It might be strange to have a picture of a steam train with a blog post about silence. Especially when you also think about the noises that steam trains produce. The hissing, and the wistling. But this steam train was next to the place where I attended a silent retreat this weekend.

It had been a long time since I’ve attended a retreat, and it was the first time that I attended a silent retreat. A weekend with no smartphone (I answered 2 mails, but no social media at all), no laptop and no talking. But even though it was a weekend of no talking, I felt really connected.

The decision to go to this silent retreat came suddenly. As a volunteer I make the online registration forms for these retreats and days of mindfulness and I help other volunteers to get familiar with the technology. I thus play my silent role in many retreats, but I hardly ever go myself. I’m stuck in the habit energy of putting other people first and taking care of myself last.

Flight attendants always instruct us to put on our own oxygen mask first before assisting others. If we pass out because of lack of oxygen, we can’t help others either. This applies to our everyday lives as well. If we don’t take good care of ourselves, if we don’t nourish ourselves mentally, emotionally and spiritually, we have nothing to offer to others. For me this requires the willingness to not be available for a while. The willingness to trust that everything and everyone will be just fine without me for a couple of days, after which I’ll be back with renewed energy, ready to play my role in the world.

The retreat started on Friday evening. I had no idea how silent a silent retreat would be. The first evening we had the opportunity to get to know each other though. People could arrive until 18:00. We had supper and as usual during retreats in this tradition, the first 15 minutes of the meal were in silence. After that we could talk a bit. Many people were already in silent mode, so although we got to know each other a bit, there was a lot of silence already.

In the evening, there was an introduction about the weekend. Apart from giving us some practical information, Hilly Bol, who was leading the retreat as a dharma teacher, also shared some examples from everyday life that showed clearly how much we are in the habit of being focused at the goal instead of at the process. We are so often ‘there’ with our minds, and not ‘here’. And she said something that struck a chord with me. Here in the West we don’t often take enough time to go within. To stop, and rest and heal. But sometimes life has a way of making sure that we do, and so we get sick, or break a leg. And we get our ‘silent retreat’ in another way.

After the introduction the silence started. And of course, although I had turned off all notifications on my phone, or so I thought, there still was one alarm that came through. The travel planner app was warning me about the adjusted timetables because of the snowy weather. I immediately wanted to apologize verbally. This was exactly what Hilly had talked about during the introduction. Habit energy. Can we observe why we want or need to say what we are about to say? The rest of the weekend I left my phone in my bedroom.

The next day started with a cup of tea and meditation. I truly love those morning meditations! First half an hour sitting meditation, then a short walking meditation, and again sitting meditation. The meditation was followed by some Qi Gong exercises and then we had breakfast.

Part of the practice is working meditation. On Saturday two other people and I mindfully peeled potatoes for the entire group. We got the tip to practice paying attention to what our hands were doing, while working. Boy those potatoes were cold! I assume they had been lying in the refrigerator until then. My hands were very uncomfortable. We had to peel those potatoes with a peeler instead of with a knife like I’m used to. This gave me something to practice with. Not only handling the peeler (which feels very different from handling a knife) but also on a psychological level. Observing my thoughts. The woman next to me was peeling like a pro. Very fast and her potatoes ended up very clean and nice. I peeled half as fast as she did, and my potatoes were still a bit muddy in the end, because of me holding them. I noticed that I felt clumsy compared to her, and also that I wanted to suppress that feeling. Come on, we’re not having a competition here! Noticing those feelings I could smile to myself and let them go.

Working meditation was also bringing the dishes to the dining room, and washing up afterwards. The latter was actually quite nice. There was a super dishwasher that could wash an entire tray of plates in one minute. The only thing you had to do was dry the dishes, but that was a breeze as well because they were steaming hot.

Another element is walking meditation outside, in the snow. It doesn’t snow very often in the Netherlands, so when it does, I really enjoy it. The second time we did walking meditation on Saturday, we did it individually. That was when I saw the steam train. I had heard the train already a couple of times that day, but I never expected to have the opportunity to take a picture. But there he was, showing off his beauty, with the lights on. Standing there on the little train station behind the retreat center. So I ‘mindfully’ took some pictures, and with a big smile I continued my walking meditation.

On Saturday Hilly gave a talk about the practice, and what I learned from it was that we can apply ‘being there for someone’ to ourselves as well. The silence of the retreat made me realize that I need to take time to go into receiving mode. I have this strong desire to be of service, to be of value to others. But I can only be of value if I am able to replenish and receive as well. I need to become more aware of the elements in my life that nourish me.

On a mental level I feel very nourished already. I have a job that I love and that allows me to learn and grow every day. I have the internet and books and can get any information I want.

On an emotional level I’m nourished by kindness and joy and I’m very grateful for the kind and loving people in my life. Appreciating what I receive from them is nourishing. Beauty nourishes me as well, like the snow and the steam train. Animals nourish me too.

On a spiritual level I’m nourished by silence and meditation. Silence allows me to relax my senses and get in touch with deeper parts of my being. It brings me to a place where I can receive insights into small and large questions in life.

The physical level level of nourishment is something I should pay more attention to. Being aware of my body’s needs, and listening! Resting when necessary, eating mindfully, more exercise. So often my mind says “you don’t have time!”, but that is nonsense. I should take the time, because if I don’t, life will find a way to give me a silent retreat in another way.

The retreat allowed me to nourish myself on the spiritual, emotional and physical level. The silence was wonderful. Even though we didn’t talk to each other we were connected and you could feel it. A two day break from the noise and the busyness of the world.

We wrapped up a bit early on Sunday, because of the snow, so that people could drive home safely. I’m back in everyday life, but with the intention to stop more often, go in receiving mode and become aware of all the things in the here and the now that are nourishing for me. To appreciate the things I so often take for granted and to take care of myself on every level.

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