Treating my mind to the gift of silence

Judging the word before experiencing it

5 years ago the word Retreat would have been something that I would have ran away from rather than ran to. Mainly because I would have done what alot of us do - judged it based on what I thought it was. I just had a different idea of what a retreat was and associated it with images of my school day retreat experiences. I guess that was when I also wasn't really fully aware of what self-care was or how to really recharge my batteries and completely 'switch-off'.

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I completed my first retreat as part of my MBSR programme which was a one day silent retreat. Again - the words "Silent Retreat" did bring me out in a small sweat and if I am perfectly honest when I originally signed up to the course I quietly said to myself "I might be sick that day" Again, that was before I had began to try mindfulness or meditation - or for that matter - before I knew how to sit for more than a minute on my own and listen to my breath.

Allowing yourself the time to just be...

On the morning of that first retreat I said to my husband "How will I not talk for the whole day?" and I also felt myself having that well known guilty feeling us mums have heading off to spend a Sunday completely for myself. I would be doing meditation, yoga, going on mindful walks, eating beautiful vegetarian food - mindfully - so I would have a whole hour to sit and just eat - seriously didn't that sound selfish? What kind of a mum was I heading off doing that? Shouldn't I spend my sunday with my children and my husband doing what alot of us mums do on a sunday?? Some of those hours running around the house doing washing, cleaning, cooking or doing whatever we needed to do to catch up before monday??? All these thoughts were real thoughts I had back then - but they were just thoughts - thoughts that I had conjured up myself in my own head which so many of us mums do - TO OURSELVES!!!

I didn't know the benefits then of what self-care actually meant. I have said it before and I'll say it again - what are we told every time we get on a plane? Tend to your own life jacket BEFORE you attend to your childrens. When we spend time with our children are we really present? Learning the beautiful practice of mindfulness has taught me that the more I allow myself the time to practice the more clear minded, calm and above all present I am with my children when I am with them. So giving up a day or a weekend every now and again for complete self-care is like rewarding yourself and your children with extra quality time to spend with them.

The Full Day Silent Retreat

The full day silent retreat that Donna Curtin runs as part of her MBSR Programme is held in the very beautiful grounds of Glenstal Abbey in Murroe, Co. Limerick. "A place of great natural beauty" it is one of those places where you can just feel the calming energy from - even if it's just for a stroll around it's beautiful gardens, pause for a moment in the newly refurbished church or make an appointment to view the amazing Orthodox icons in another chapel in the crypt of the main church.

The Silent Day Retreat is normally run on week 6 of the 8 week MBSR course but Donna kindly invites past pupils back to participate in it with the students who are currently doing the course, so there is an opportunity to attend twice yearly. It is not alone a lovely way to refresh your practice but also a lovely way to connect with others who have also completed the MBSR course. While the day is in complete silence there is an energy between everyone that has to be experienced to understand fully but it really is a lovely experience. At the end of the day there is also a time when Donna invites people to share their experiences of the day so we all get to speak at that point if we feel we want to and you can also get to hear how other people are doing on their mindful journey.

The day starts off with some tea and freshly baked scones from the kitchen in Glenstal and a chance to get comfortable with each other and have a chat before the silence begins. The last Retreat that was on was held in a beautiful circular shaped room above the newly built library which I also discovered worked to my advantage with the sound of Donna's voice in the room travelling when guiding us through our meditations and yoga. I normally have to think carefully about positioning myself in the room with my right ear towards the person talking but the circular room seemed to make the sound travel easier to me that day. Or perhaps that was just the energy in the room?

Donna usually guides us through a sitting meditation and some yoga - or mindful movement before we experience some walking meditation which is such a fantastic way to become truly present and in touch with your surroundings and in Glenstal this makes the experience even more enjoyable. Again, this type of walking is very different from the walking I had ever done before. It isn't anything like the walking alot of us busy mums tend to do... getting from A to B in a half an hour so we can say "box ticked on the exercise for today - now I can reward myself with a biscuit!" Mindful walking - like the practice itself is about non-striving. It's about being fully present for every step, moment by moment...really feeling each and every step. Like Donna says, "think about how long it takes us to learn to walk when we are babies, what a miracle it actually is yet we all do it every day without thinking about it". It took me a while to grasp the feeling of this and as I discovered on my most recent retreat I was actually resisting alot when it came to it - not just because I was walking quickly - but also because the only time in my life I had walked slowly was after my back surgeries so the more I have meditated the more I have softened to be able to recognise this.

Walk as if you are kissing the earth with your feet
— Thích Nhat Hanh

Enjoying every moment and every mouthful

One of the things that surprised me most about the day is how quickly the time goes and from hearing other participants feedback at the end of the day it seems that I am not the only one to feel that way. The mindful lunch is again another part of the day that I was daunted by the first time I attended as Donna had allowed us an hour and a half to eat and go for a stroll if we wished to do so afterwards and again I had judged this one - and myself - and thought - "How will I spend an hour eating my lunch?" I knew that if I was to truly experience and benefit from the day that there was no point in tearing away for a power walk after so I said here goes - I'll see what happens and would you believe I enjoyed the experience so much that I sat and ate the entire time and barely had time to walk mindfully back to the afternoon session!

Just allowing ourselves to sit - again - fully present with each mouthful that we are eating. Savouring and really tasting every bit, feeling grateful for the ingredients that went into each piece of food and the time it took to cook and prepare each piece. How many times have we wolfed down a sandwich at our desks so fast that we would barely remember afterwards what we just ate - let alone remember what it tasted like!

What surpised me most about eating mindfully - along with how much I actually tasted the food - was also how quickly I became full. When you eat mindfully you digest properly - once again like the practice itself - it really is that simple!

In the afternoon along with some meditation, more walking, and some exercises that highlight how we react to stress can have a direct impact on our bodies. We also practice Metta Loving-kindness which is one of the most powerful things I have learned on my mindfulness journey and it is something I now also practice with my children.

"May I be happy and peaceful. May I be healthy and strong. May I be free from inner and outer harm. May I live with ease."

Loving-kindness meditation is a simple repetition of these phrases, but directing them at different people. "May you be healthy and peaceful. May you be healthy and strong. May you be free from inner and outer harm. May you live with ease."

1. Donna starts by directing the phrases at herself and invites us to follow her but as it is a silent retreat we just think of the words as she says them: "May I be happy..."

2. Next, Donna invites us to direct the metta towards someone you feel thankful to have in our lives or someone who has helped us out in some way.

3. Then she asks us to visualize someone who we feel neutral about - someone we neither like nor dislike - like someone who works in the local post office or coffee shop.

4. It's funny how often the next one can be easier: visualizing the people you don't like or who you are having a hard time with.

5. Finally, Donna will direct the metta towards everyone universally: "May all beings everywhere be happy."

Donna also reads some really lovely pieces of poetry and stories from her beautiful selection of books - which everyone connects with - and we end the day by sharing our experiences with one another.

Ending the day with a grateful heart

On all the silent retreats I have been on, it really is amazing to hear how we all experience so many similar things and how connected we all actually are. At the start of our mindful journeys we often experience the feeling of guilt for allowing ourselves that time - as if it was something wrong - as if it was selfish in some way but I am glad to say that the one feeling that nearly everyone I have met feels at the end of a retreat is a feeling of gratitude. A feeling of calmness. A feeling of happiness. I have felt all of those after every time I have gone on one of those amazing days and as I drive home to my family I walk in my front door feeling as if I have just taken my body, heart and my mind to a spa, and my family feel the same.