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I went on a silent retreat — here's what it's really like

Throughout the retreat, I realized I only ever had three or four thoughts that ran through my mind over and over again.
Sheila Estaniel
/ Source: TODAY

In TMRW’s “My First” series, we highlight true stories from readers who open up about the pivotal moments in their lives — from their first jobs to their first breakups and more — and what they learned from these personal milestones.

Three years ago, my friend and I decided to unplug and go on a long weekend trip, but it wasn’t going to be your typical getaway. We were headed to a silent retreat and it was going to be my first time attending one.

My friend had been researching silent retreats and asked me if I wanted to join her for a beginner-friendly retreat over three days at the Yokoji-Zen Mountain Center in the San Jacinto Mountains. It was scheduled to take place in January, and I thought it would be a great way to set the tone for the year ahead.

The view from the road on our way to the retreat center.Sheila Estaniel

Before I attended the retreat, I felt like my life was a runaway train and I needed to do something to slow it down. On paper, my life looked good. I was working at a job I loved, but I felt like everything was moving so fast that I never had time to enjoy it. I was physically exhausted and burned out from a hectic work schedule and the thought of sitting and doing nothing for a few days, meditating on the meaning of my life and the changes I wanted to make sounded very appealing.

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The retreat was very structured and each participant had a full schedule to follow from 5:30 a.m. till lights out at 9:30 p.m. We started our first seated meditation each day by 6 a.m. and there were a total of four seated meditations each day. Throughout the retreat, I realized I only ever had three or four thoughts that ran through my mind over and over again. It was like watching a dryer running and thinking it's full of clothes, only to turn off the machine and see that there are only a few pieces of clothing tumbling around.

The entrance to the Yokoji-Zen Mountain Center.Yokoji-Zen Mountain Center

Even though I didn’t talk to anyone, I felt like I was bonding with other attendees more deeply than if we were talking. I connected with people I wouldn’t have otherwise, people in their 20s through 60s from all over. I met a girl who was on the planning committee for the Super Bowl and a recent high school graduate who was trying this out as an experience he had always been interested in.

We communicated through eye contact, smiles and body language. It was initially strange and extremely hard not to speak, but I soon got the hang of nodding, pointing and smiling frequently to acknowledge the other people around me. Later, it unexpectedly felt peaceful and calm not to have to deal with words.

We were also assigned to work in groups, doing chores every day such as clearing the woods outside the center, cleaning the center and doing kitchen work. I found chopping vegetables in the kitchen to be soothing because it didn’t require a lot of thought.

When it came to meditating, I thought I would be a lot more restless than I was. I focused on my breathing a lot and realized that the way they broke up the meditation times was just long enough that I was actually surprised when I heard the gong to signify the session was over.

One of my favorite parts of the silent retreat was the extent to which I could fully disconnect from the usual distractions in my life. We were asked not to read or write during our stay, there was no phone service in the area and a lot of that extra noise was simply shut out. I hated not being able to read in the beginning because there was a small library in the room I shared with my friend and there were books that I wanted to read. In the end, I was thankful I didn't because I had no choice but to sit with my thoughts and deal with the things that I needed to confront.

I arrived at the retreat with an open mind and I left feeling more aware than ever before. I’ve been able to adapt what I learned at the silent retreat to life in quarantine now. Instead of passing each day on autopilot, I pay attention and reflect on how I want to be feeling.

As the founder of a marketing and media relations start-up, you may think I’d be more stressed now that some of my clients have cut back operations or shut down. But instead, I’ve refocused my energy to launch a digital magazine showcasing the lifestyle, fashion and wellness industries. I’m more productive but less stressed at the same time.

I may not have control over certain things but I can, however, control how connected I feel. I've been setting up Zoom and FaceTime calls and I've found myself answering the phone more than I did before. And all of it doesn’t just benefit me. I also feel like the silent retreat taught me to be an emotional EMT, an anchor for family, friends and others.

I would recommend others try a silent retreat, but you have to be ready to spend a lot of time with your thoughts, good, bad or ugly. One attendee at the retreat I went to didn’t end up staying the whole weekend.

You might be surprised, like I was, that giving yourself the opportunity to sit through long periods of silence can feel like a gift and it could even feel like it passed by in mere minutes.