Dr. Patricia Shutt

Reflections on MBSR: Silent Retreat

MBSR alumni have discussed with great enthusiasm the silent retreat, which takes place during week six.   The retreat has taken on a mythical quality. Until one experiences the retreat, it remains an elusive and unknowable experience. There are many layers to this special time. It is such an amazing experience to just spend a day completely devoted to looking inward. No communication and minimal eye contact with others. The idea is to cultivate a space of self-awareness and non-judgment, not comparing or striving to emulate others.   By creating an external space of silence, we facilitate the ability to look inward.

With this sacred space created, we start the retreat with a short meditation. We set our intention for the day.   Our group transitions to yoga, which helps facilitate the mind-body connection. Thinking about participating in yoga has brought me the most anxiety, yet I am pleasantly surprised by how good each movement feels in connection with my breath. By savasana (corpse pose), I am completely relaxed. It would be fine if we just lay on our mats for the remainder of the day. That’s not on the agenda, though.

We gather into a circle and begin another short meditation, before participating in the walking meditation. The conference center where the retreat is being held has two labyrinths.   According to the Duncan Center’s website, the labyrinth “is a path and spiritual tool for growth, discernment, prayer and healing”.

We pace our starts and slowly start the winding way toward the center. Some walk somberly while others gently dance with the path. My own pace is slow. I find myself distracted by my other classmates. A large palmetto bug scurries across the path toward the middle. My instinct is to scream and run, but instead I continue walking toward the middle – symbolically walking toward my fear. I will later share this insight during our closing, attempting to turn the bug’s presence into something significant. (As an aside – most of us started from the wrong direction and did not end up making it to the center correctly. An excellent time to practice non-judgment!)

After the labyrinth, we have the option of either journaling or sitting quietly until lunch. I take that time to write down my reflections in my notebook. I don’t have any discomfort in not speaking with others. It is normal for me to keep to myself. What comes harder for me is giving up the niceties of daily living – offering someone a chair, blessing them when they sneeze, or using please and thank you in interactions.

It is those interactions that are most missed when we break for lunch. It is strange to splinter off from everyone else and eat lunch in silence. Even those sharing the dining room with our group sense our dedication to mindfulness. I choose a table that is tucked away in a corner. As instructed by Dr. Shutt, I really take a moment to observe the shape and color of the food before me. My inclination is to tear into the warm, buttered roll before me. Instead, I start with my salad. In between bites, I set my fork on my plate. I meditate on the softness of the chickpea, the fleshly qualities of my raisin, and the creaminess of blue cheese dressing. I honestly don’t think I could eat like this everyday; however, I vow to myself that I will try to eat at least three mindful meals per week.

After lunch, Dr. Shutt leads us through one of my very favorite meditation practices, metta (compassion) meditation. We start by extending compassionate thoughts to ourselves, expanding to those who we love, our friends, acquaintances, and eventually those we find challenging. I visualize my husband, my dog and cats, family members, the great people I call my coworkers, the kindness of random strangers, and that one cousin who really gets on my nerves. During the practice, I see the color purple surrounding everyone. Superficially, purple is my favorite color. It represents the women’s movement and I identify with it strongly. Purple also is the crown chakra color, and is symbolic of spirituality, reconciliation, and balance. Whatever the significance, my meditation is colored in various shades of violet.

Gathered in our circle, we finish the day by breaking silence and sharing our experiences. I really am sad for the day to end. I can easily see myself participating in a future ten-day retreat. I don’t want to misrepresent the experience as easy. Meditation and silence is extremely challenging and it forces you to sit with your inner turmoil. I have been on both sides, and I can tell you that I would rather sit in silence than react in fear. I am grateful to share this practice with such amazing people.