensation that happens when you become restless ?
At a retreat you have both personal and group meetings where you speak with the teacher and discuss issues which arise. In my first group Cheryl, a 29 year old woman from Oregon explained she was bored. She did a retreat the previous year with her father and brother. She was missing them not being there and was tired from a long plane ride and drive to get there. She was sleeping through the first two days both to battle the boredom and her already tired state. She came looking for some kind of epiphany but could not get past the tedious sitting and silence. I checked in with her at the end of the retreat and indeed after a few days her boredom lifted and she had her insights.
At another meeting a few days later one woman mentioned she felt guilty skipping some of the meditation sessions. She has been told it was alright to miss some sessions but she felt guilty breaking rules. James recommended that after the retreat she should try and break as many rules as possible to get over her fears. He mentioned she must take into account still being moral and not getting jailed – but it was a pretty wide open suggestion. He mentioned someone he knew who broke into cars just to break his fears – with no intention of causing damage or stealing anything. Another woman spoke about great unease she felt about religious rules and not obeying some of them. Her body gets nervious and she feels tense and uneasy. He worked with her through a short body scan to locate the place in the body where she felt the most tension. In a few minutes he helped relieve her discomfort and guided her to continue the same practice by herself whenever such unease begins to arise.
By the third day you pick up momentum. Like a burst of energy after the first ten minutes of a run you build the equivalent of an adrenalin rush. The boredom recedes. The brain switches gears. Perceptions shift slightly. For me the meditation sits never get easy but the overall effect starts to take hold.
It’s not like a magic pill. You must be open to it. At the desert retreat there was a 33 year old man from Los Angeles who achieved great success with a social media tool he helped create.This was his fourth retreat in the past year. He brought his father, uncle, and some friends with him. Joe’s father, a mathematician at UCLA, left unconvinced. He told one of Joes’s friends this was something for nineteen year olds searching for meaning and not for sophisticated, mature adults. He came in a skeptic and left a skeptic.
What happened for me after my time on retreat ?
I didn’t have any epiphanies. The days following the retreat felt rich and full of great life. I felt more generous.
Four days later I was back in Toronto at a baseball game between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Clevand Indians. The game lasted over three hours. They Jays finally took the lead in the bottom of the eighth. I do not remember ever feeling so connected and enthralled at a July baseball game in a long while, if ever. I did not want it to end. Often after ninety minutes I go for peanuts and anxiously wait for when we can leave. Every pitch, hit, and catch had great drama and life to it. They told us the immediate effects of the retreat last the same amount of time as you are on retreat. I think I was able to enjoy the ball game as much as I did because of my recent days of silence in the desert. Whether that is the case or not I was very grateful to be at the game and for the Blue Jays to win in such an exciting way.
James mentioned he was not concerned so much about how much people enjoy the retreat as much as how they can use the skills and tools to evoke gratitude, wonder, and be more caring in our day to day lives. When people asked what they might do to tell their family and friends about their experience. He suggested only telling those who showed any interest and really showing them the effects of the retreat by being more attentive, caring, and present.
“Where focus goes, energy flows.” Tony Robbins
Each afternoon of the retreat we did a lovingkindness meditation.
May I be happy and free from suffering
May I be healthy and free from harm
May I be peaceful and full of ease
May I be free
The words seems simple like meditation itself. I do believe if I fill my head with such thoughts of lovingkindness i will be closer to manifesting this from day to day.
I spend six days in the desert in silence. I survived. I left more alive, alert, and awake.