What I Learned About Myself During A Silent Retreat
Diana Simumpande, Unsplash
A while ago, actress Lupita N’yongo told Oprah that she went on a silent retreat. I was intrigued but also wondered if this was something for the rich and famous. Do you regular Black women go to silent retreats? Turns out we do. Or at least Ramona does.
Ramona grew up in Georgia, with two Christian parents, Lutheran and [Jamaican] Pentecostal to be exact. But by the time she was a teenager, she started reading creation myths and stories from other religions. She had questions and was seeking. While she doesn’t call herself a Hindu or Buddhist, she started studying Eastern religions, realizing that there were aspects from them that she liked and worked in term of spiritual growth and development. First, she incorporated yoga into her spiritual practice and eventually meditation.
It was the meditation that led her to participate in the silent retreat. See what she had to say about it below.
So how did the silent retreat play into your spirituality?
The Vipassana retreat, there’s one major foundation out of India that does them. But they are popping up in certain areas. You can do them for three days or the traditional one that I do for ten days. They have centers all over the globe and all over the U.S. You don’t have to completely be a Buddhist. When you are there, you are practicing certain Buddist ideals, with meditation, following the noble precepts which are not to be vain and no harmful thoughts toward yourself or other beings, a vegetarian diet. So you are subscribing to that but you don’t have to do more than that. And it’s just silence. I think that’s what I was looking for more than anything. I was at a point, my first time, where I just needed silence. I had been meditating for a while but my practice was off and on. I was craving silence.
What was going on in your life that you felt like you needed silence?
Oh man. I was just going through a lot of shifts. My partner is from Spain so I was going back and forth between those places and trying to decide am I going to stay in the U.S. and have to go through that immigration process with him? Or me moving there. Do I want to live in Europe? And all this other stuff. I was going through a lot of physical, environment changes. But I was going through a lot of emotional stuff. I was 27 at the time and just felt very overwhelmed and my practice in yoga was actually getting deeper. And I do believe that when you have a practice in anything martial arts, it is to strengthen you in a lot of ways and that opens you up for movement emotionally as well. I definitely was having all of that going on. I heard about the silent retreat four years before and I was like, ‘I don’t think I could ever do that in my life. Props to this person.’ Then four years later, I found myself doing it for the first time.
Why did you believe you could never do it? Do you like to talk a lot? Did you feel like you would be bored?
Yeah! I first found out from this woman I was taking dance classes with, living a kind of fast-paced life. Living in Miami, a very external life. Always out and about. Always on the beach, doing this and this. But as I grew older, I shifted more into where I am now which is this introverted introvert. I was also drinking a lot at this time, let’s be honest. I was in my early twenties. I was just on party-ish mode. Still the same vibration of loving to be in nature and with the plants and herbalism but I was living a very external life. I wanted to be at the parties. And as you get older, it’s like, ‘That party ain’t...girl, you are missing nothing.’ So yeah, it just sounded so intimidating the idea of being in silence. And during that time, though I was practicing yoga, I was not meditating. But now, instead of pushing myself to do the physical stuff, I’m like, ‘Uhh yeah, I’m going to meditate.’ So, it was a different period in my life completely. But I was weirded out that you couldn’t talk!
Before you get there they give you the schedule and it’s like, ‘Oh my God!’ You’re meditating for ten hours a day. So it’s not even like you’re just quiet. But that meditation saves you. If we couldn’t do anything. You can walk around but you’re not even supposed to do eyesight or eye contact with people because it’s supposed to be completely internal. So that sounded so intimidating at 21. I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to explode!’
What was your experience like when you finally went? Was it hard the first day or so?
Whew! Yeah. Within the first day--this is funny because it’s interesting to watch where your mind goes and that’s one of the things that--for all people meditating, don’t get down on yourself. Just watch where it mind goes. You can choose to go down that rabbit hole. And for ten hours a day meditating, I went down a rabbit hole. I was like, ‘I could write a movie!’ But it’s interesting to see that that’s how your mind likes to distract itself from feeling a lot of other things that may not be as pleasurable.
So within the first day, my rebel mind was like, ‘I’m out!’ The movie I was starting was how am I going to hitchhike? Because I got a ride here. I could have driven but I got a ride because I knew my mind was going to do this. And I’m like, ‘I need to go.’ I think I need to leave and was just resistant. That was the first day. Then, I was like, ‘No, I’m going to keep going.’ By the fourth day, I was having very strange dreams, like revealed dreams. I had a roommate that just snored really loud. And I was angry at this woman. I couldn’t express it. I couldn’t say anything and I just was laughing at myself for feeling angry at this woman who had no idea that she snored this loud. I’m watching how my brain is trying to attach to these different thoughts of ‘I need to get out of here,’ trying to find this escape.
So, I go and I speak to the teacher, who is the only person you can speak to. And he says, ‘Yeah, so those dreams, that happens. Just keep going. The technique is working.’ That’s all he said. And I’m like, ‘I thought you were going to give me the answer to the key of life. Now I’m mad at you.’ Because you telling me all of this is normal? But then you just keep going. Sometimes I would let my mind go down the rabbit hole. And sometimes I would let my mind really focus on the technique that they are teaching you to meditate and really just feel stillness. And when you feel it, it’s great. You do feel that your brain does finally--for me, it took four to five days, the first time for my brain to just stop chattering. Thinking about this project, and this, and this, and this, it took five days. No tv, no music, no conversations and still five days for my brain to finally be like, ‘Okay, I’m present.’ And I don’t know how I could have gotten that any other way.
Where was it?
The first one I went to was in Jesup Georgia, so Southern Georgia.
What was the schedule like outside of hours of meditation?
Well, you have breakfast and lunch, then you have a light snack at 5 or 6. They have nightly discourses for about an hour. You’re not talking. It’s the guy who brought it over from India. His name is S.N. Goenka but they call him Goenka G. It’s actually very interesting these talks because everyday you feel like you’re having these breakdowns, high highs--because you’re feeling like, ‘Wow, I’m really meditating.’ and these low lows. And you just have this really keen view of it because you’re in silence. So he’s giving these discourses and every day, I felt like he was talking specifically to me. He’s like, ‘You’re probably feeling this and this…’ And I’m like, I know that wasn’t some magic thing. He wasn’t a wizard. But, in that moment, I realized we’re all going through so many different things. We all have so many experiences but the human psyche is pretty much universal. He’s saying this is the technique. You’re feeling tired now. This is what your brain does. You feel tired when you’re pushing it to do things that are uncomfortable. You feel the fight back. And then there are 3-4 mandatory meditation sits for about an hour and then the other ones, you can meditate in your room and they have grounds where you can walk so you can do walking meditation. Then there’s bathroom time and that kind of stuff. But when you do the math, it’s about 9 hours of meditation a day.
Some people might be confused about what meditation is. Are you trying to clear your mind of all thought or are you trying to focus on a specific thought? What is meditation?
There’s multiple avenues to meditation. There’s not one correct way. So one of them is focusing on one single thing and keep your mind on that thing. And another one is trying to not have thoughts, more or less. I think a lot of people get down on themselves meditating because they keep having thoughts. But have compassion for yourself. No one can walk before they crawl. It’s normal to have those. You have to practice it. It’s not something that comes naturally to anybody. I think if you can close your eyes, sitting up and not fall asleep, that’s enough. I just sit and try to focus on my breath and just try to notice it. I’ve done a lot of different techniques. For a while it would be imagine a color or a mantra. Sometimes I just let my mind wander and see where it goes. And I’m like, ‘Oh okay, now I know what I’m making for dinner.’ And that’s cool too. It’s more just dedicating the time to do it. So when I can do that, I’m just proud of myself. Whatever comes up, whether my mind is wandering the whole time or not. At least I showed up. I feel the benefits of just having that time for myself.
So by the ninth- tenth day, how were you feeling?
The ninth-tenth day, I felt good. Part of it is probably adrenaline from being like, ‘Yes! It’s almost over!’ You know like what marathon runners feel at the end, their body gives them the energy. I feel like that’s definitely part of it. And on the tenth day, you get to talk to people. So you get to talk to the people you’ve been seeing for a week and a half. You make up stories about these people. I’m telling you. It’s a distraction but that’s what--if you’re used to watching tv, this is tv, people watching. So it’s always interesting to talk to them at the end. But I felt really good by the end of it. The middle of the week is just hard. Six and seven for me were hard.
The second time, I just knew what to expect. My brain didn’t put up the same amount of resistance as it did the first time. It was like, ‘Okay, we’re going back into this mode. I’d been meditating more.’
After the ten days, is it hard to start talking again?
Oh! Yes and no. It’s interesting because you have this moment where you can talk to people but then afterwards, you go back into--it’s called noble silence. So once again, not speaking until the end of it. The first time, I had sensory shock. Going back to Atlanta, where it was just so loud. It was quiet, you were just in the woods. I felt like people were talking really loud. Your ears were really acute to sound, so it’s a real thing. Talking gets easier. It’s easier than riding a bike. But I felt like I was craving more silence. I thought, I would like to have a balance where it isn’t as loud but it isn’t complete silence. It’s hard to get that. It’s hard for me to get silence when I’m waking up to meditate because I live in the world and I have a partner and we have neighbors and all of this other stuff.
Did you find that you were more conscious or careful about the things you did say once you started speaking again?
Yeah, at first. But it wears off quickly. It wears off very quickly, within a day or two. When people think of retreats, they’re like, ‘Oh, have fun.’ Fun is the last thing I think of at this kind of retreat because it’s really deep. And you really have to be wanting it because if not, you’re going to leave. It’s not worth it if you don’t want it. I realize, reactionary wise, I take more time to really think before I speak and just trying to keep that and hold space and be silent when I need to, instead of being very external and being an extrovert. I’m more quiet now and more observing and really taking my time, to where if I want to speak, let it be something of good. Maybe not so much when I’m in traffic…
But that has helped me in my relationships with other people and people I don’t know. So that’s really good. And that’s a practice that we all can be doing. But it’s gotten more and more in depth after the silent retreat.
I made a few friends from when I’ve done this--a few sisters because you can only speak with women. It’s segregated by gender. Because that’s a distraction. A man for a woman is a distraction and a woman for a man is a distraction. Very separated. I have friends and we’ve talked about ‘How do we continue living in these ways without becoming a monk? How do you live in the real world that is not quiet?’
A lot of this technique talks about--getting in touch with your subconscious which is always working, even when you’re sleeping. Your subconscious is taking messages from your body. And we just don’t notice it because we have a lot of distractions that our conscious mind picks up on. So when you take away some of those distractions, the subconscious voice--at least in my experience--is going to become louder.
Are you able to journal on this retreat?
Technically no. The first time I really, really followed their instructions. The second time I didn’t because I did want to remember some of the dreams. I wasn’t writing four pages every night but I would just jot down ideas. They say you’re only supposed to stretch but I did some more yoga stuff when my hips were really, really hurting. Because I’m like I’m protecting myself. I’m going through a lot and I need this. I guess you’re not supposed to attach to those desires that you have but it’s an integral part of my practice. And I’m going to listen to myself. The second time I definitely journaled and the first time I was mad that I didn’t bring a journal, that I listened to them.
What would you say you learned about your internal self? The way your brain works, the things you need to change about yourself, or the things you need to accept about yourself?
I think I mostly learned the complexity of emotions. Before the retreat, I didn’t know how to deal with that. Like, ‘Why am I not happy?’ So in the retreat, you go and you are going to see some of the darker parts of you. Anger came up a lot. And so I feel like afterwards, I can have all of these emotions. It’s okay not to be happy all the time. It’s okay to feel anger. It’s really okay to feel these things. What’s not okay is to continue subscribing to them because you think that they are you because they are not. They just come and they go. They are fading, they are fleeting. You are choosing to stay sad. I have not been diagnosed clinically anything so these are my decisions to go into these emotions. That’s what I really learned about my internal self, being able to love it wholly and not just for when I’m feeling good. I can really experience the full spectrum of emotions and still be my essence, the same person. And to not cower away from some of those darker ones, which is what I was doing and still do sometimes. I like to get comfort when I’m not feeling great. Sometimes I need to rest. It’s okay to subscribe to it. Just don’t get stuck there. Don’t cower away from that because it’s part of the experience.
Is it like therapy? Were you able to gain any clarity into why certain emotions come up for you?
I did have some memory triggering that happened. And had a lot of time to think about it. So I cried a lot. I think the anger was repressed anger for sure. All of them years working in the bar industry and just being passive aggressive to make my tips. All of it came out. I wanted to be mad at this lady for snoring so bad. So in some ways, yes. In other ways, no. I still have therapy to speak about some things that came up. But I also feel like some ends were tied. I didn’t realize that A was leading to and now C is the situation that I’m in. But I think it could be dangerous seeing it as just a therapy thing. It is opening up a lot of things that you might need to actually speak to someone about.
For me, a lot of stuff about childhood trauma that I had been going through with both of my parents. And by being in Vipassana, I was recognizing it. I was having some memories come up. That’s where some of the repressed anger comes from too, not being able to express anger at situations that were very traumatizing because I was a kid. But I talked to a therapist about it. I don’t think I’m necessarily equipped--I know how I feel and what I experience but I think there’s also a really healthy balance of speaking to someone who knows about cognitive behavior and can give you that aspect. It’d be hard by ourselves completely.
I think it will be obvious to some why silence is spiritual but for those who don’t really get it, could you explain what is spiritual about being silent.
In my experience, there was this conditioning that I wasn’t even aware of. I thought silence was voidness. I thought it was very empty and it’s not. It’s not even void of sound. Because you can hear yourself, your thoughts, and your actual breath. The spirituality that you find in silence is the actual connection with yourself.
The other day in meditation--I like to ask myself a few questions afterwards and one of them is--and this is a very Buddhist principle--but the question is, “Who am I?” And everyday it would change but there’s a certain point where you’re like, ‘I’m not Ramona as a person.’ I’m not just a Black woman...I am these things but I’m not just that. Once I take away all of these titles, artist, writer, daughter...what’s left? And that’s what I want to encounter. This is a way of encountering it and it’s not silent what you find. You find emotions and sensations. There’s a lot of information that’s there when you take the time to be in silence or ask questions like that. What am I really desiring? What am I working toward? But in silence, not without anyone else’s opinions. When was the last time we did that? As children? And when I’ve done it, I do encounter this feeling of being a young child again. I can be anything. No one’s told me that I can’t do that yet. So that’s been my experience.
That’s why silence is so important to spirituality because spirituality is such a personal thing, not words. And it’s something that is free of titles in its bare essentialness. We are too. So to really tap into that you have to go within. You have to be silent, let that subconscious voice get a little louder so you can be aware of your mechanisms, how you are moving and your real experience.
How do you recommend that Black women incorporate stillness and silence into their everyday lives? Because we really need it. We have so much going on.
Meditating. When I started it was one minute, then five minutes and then for a long time, eleven minutes. If I needed to get it in, the first thing when I wake up. If I need to wake up 20 minutes earlier just to get that in.
Taking a quick walk if that’s accessible. That does so much. You don’t even have to--when a lot of people go on vacation, that’s what they’re doing most of the time. ‘I was just walking down the beach.’ We can do that in our neighborhoods, just walking down the block. There is something that’s very grounding in doing that. It’s not stillness because you are moving but it helps me in having my mind a little bit clearer because there’s no tv, there’s no phone. I’m looking around me but that breaks me out of the autopilot that I’m in. Just taking a break out of that routine. The brain likes to get into autopilot. I’ve even turned my mom and sister onto it. Take a walk and see what it does.
I had a sister tell me, ‘Just take three deep breaths.’ Will you look crazy just standing there with your eyes closed, taking breaths? Probably. But just reclaim that time for yourself. And as Black women that’s what we need to do, figure out ways that work for us.
We have to work on being comfortable with stillness and not just doing all the time.