In September of 2016, I attended a silent retreat in upstate New York for 7 full days.
My phone was turned off and left in the car. I had no interaction with anyone other than hearing the facilitator talk for about 2 hours a day and hearing a couple of people ask questions for 1 hour a day. The rest of the time was occupied with meals, meditation, walking in the woods, and sleep. For the entire duration of this retreat, I didn’t say a word with the exception of “excuse me” one time when I nearly bumped into another retreat attendee.
Without spoken human interaction, without tv or wifi, without sex, drugs (for those inclined) or alcohol, it was by far the most interesting week of my life.
Since getting into meditation, the idea of a silent retreat had always appealed to me. I like trying new things and I was intrigued with the idea of going for a period of time without talking and living in silence. As my meditation practice grew more serious, I frequently read or heard about others who mentioned their practice “improving” while on retreat. The idea to try something new and get better at sitting on a chair with my eyes closed appealed to me.
During the retreat, I wrote in my journal every couple of hours to give a play-by-play as to what I was experiencing. Not knowing what to expect, I thought there would be one or two “take-aways” from my time in silence. Overall, I was expecting the week to be relaxing (no kids!) and stress free (no kids again!). Oh, I was wrong – really wrong. At the conclusion of the week, I had filled 13 pages with multiple ‘aha’ moments to a page. The experience provided nothing but break-throughs. However, those break-throughs didn’t come easily. When I wasn’t screaming in my head for relief from the over abundance of “Dan time”, I was literally crying my eyes out over some deep realization I had been forced to face.
I liken the experience to jumping through fire. Except the fire is your emotions, issues, and psyche staring at you non-stop over and over and over again, like the sun burning a hole in your head. This emotional fire ball doesn’t stop burning you until you face it head on and deal with the issue that has been troubling you for weeks, months, or even years. The fire is relentless and burns hot, but once you face that which is bringing you pain – greater happiness, resolution and even ecstasy is waiting for you on the other side. It was an incredibly intense and rewarding experience. The best way I can summarize the emotional rollercoaster is to imagine 24/7 therapy, except the only therapist is yourself.
When I wasn’t battling my innermost demons in a non-stop mental cage match, I was meditating during 6 daily meditations of 45 minutes a piece. These meditations were an effort to try and clear our minds as much as possible. When the meditations were “good”, I found myself blissed out afterwards. The bliss would lead me to a stroll through the woods or a field where I would lie on my back, stare at the clouds and enjoy the beautiful autumn weather. It’s hard to convey, but this was a deep enjoyment, not an every day “lying on my back in a field” experience. I can’t remember what it was like to be a 9 year old kid without a care in the world, but this is what it felt like when I was going through these care-free moments. They really were “care…free.” Staring at the clouds was an event. Smelling the autumn air was intoxicating and an activity in its own right, not something done in a reflexive manner as we go about our days. For me, when removed of all; distractions, personal issues, business concerns, relationship worries and whatever else was bothering me during this period of my life, what remains is a deep connection with everything which is present at that moment. In this case, the clouds above, the earth below and the air around.
What I found during these moments was when the chatter in my head stopped and I held a deep focus on the present moment, life presented itself in a way I never thought imaginable. My problems sorted themselves out and life became, well, better.
As I continued to stare at the clouds during one particular meditation break, one of the retreat organizers rang a soothing ‘Asian sounding’ bell (probably the same bell that every yoga studio in the country has) to signal that our break was over and we were to return to the main hall for another 45 minute meditation. Upon hearing the bell, I snapped out of my ‘hugging the earth’ trance and started making my way to the hall. Taking a couple of steps, I had an extremely powerful realization. I didn’t choose to stand up and start walking. The bell sounded and I reflexively got up. A sweet sounding bell had controlled me. It dawned on me that much of my life was being controlled this way. There were bells everywhere telling me what to do and how to do it.
I started to think about all of the machinations that have/were/are controlling my life…
Societal pressures like:
- get a job
- follow the rules
- be politically correct
Cultural norms like:
- tell people “have a nice day” (even if you don’t mean it)
- don’t get too close to someone on an elevator
- don’t stare at someone for more than 1 second
- immediately stick out your hand to shake someone’s hand upon meeting them
- eat 3 meals a day – breakfast, lunch and dinner (even if you’re not hungry)
- upon arriving at a bar or cocktail party, get a drink in your hand to find comfort
- wear a suit to weddings and funerals
Family expectations such as:
- go to college
- find a wife
- always do my best (even when I don’t know what my best is)
Many of these things have proven to be a positive for my life, but these are conditions where I have been shaped to think or act a certain way, not within my complete awareness and not by my full choosing.
If you’re not following, try this. The next time you are driving on a quiet neighborhood road and stop at a red light, ask yourself, “why did I stop?” Did you stop because you were legitimately fearful that your failure to stop would result in you and your car getting into an accident? Or, did you stop because a red light told you to? If it’s the latter, then I would argue you were conditioned to stop. Now, here’s the next test. If there’s no one around and you are 100% confident you won’t get into an accident, get caught by the police and won’t harm anyone, run that red light. Yeah, I said it. Go ahead and drive right through that red light and the invisible magic force field it presents. If you’re 100% confident you won’t hurt yourself or others, then what’s the problem?
At this, most of you probably think I’m freaking nuts (if you don’t think so already), but here’s my point and the revelation I found on that field during a beautiful autumn day, there are signs, bells, alarms, expectations, feelings, emotions and norms dictating our actions every single day, many times a day. I certainly don’t advocate anyone driving through red lights, but once I realized that I actually didn’t have to stop, I started seeing the world in a very different way.
This “Asian bell” moment during my retreat has been one of the most impactful moments of my life. It’s a realization I felt with every fiber of my body because of the conditions I was living under at the time, namely in silence. I’m not sure I could have felt this way about a bell if I wasn’t so focused on the present moment.
Four days after returning from the silent retreat, I was informed by my ex-partners they were firing me as CEO. In a strange and roundabout way, my firing has provided me with the time and space to explore and investigate the “bells in my life.” It’s a question I ask myself nearly every day – “is the thought or action I just made, my own? Or, was I conditioned to respond in a certain way? Similar to our identities, once you take away those conditioned responses, we come closer to finding our true selves. Still having no clue as to what my true self looks, acts or is, it’s a quest I find worthy of further exploration. I just wish I didn’t have to jump through emotional fire balls and firings to find it.
Note – If this post was a little too touchy feely for your liking and you’re starting to question my ‘no bs’ credentials, please feel free to read or re-read, “Your Employer Doesn’t Give a F*ck About You.” You’ll be skeptical and hating the world again in no time.