Last month, I went on the Element Retreat in Italy led by Deborah Hanekamp (aka Mama Medicine). I figured we’d be working with the elements of nature. Otherwise, I didn’t know what to expect. When the itinerary was sent out a month before the retreat, I saw there’d be a two day period of silence. My immediate assumption was no talking for two days.
A few days before leaving, I received an email that went into greater detail about the period of silence. I wasn’t surprised to see it meant no technology. I WAS surprised by the other rules: no music; no reading; no eye contact. What?? As I was explaining this to my colon hydrotherapist, she warned me about a friend of a friend who did one of these. Apparently, the girl went insane. Like, had-to-be-committed insane. “It could be a cult,” she warned me.
I’m a Sakara affiliate and a Tracy Anderson Method devotee so cults don’t scare me. 🤣 Anyway, it was too late for a refund, and I’m nothing if not committed. When I got to Italy, Deborah explained the rationale behind the rules of silence.
According to her, which rang true for me, so much of our behavior is contrived. There’s a human desire to want others to like us. When we speak to one another, there’s a tendency to want to mirror, to say “me too!”, to compliment someone, to complain with someone, all to be relatable and likable. In other words, we feel the need to be ON. The reason for no eye contact was to remove the compulsion to smile at them, another way of being ON. Those two days of silence were meant for us to switch OFF.
As I handed my cell phone over, I wondered how I’d fill my time over the next two days. I fretted over the hours I’d have between meals and scheduled (silent) activities. What happens when I turn it all off? I asked myself. As it turns out, that was the whole point.
When I got back to my room, I wasn’t sure what to do with myself. Normally, I’d spend my evenings catching up with friends via text, scrolling through social media and reading until way past my bedtime. Since those weren’t options, I got ready for bed, and without my phone to distract me, I decided to hand wash my dirty clothes since it was still early for bed. As I lay the garments out on my balcony to dry, I thought about how I’ve heard the sun whitens clothes the best. I’ll find out tomorrow, I thought to myself. Then, with nothing else to do, I got into bed and…went to sleep.
I woke up the next morning feeling refreshed and not at all jet lagged. According to my watch (and the church bells), I had two hours until breakfast. I watched the sun rise and then took extra care in getting myself ready for the day. I fussed around with my drying clothes and then walked around the grounds. Still having plenty of time before breakfast, I went back to my room and just…thought. I alternated between looking out over the lake and laying in my bed staring at the ceiling.
This was pretty much my entire silent experience on repeat. We had our meal times at 8am, 1pm and 7pm. At 10am, 2pm and 8pm we had group activities. In between that, I went on hikes or walked the grounds. I hand washed my clothes (which became a source of pleasure) or prepared myself for the next activity. Otherwise, I sat around and thought. It occurred to me more than once that this might be what prison is like, except with organic food and well, freedom.
There’s no way to convey the beauty of this experience or how I felt as though I removed superficial layers off of my persona. I learned a lot about myself, asked myself deep and hard questions, and had no choice but to contemplate the answers because there was nothing else to distract me from…me. It was the most pared down and most real I’ve ever felt.
It’s been over a month since having this experience. I’ve tried to integrate aspects of this time into the reality of my day-to-day life. Now, I don’t turn my phone on until after breakfast with my family. My phone no longer comes with me on walks. Instead of listening to music or podcasts, I listen to the sounds of nature or my innermost thoughts. I don’t check emails until I start my workday. I even bought an outdoor drying rack because as it turns out, the sun really does brighten my whites.
Then there are the areas that still need improvement. I’m an avid reader, and my books continue to pull me away from being present or getting enough sleep. I love my friends both near and far, so my text messages still distract me. The difference now is I’m aware of my behavior and how I’m responsible for the problems I’ve created for myself.
For example, in Italy, I was never late to a single activity because I always had plenty of time. Now, I often catch myself playing guessing games with the clock, as in trying to guess how long it will take me to get ready and then backing into a cutoff time when I’ll stop texting or scrolling or watching or reading. Then I have to rush because I keep pushing the time back. Too often, I’m creating my own stress.
This experience gave me so much to think about in terms of how much noise there is in my life. What’s more, I realize now how much noise I allow into my life. When I examine why, I realize that silence can be scary because there’s nothing to distract me from my thoughts. During my period of silence, I’d think thoughts that made me cry, the kind I’d rather avoid thinking at all.
In my day-to-day, it’s hard to get long periods of true silence. I’m doing my best to create pockets of silence in my often loud days. When I catch myself falling into a noise trap of my own making, I see it for what it is: running away from myself.
With that, I’ll leave you with this quote:
“Why are you so afraid of silence,
silence is the root of everything.
If you spiral into its void,
A hundred messages will thunder
messages you long to hear.”Rumi