*This week I’m re-running one of our first guest posts by Paul Underhill. It’s a terrific piece, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I do. David
Why are you so afraid of silence, Silence is the root of everything.
If you spiral into its void, a hundred voices will thunder messages you long to hear. ~Rumi
“What the hell am I doing here?” I asked myself. The Radiohead song Creep leapt to mind as I looked around at the white-haired, seemingly morose people lined up for dinner. I sang to myself, “ I don’t belong here…”
Belong or not, there I was: On day one of a ten day silent meditation retreat.
I’m naturally drawn to movement and adventure – definitely not the silent meditator type. If you suggest to my wife that I might be capable of being quiet for 10 minutes, let alone 10 days, you’ll get that, “sure he could” look, the one that oozes scepticism.
When I first heard of meditation retreats, I just didn’t get it. Life is precious and short; and with the exception of desperately overworked parents, I couldn’t fathom why anyone would willingly submit to such a thing.
That changed when my wife accompanied a friend to her first retreat, and I saw the transformation – she came home positively glowing! (I did wonder if it was just the time away from me?). She had insisted it was the silence that deserved the credit, and I was genuinely curious. When I told her so, she laughed – and I felt officially challenged.
I signed up for my first retreat and readied myself. I couldn’t have imagined what awaited.
The first night began with dinner. I dutifully joined the line of cattle retreatants, feeling very awkward not being able to speak. The intensity increased as I started sharing a meal with a table of 8 strangers, all chewing silently, mostly staring down at their plates. The urge to introduce myself was strong, but as it faded a newfound freedom emerged. I realized unlike every other meal I had shared in a group, there was no pressure to speak. I didn’t have to concern myself with what to say, and I was reminded of that quote by Mark Twain, “Better to be quiet and thought an idiot than to open your mouth and remove all doubt”!
After dinner, we were given the schedule and rules. Each morning, we would have a morning talk from the retreat leader, and sit 5 times a day for 40-minute meditations. No electronic devices of any kind, and to my surprise, no journals or writing either. Just silence, meditation, and meals – nothing more.
Meditation was new to me. I learned that contrary to my assumptions, thoughts were not supposed to, nor could they, disappear. A quiet mind was not the goal. Instead, the idea was to gain distance from the mind. Our instruction was to start with noticing our breath for the first few moments, then let go of our breath and simply observe whatever was arising. Thoughts would inevitably come and go, my only task was to come back again and again to the noticing until the bell rang to end the session.
It wasn’t easy.
At first my mind raced, seemingly more than normal. And the more I noticed it, the more frustrated I became. I would beg in my mind for the bell to go, and it seemed at times to take an eternity. As the days passed though, I would sometimes feel expansive and peaceful. That was unfamiliar to me, and I wanted more! But as soon as I thought I was ‘getting’ it, I would grasp at the feeling and like sand in a fist, I would lose the peace, and frustration would arise.
From one 40-minute meditation to another, and even within each session, so much would change. I could go from a peaceful easy feeling to agony and back again.
There was one session I will never forget. I had drifted into an incredibly calm contentment, when suddenly thoughts started increasing in frequency and intensity. A thought storm was brewing, but I felt strangely at ease. As if offended by the lack of response, the storm intensified and there was a flurry of sexual imagery, violent scenes and deep fears coming at me. Despite this, I felt like I was a granite mountain and these thoughts were merely gusts of wind. It didn’t matter how strong the wind came at me, nothing was going to affect my mountain essence.
The corners of my mouth slowly formed a subtle smile, and I dropped into the deepest peace I had ever known as the thoughts increased to peak intensity.
I fully realized at this moment that we are not our thoughts, or minds, and that was the beginning of a life-long exploration of my true nature. It also opened me up to the occasional insight that would arise, and these insights seemed to have deeper wisdom for me, and were qualitatively different from the surface level inane thoughts that still plagued me, if less frequently than in the beginning.
For the last 3 days of the retreat, I spent most of the time in a state of low level bliss, and my heart seemed to expand in my chest at the simplest of things: a hummingbird at the window, the sound of an airplane passing overhead, the feeling of a breeze on the back of my neck, all of these moments gave rise to joy.
On the last day, we were told we could speak at our final lunch. It hit me – I would no longer be in this beautiful container of silence. With this thought, to my own disbelief, tears welled up in my eyes and my heart ached.
I knew I would have to do this again, and more importantly, incorporate meditation into my daily life.
I now meditate 20 minutes minimum every morning, and maybe you do too. If not, I encourage you to give it a try…
If you’re anything like me, you might find it inherently rewarding.
Author Bio: Paul Underhill
Paul is a double-lung transplant recipient and the founder of Rumble Supershake, an energy drink he created to help aid in his quest for optimum health. Born with Cystic Fibrosis (CF) Paul is drawn to overcoming challenges with passionate spirit. Paul lives with his wife Sandi on Vancouver Island, and is an active runner, cyclist and kiteboarder and delights in outdoor adventures.
Rumble’s Website: www.drinkrumble.com