In today’s fast-paced world driven by social media and our desire for entertainment, the idea of simply sitting in stillness seems almost unbearable. When I tell people that I love being on a multiple-day silent retreat, or that I offer a silent weekend retreat, the inevitable reaction is:
I can’t even be silent for an hour, and I certainly don’t want to be silent for a day!
I don’t have time for a day of silence!
I don’t mind not talking…but I cannot do nothing all day.
These are all understandable objections. However, being silent for more than 30 minutes once in a while is vital for our well-being.
I would even argue that it might be the solution to world peace.
I vividly remember my first day of silence during a yoga retreat I attended on Bali. We were instructed not to speak, to refrain from reading and using our phone, and to “simply be”. I was nervous and looking forward to it at the same time. “What if my mind goes nuts?” “What if I cannot stand all the thoughts that present themselves while I cannot do anything to distract myself?”
Besides two yoga practices with some meditation, there was no traditional schedule of alternating seated and walking meditation that day. I enjoyed a spa treatment (during which I was silent anyways, so that was easy), took a nap, sat at my porch to watch the greenery around me, and wrote in my journal. Looking back, this was a rather ‘easy’ day of silence in comparison to the more rigorous silent retreats I attended in later years. Nonetheless, the result was profound. In my diary I wrote:
Suddenly it is very apparent to me how my thoughts are separate from who I am. My thoughts keep going because they like to be occupied, while my whole being wants to be quiet and contemplative. (…) And when I am trying to write down my thoughts they are gone abruptly.
The intention of being silent is to withdraw your senses from the outer world in order to observe what is present within. More than simply not speaking, the practice of mouna (Sanskrit for “silence”) is an effort to not engage with anything that is going on outside of yourself. During a traditional day of silence, you refrain from any activity that takes your mind out of the present moment. Obviously, this means no cell phone or computer use, but it also includes no reading, listening to music, writing, or non-verbal communication with others. The last one is something that many people find difficult, as is my experience from leading a multitude of silent days.
The comment I have heard the most is, that it was the non-communication with fellow practitioners that was difficult, not the being silent in itself. “I felt rude not smiling” and “I felt awkward avoiding their gaze”. Human beings are highly communicative, and one could even argue that our survival depends on it, as studies have shown that people live longer when they are not in solitude. More often than not, what we really want from other people, however, is that they meet our needs. When you smile at someone you want them to smile back so you feel appreciated. When you look at someone, you want them to see you and acknowledge your presence.
Yet the point of a silent day is to become self-fulfilling, to really get to know your self, to fully acknowledge your own presence, and to see yourself as you really are. You do not need anyone else for that. All you have to do is become still.
Sitting and walking mindfulness meditation are excellent ways to practice being still, and learning to observe yourself. At first, there will be parts of you that try to distract you from simply being. Thoughts will come and go. There may be voices telling you that it is not safe to sit with your eyes close, or walk so slowly. You may like to appreciate that the fear, apprehension, doubt, or whatever you notice coming up, is trying to protect you. Eventually, though, you will begin to intimately feel your own presence as impersonal, infinite and indestructible.
The cultivation of self-awareness, and the subsequent realization that ultimately there is no Self (which the Buddha called anicca), leads to the understanding that we are all One. We are all connected, we all want and need the same thing: to love and be loved. We can then act from a place of patience and presence with curiosity, compassion and confidence. If only every single person came to this insight, the world would be a different place. We need to risk revealing who we really are.
Be brave and be still, even if it just for one day.
Marije E. Paternotte (E-RYT 500) was born and raised in Amsterdam where she studied law and worked as a corporate lawyer. After joining a yoga retreat in Bali life led her to the United States where she took her first yoga teacher training. She currently lives in a small beach town in New Jersey with her husband, and teaches yoga locally as well as workshops, retreats and teacher trainings around the world. Marije is also a guest teacher at the renowned Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Massachusetts.
Through her training to be a professional ballet dancer, her innate body awareness, self-study and several sustained injuries, Marije has developed a keen eye for precise and safe alignment of yoga postures. Her teaching style is understated and compassionate, with a focus on mindfulness. She has the ability to present complex concepts, and an in-depth knowledge of yogic anatomy and philosophy, in a simple and approachable way.
Marije encourages her students to find their own yoga and to practice mindfulness in everything they do, thus cultivating non-judgmental self-observation that leads to inner peace, genuine happiness, and the discovery of who they truly are.
In addition, Marije is a The Reconnection – Certified Practitioner, Practitioner Mentor and Teaching assistant with The Reconnection. After reading Eric Pearl’s book Heal Others, Heal Yourself, she found her inner knowing validated: healing is this simple. She felt called to learn how to offer this work to other people. She has been in practice since 2008.
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