Taking time to be silent and slow

Last updated 05:00 20/10/2012
empty beach
SOLITUDE: Taking time out to be alone with nature is a great way to reconnect with yourself.

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What's the point of being completely silent for three days? You could just be drinking cocktails by the pool. Sartah Berry writes.

"You're doing this for fun?" confused friends ask before I leave. After spending three days in 'noble silence' and meditating for 11 hours a day, several people with me on the silent retreat are asking the same question.

At the end of the final day, when the silence is finally broken, one woman admits she spent a fair bit of the time wondering why she hadn't just "booked into a resort and spent the weekend by the pool, sipping cocktails like everyone else."

And yet she is glad she didn't.

The camping retreat is a dana-based vipassana or 'insight meditation'. Dana is sanskrit for gift and, in the context, means nobody 'pays'. You simply give what you can afford to be there and spend the time exploring mindfulness through meditation, silence and secular 'wisdom teachings.'

Tent in hand, I'm not feeling quite so sure I am doing this "for fun". I am also feeling uncomfortably naked at the thought of being without my phone and laptop, both of which have become, embarrassingly, as 'essential' to me as clothing.

But, I bid my attire adieu (my phone stays with me, without reception, for photos and as an alarm) and arrive at the location, set in the Bundagen community on the mid north coast. Fringed with gumtrees and spotted with scraggly bushland leading down to a stunning and isolated stretch of coast, it's the perfect place to bring life back to absolute basics and recalibrate. The beach is also the perfect place to get in touch, not just with your inner self, but your inner nudist - or more specifically, your inner nudist-bodysurfer.

I find a spot amidst the 30 or so other retreat-goers, split fairly evenly between women and men, aged from about 25 to 65. My tent pops up easily enough, albeit with several puzzlingly spare tent pegs.

Each day starts with a sunrise yoga session and then alternate sessions of sitting, walking and guided meditation. The sessions are interspersed with delicious meals, all given as a 'gift' by the 'hippies' who have a delightful sign saying their community protects a "an endangered humanoid species: 'The Hippy'".

The walking meditations involve moving slowly, absorbing the smells, the sensation of sun-dried grass between your toes and the sounds of the kookaburras, lorikeets, currawongs and red-browed finches. Moving so slowly and consciously is an exercise in receptivity and sensitivity - which is easily lost to lives that move so quickly. Having said that, to the outsider we look like lobotomy patients in a psych ward.

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It's easy to imagine retreats like these will be a painfully earnest affair, with each person trying to out-zen the next, if only in appearances. Thankfully, the atmosphere feels light, warm and authentic.

By being silent and being with yourself, the idea is to interrupt the perpetual loop of thought many of us have on repeat; learning to bring yourself back to the experience of right here and now, engaging without distortions of judgment, criticism or fear.

It is a beautiful experience in many ways. But, it is an awful lot of time to spend with yourself, without words and without the distraction of phone, television or computer. The silence and space brings perspective and with that I realise how much pain from the past paints the picture of my present.

I'm not the only one.

There is an inquiry session each day, where any member of the group can sit with the teacher and ask a question. Out loud. One woman bursts into tears the moment she sits down. She normally keeps herself busy to distract herself from herself, she says. "So, this is really hard." Everyone nods in agreement.

Of course you don't have to go on retreat to have such realisations about yourself. Anyone who takes time out to commune with nature and themselves, can appreciate that. The retreat simply offers a structured environment and teachings that allow you to get back in touch.

One such teaching is to practice equanimity (which is differentiated from indifference through compassion). Rather than focusing on our own suffering, we are encouraged to cultivate compassion through noticing the acts of others and by being light on ourselves - to not take it all too seriously. 

I realise that staying open and connected is not complicated, as we often make it. It's not worrying about puzzlingly spare tent pegs. It's about doing the simple things that nourish. For me, that's being with the people I love, seeing live music, surfing, being in nature, dancing. And maybe even a little nude bodysurfing. Simple.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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