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Three Unexpected, Life-Changing Lessons I Learned at a Silent Retreat

“Every moment is a choice to begin again.” ~Unknown

By day three of the five-day silent retreat I found myself wondering, “Why did I do this again?”

The pain of sitting in lotus position for eight hours a day was testing my patience. I was frustrated that my mind would only be still for a few moments, before interrupting itself with commentary on the fact that my mind was still, and I wasn’t feeling any spiritual awakening—although not being a particularly “spiritual” person, this wasn’t entirely surprising

So why had I decided to go on a silent retreat in the first place? I had wanted to experience meditation without distraction and to take my practice to another level.

Going into the silent retreat, I had worries and questions circling: Will the silence be tedious? What will the other people be like? Are the teachers going to be cult-like leaders? Will I uncover some past trauma buried away deep inside?

Of course, of the things I worried about, none of them came true. Instead, what I found challenging and what I learned the most from were things that I hadn’t even considered: desire, expectations, and judgment.

Desire

If you’ve ever wondered what drives your behavior, you can thank the power of desire for that. And you certainly learn a lot about desire when you’re at a silent retreat.

Silent retreats are set up so that you never need to verbally communicate, which means that almost every minute of the day is scheduled for you, all your meals are prepared, and all external stimulation is removed. This creates a perfect storm for your desire to run wild, fantasizing about all the things you can’t have or do.

I never noticed how much I’m driven by desire until I spent a significant portion of the retreat daydreaming about different foods I wanted to eat. By day three I was writing lists of foods I was going to eat when I finally was “free” again.

I didn’t understand why I felt so compelled to do this until our evening teachings the following night, when I realized it was because I was struggling with desire.

That night we learned that what we’re often really craving is not the thing that we desire, but the reprieve we feel once we have relieved ourselves from the yearning of desire. This realization actually freed me from my wants, and allowed me to instead laugh at the simplicity of my humanness and my clear love of rice paper rolls.

It also made me realize that when we’re able to see what’s driving us, we have the space to observe our experience and choose how we respond, rather than being at the mercy of invisible desires. Instead, we’re able to consider what it is we really need, rather than simply what we want in that moment.

Since the retreat, I’ve been more mindful of when desire is driving me and it’s certainly helped my bank account, particularly when I’m having a moment where I think, “I just need these shoes” without really knowing why I “need them” so much.

Not that there’s anything wrong with buying shoes, but I’ve been able to see more clearly when my desire to buy shoes is coming from a place of wanting to feel better about myself, when I want to feel like I’m keeping up with others, or when I want other people to think I’m cool.

I’ve come to realize that while buying shoes might make me feel good in the moment, it isn’t going to build the foundations of lasting self-confidence.

Instead, I now find it much easier to pause and acknowledge, “Aha, this is just desire” and recognize that really, I have enough and I don’t need things to be enough.

Expectations

I’ve always known that having really set expectations can cause all sorts of problems, but the experience of the silent retreat cemented this for me.

My biggest problem was that I expected my mediation practice to somehow transform itself into something other than what it currently was. Of course, setting this expectation didn’t mean that my meditation practice changed at all; instead, it just left me feeling frustrated that I wasn’t experiencing something different. Ironically, meditation is all about experiencing whatever arises in that moment.

I didn’t even know what it was that I expecting to change. But I learned that when we’re searching for something, we’re blinded by the act of searching, and we miss the subtle changes that are unfolding before us. It’s often not until we let go of what we think should be changing that we can really notice and appreciate what has changed.

I also came to realize that expectations can really cause a lot of suffering. Now, looking back, I recognize that my expectations took me away from the beautiful sounds of the Balinese jungle, from the stillness that was there, and the joy of simply being.

When I let go of my expectations, not only did I start enjoying meditation more, I realized how powerful it could be to let go of expectations.

Despite having this realization, I’m still constantly surprised at how often my expectations get in the way of me being able to live peacefully. I often find myself expecting friends to behave in certain ways, and when they don’t, I feel deeply disappointed. But really, there’s no reason for me to expect them to behave differently, as they are simply engaging in the same behaviors that they have over the past fifteen years.

What I’ve taken from this is that the solution isn’t to disregard expectations, but to be mindful that your expectations aren’t too far removed from reality. I’ve found looking at the facts of a situation helpful in managing my expectations and instead, delighting in the unexpected.

Judgment

No matter how much we try not to be, we’re naturally judgmental. And I know this cannot be changed, but what I really noticed on retreat was the effect it had on my mind and my body, and how different my experience could be if I practiced letting go of judgment.

One evening I found myself really judging another girl for using social media while at the retreat. We had been asked to not make any contact with the outside world, and this of course included no use of social media.

At the time, I assumed that her use of social suggested that she wasn’t taking the retreat seriously. As these judgments raced through my mind, I noticed how much my body tensed up, how irritated I felt, and I could almost feel my mind narrowing as I focused on how their behavior was “wrong.”

Yet, when I opened myself up and tried to accept her behavior, I was freed from my own prison of judgment. When I allowed myself to be curious rather then judgmental, the experience transformed for me.

Instead of feeling irritated by her and closed off, I instead felt open and compassionate, and frankly just a lot less bothered by her. Being open and curious allowed me to move on and let go, relieving the discomfort of being judgmental.

It certainly wasn’t an easy thing to do, and I had to remind myself time and time again to keep opening, but the felt difference between the two was unbelievable. It was actually much more physically and emotionally pleasant being non-judgmental than being judgmental.

I really noticed this for myself when I was back in New York, sitting in a Broadway show. I caught myself totally distracted by the judgmental commentary happening in my head. It was the same old story, comparing my body to those of the performers, and my poor old thighs were the victims of my self-criticism yet again.

When I noticed how deeply I was caught up in worrying about the size of my thighs, I decided it was a good moment to practice what I had learned on retreat. I started saying to myself over and over, “Let go, be present.”

It was such a relief to allow myself to let go of judgment, and instead I was open to connect with feelings of joy as I started clapping along to the songs with the rest of the crowd. Not only this, letting go of the judgment allowed me to be more accepting and compassionate towards myself.

So all in all, while my meditation practice didn’t change as I expected it to, I certainly learned a lot on the silent retreat and took a lot away with me, all which was delightfully unexpected.

My three takeaways were that:

1. Desire is just a creation of our mind that we don’t need to follow. In fact, just acknowledging it can relieve us from the power of our desire.

2. Letting go of expectations allows us to be present and enjoy what is already here.

3. Being open and curious frees us from judgment, allowing us to be accepting and compassionate toward others, and ourselves.

About Kass Sarll

Dr. Kass Sarll is a clinical psychologist and co-founder of HappinessInsight. Kass believes that all people should have access to the information they need to create a life they truly love. If you would like to know more about increasing your happiness, well-being, and natural capacity for joy, you can find her at www.happinessinsight.com, or you can follow us on Instagram or Facebook.

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  • Very profound.

    “That night we learned that what we’re often really craving is not the thing that we desire, but the reprieve we feel once we have relieved ourselves from the yearning of desire. ”

    I am sure that many of us can attest to this thought as we purchase something for the sole purpose of feeling better or wanting it ever so badly.

    Ironically, objects that are bought to fill a need or a void often create a bigger void. They open up the realm of perspective and clearly illustrate that the objects we seek are not what we are actually seeking.

    Hopefully, in these cases, the objects can still be returned. 😛

    Very enjoyable read Kass.