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The 7 Day Silent Retreat: Will You Come Back New?

Bali Silent Retreat

Bali Silent Retreat

The Calling

I had been wanting to do a silent retreat for a really long time. I was never really sure why. It could have been a result of watching Julia Roberts indulge in an Eat, Pray, Love’s serenity. Or most probably the perfect opportunity of travelling alone without having to engage in conversation with strangers; whatever the reason, I just knew I wanted to do it.

Due to the pandemic, I had to postpone this “inner calling” for a long time, as my places of choice were all located in Asia. Eventually locations started to open up and I was able to book my first 7 day silent yoga retreat in Bali.

Before describing this long awaited experience, I should start by telling you what all my friends knew and did not shy to shut up about:

  • I have never practiced any form of yoga in my life. In fact, I don’t even meditate. The most meditation I had ever done consisted in thinking about ten million things in bed before going to sleep.
  • I don’t shut up. Ever. While silence for 7 days seemed perfectly normal considering I was traveling alone and don’t tend to talk to myself, I had actually never done so for 7 whole days. Nevertheless the prospect of not having to engage in small chit chat with strangers seemed heavenly.
  • I live in my phone. As bad as this may seem, it’s unfortunately true - I feel lost if I don’t have my phone with me. But, no phones allowed on this retreat. Not even a Nokia 3310.

Not one single friend thought I would get through this experience. Well, now I had a motive didn’t I? More stubbornly than by spiritual motivation, I booked my experience.

Booking a Silent Retreat

Since I knew absolutely no one who had ever done anything similar, I had to rely on online reviews. They unanimously said everything was lovely: the food was lovely, the rice field surroundings were lovely, the spiritual guides and hosts were lovely, even the mosquitoes were lovely. Wow, these were bound to be the best one thousand dollars I’ve ever spent in my life.

I exchanged a few messages with the online host:

- Was waking up at 4 am to say hello to the Sun really necessary? I mean would the “Sun God” be offended if I said hi at 07:00? (07:00 is already compromise on my behalf). No. Mandatory. No time changes.

- Did they really have to take my phone? I’m a novice at this and I believe small steps are the way to go. No. No communication allowed of any sort. And since I'm asking, no books allowed either. A journal would be provided to write down my thoughts but that is it. (If I had known what to expect I could have engaged in a novel coming from a place of pain and despair but I was too naive at the time).

- I am not a vegetarian. Is this going to be a problem? Not at all. But you’ll be a vegetarian for 7 days. Any allergies or restrictions? Well, you’ve taken the meat and the fish off the menu already so I guess I’m good thanks.

- And what’s this mosquito story? Not a deal breaker but itchy skin doesn’t exactly fall in the lyrics of My Favourite Things. Yes, there are mosquitoes and because the “villas” are on the rice fields, small snakes may appear, but don’t worry they’re not poisonous. Oh I’m not worried about the poison: just seeing one will make me lose my senses so poison is just an aftertaste really. Could I have a villa far from these creeping beings? I have now accepted the mosquitoes with all my heart.

That’s when I learned that “LOL” was the agent’s way of saying this conversation was over. Customer Support was definitely lovely.

That went well. I was ready to go.

Welcome to Bali

Welcome to Bali

Welcome to Bali

After 25 hours of a rather uneventful journey, I was picked up by Bagus and dropped off at a hotel I had booked in Ubud. I’ve been to Bali before and I absolutely love Ubud for various reasons and hence choosing a retreat nearby. But I was not going to dive in head first to a silent retreat with unappealing waking up schedules immediately after a 25 hour trip. Stupid for having booked this trip for many reasons, but not that stupid.

Day 1

I was greeted by a very smily lady at the reception. How was your trip? These are the conditions. Here’s a journal and pen. Give us your suitcase. give us your phone. This was stressful. I had to check my phone: had I sorted everything for the next 7 days? Any upcoming payments? Had I warned everyone? Was the world going to survive without me for seven whole days? I could have sworn there were stress droplets falling down my forehead. Or maybe it was just hot.

I was escorted to my villa and I must say, the view and surroundings were stunning. After unpacking my belongings, I headed to the main wooden building where the kitchen and meditation and yoga rooms were located. It was 4 pm: I was starving but I had to survive on herbal tea and what looked like barley flake cookies until dinner time.

People were in the meal area, sipping tea and overlooking the rice fields, meditating in the meditation chapel, walking through the rice fields or seated on the lament stones. The silence was deafening but quite refreshing and I had a sudden urge to pull out my phone.

I walked around and explored the various mini temples throughout the land and when dinner came, I was delighted to see the buffet of amazing colourful and delicious vegetarian food. I was actually surprised on how much I enjoyed all the beetroot salads and quinoas and even eggplant which I’ve always avoided during my western lifetime.

A bong went off announcing time to retreat into the meditation room and listen to the orientation of one of the guides. We sat in a circle with no specific instructions; just words of advice on not giving up and in persevering through difficult times. I couldn’t think of the last time I had been in such a calm mood - this was going to be a breeze. Maybe I should have signed up for a 14 day retreat.


Day 2

I don’t have my phone, so I have no alarm. But worry not: this place had a bong. A long and repetitive bong. At 4 in the morning. It was dark and I could hear crickets. You would think all the snakes would have eaten the crickets. Since they had to exist it was the least they could do. Or maybe I was just annoyed at this rude awakening.

No breakfast allowed before Salutation to the Sun. Or coffee. Just raw 4 am salutations. I ran to the “temple” to avoid stepping on a snake in the dark, and sat on one of the many cushions scattered around the floor. I could have sworn everyone was not here and nobody was doing a head count. The yoga instructor was sitting in front, very serene and with eyes closed. Probably asleep. Oh wait, that’s a good idea. Crossing my legs in the “yoga” position wasn’t as easy as when I was a child but I blended in somehow and made no grunted noises.

I heard movements and suddenly realised I couldn’t keep my eyes closed: I had never meditated or done yoga in my life - I had to watch how it’s done. Everyone was on their knees and bowing down - I could do this AND fall asleep in my lap. Piece of cake. But there was more. Head back, shoulders up, now stretch, get up on one foot, raise your hands up high, frog hop back down, face down bum up… there was way too much movement for this hour of the morning. And suddenly I realised not having coffee was a good idea because I would have saluted my yoga mat with the digested version of it.

(Disclaimer: I do not remember if this is the right order of salutations and positions and grunts - I am reporting them as they felt to me: like a big mess)

I went for a cold shower and ran to breakfast: all that painful exercising had removed my urge to sleep but not to eat. Breakfast was very good: all in all, I must say the vegetarian land-to-table thing was actually much better than I thought. We ate in silence overlooking the fields, never facing each other - I guess to avoid a temptation of chitchatting - which I didn’t have so all is good in my little world. People chewing and cutlery clinking becomes much louder when all else is silent. And crickets. How are they still alive?

Meditation time: now we cross our legs and sit on the cushion. Head up, back straight, hands on knees. I tried putting my finger and thumb together but that gives me a nervous tick so I just lazily collapsed my palms on my knees. In a sort of Dutch infused English, I heard the instruction to empty my mind and free of thought while closing my eyes. Nap time for me. So clear my mind, let’s do this.

It’s a bit cold; next time I should bring my hoodie. What’s that smell? People should change socks more often. You’d think the prices would deter the people who don’t believe in baths. Why is she Dutch? Does she live here in Bali or is she just on vacation? Should I do that? It sure is cheap and beautiful in Bali. Is healthcare any good? Maybe I should do that. Maybe it’s too early to start living off my savings. What would I do? Would I become a digital nomad? Doing what? I have no talents or anything to sell.

“Now focus on your breath. Thoughts only on your breath.”

I got lost there for a moment. Maybe I should focus. Breathe. In, out. In, out. Am I panting? Can’t force too much otherwise I’ll start coughing. And we all know how people react to coughing in 2021. Oh but they can’t say anything. That’ll disrupt the whole silent harmony of the place. What if I was coughing and was contagious - would anybody dare open their mouth to kick me out? I mean, it’s a silent retreat girl, shut up.

20 minutes later: I wonder how the stock market is doing. I should not have bought Qudian stock. It’s ruining my portfolio and it’s never going to pick up. My back is really hurting right now, this needs to stop. I'm slouching again. How on Earth am I going to keep my back upright. This better end in five minutes.

“Now that we’ve all cleared our minds of any thoughts, let’s start focusing on our body parts”

I have not cleared my mind of thoughts for one second during this exercise and now I will definitely be focusing on my lower back because the pain is now excruciating. Is nobody else in pain? I look around. Serenity. I’m in agony. Clearly losing in life and proving my friends right. One hour later and I really can’t stand the pain any longer. I can’t dare to get up because my legs are numb. I really feel that my body ends in my excruciatingly painful bum. Nothing else exists because I can’t feel it. I’m getting annoyed now. This can’t be beneficial. I should not be serene and in pain at the same time. Something is clearly wrong with me. And how on earth is anybody keeping an empty mind? What’s up with that shit?

Two hours later and this horrific meditation is over. I cheated. I uncrossed my legs and kneeled for a while. Nobody else, just me. I wasn’t chastised by anybody, just by myself as a failure. My lower back was screaming. I had never thought to say this but sitting in an upright position for 3 hours is worse than 100 push-ups.

I went to my hut and opened my journal. I wrote “Fuck My Life”. And then ripped the page out because I didn’t know if there was going to be a reading aloud circle event somewhere during this retreat. I laid in bed and waited for the pain to go away. Spoiler alert: it never did.

3 PM: It’s time for something called Ashtanga Yoga. I couldn’t google this because, well, no phone. But whatever it is, I’m still in pain.

The instructor was sitting down and told us that beginners could remain longer in the previous position if the next one was too difficult. I hoped the position “lay flat on your back” was included in this Ashtanga thing. We started.

I paid 1000 dollars for a torture program. Humiliation included. From attempting the splits to Cirque du Soleil shit, these people were now just trying to show off. To me clearly, as I opted out of most of the “ballerina on a tightrope” positions. Every part of my body was burning, including my ego. I was the biggest loser of this try-and-touch-your-butthole-with-your-forehead freak fest. I should sue them for using the word Retreat instead of Bootcamp for unsuspicious losers like me. Or Prison with good food and a view. But instead of homicide, you had to pay to get in. I could think of at least fifty people who I would have easily murdered to get here AND save 1000 dollars. For the first time in a very long time I felt my eyes burning.

I felt like everyone was floating around freely and full of serenity in a tampon advert and I was the heavy miserable grouch in pain and bruises who should be photoshopped out of the picture.

The evening consisted of a more relaxed version of meditation but at this point of the retreat, nothing was relaxed: the simple act of sitting was pure torture. I hated to say I was over it by this point, I achieved nothing except for pain, frustration and anger towards the whole world. My journal consisted of one ripped page.

Room with a view

Room with a view

Days 3 and 4

The thing that kept me from quitting apart from my stubbornness and proving my friends wrong, was my somehow firm belief that the pain would get better and all this silence and meditating would take me somewhere “woke” and illuminated. The next days didn’t prove my theory. The pain was unbearable and I dreaded every activity on the calendar of this path to enlightenment.

I had a one on one (talking) with the facilitator who explained that all this was normal. I just poured a waterfall of complaints: I couldn’t focus on keeping my mind empty, I couldn’t do most of the Ashtanga poses in a minimum acceptable manner, I couldn’t even sit still with my legs crossed because tailbone pain and leg cramping. All this was normal, even for experienced retreat visitors. I left wondering: why on Earth do people do this then?

I'm going to stop moaning at this point but please keep in mind that the pain and dread were a constant. The moaning in this article will stop; the actual pain never did.

The Final Days

Despite all the body aches and the constant dreadfulness of every Ashtanga / meditation moment for which I was clearly not ready for, I must say I did a lot of thinking throughout this retreat. I was in silence for 24 hours a day, and while I spent a lot of time thinking about aches and pains and my stupid life decisions such as this one, I also thought about everything else. My whole life passed through my head during those days - millions of lifetime details that I hadn’t thought about since they had happened. These thoughts don’t come to you on a daily basis, with all the running around or life’s distractions like a simple television set or iPhone screen. So I don’t know if it was somewhere during day 5 afternoon that I realised that this had been a period of pause and thought.

It was definitely no epiphany or out of body experience as many profess, but it was the realisation that for the first time in my life I had actually spent the entire days just thinking. Not crying, not overanalysing, not thinking while scrolling through my phone or watching netflix - just letting thoughts come to me because, well, I had nothing else to do or nowhere to go.

I had remembered many things from my late childhood and teens and given some reason to current feelings and fears. I finally was able to sit down and just let my brain go. Not empty, just slower. My bum couldn’t get any sorer than it already was - it wasn’t painless, just there. For the 150th hour. The leg cramping was happening at later stages throughout the meditation, and sometimes relieved with an extra cushion. I wasn’t huffing and puffing to every Ashtanga movement and actually lost a well deserved kilogram throughout the process.

On these last days I actually finally felt at peace and managed to write in the journal. I didn’t miss my phone one bit and had no curiosity to resubmit to all the social media and text messages.

We actually had some interesting workshops with words of wisdom being spoken by guest lecturers. They were also great breaks to the sometimes deafening silence. I was actually disappointed that this was about to be over.

I wish I could say I made mind-blowing discoveries about myself or found the pot of gold answer to what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I didn't. But with the silence and lack of distractions, and days that became longer than life, I thought about everything that could have possibly popped up in my brain. I feel like I actually started compartmentalising stuff in my head or, as they say, I started "clearing my head".

The "Villas"

The "Villas"

The Final Day

I looked forward to my 4 am meditation today for the first time. Not overly excited, just expectant: it was going to be my last one. Couldn’t keep my brain still for this one as I was going through the departing arrangements in my head, but managed to enjoy one last sunrise over the rice fields. I had a vegetarian breakfast for one last time and enjoyed every sip of my tangerine infused tea. As I got to the reception and received my phone, I realised it was dead. So I sat down and charged it. While many people were avidly scrolling down their screens, I thought “just let it charge”. Just a few more minutes of peace and quiet.

One of the guys in the group who I obviously had never spoken to, asked me if I was going to Ubud. And if yes, could we share a ride. He was Australian and he does these retreats every year as he is some sort of financial trader and the craziness gets to his head sometimes. I told him it was my first time. Had I enjoyed it? I laughed.

Yes, the majority of it all was extremely painful and going into these activities without having ever practiced them even if in their simplest forms, wasn’t the best idea I had ever had. But I did it. Keeping quiet, eating vegetarian food, not having my phone or a book to read? Those actually were the easy parts. However, the body pains and the enormous amount of time to think about everything can be overwhelming. I had moments where after so many hours of self reflection, I questioned if anyone I knew even liked me at all. I guess it’s a consequence of too much thinking. But nevertheless a journey of growth I’m glad I did.

Would I do it again? - he asked. Oh hell no.

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