Journey into stillness
Experiencing a silent retreat can help us feel more connected than ever – to ourselves, to others, and to nature.
“What brought you here?” asks our facilitator Peter during the welcoming circle of the weekend silent retreat. Eyes closed, I sense the others in the meditation space go into a state of deep thought, pondering the question carefully, like myself. In this moment, a wave of answers flood my busy mind: I’m here for reflection, I’m here to experience emotional and mental clarity, I’m here to step away from everyday life – so many reasons, all equally important to me, but I feel there’s something else I haven’t quite placed my finger on.
Just when I think I’m at a loss, I notice it. That first moment of silence. Bar the sounds of distant bird calls, the carefree clucks of a few hens outside, and the rain droplets gently landing on the roof above us – total human silence. This is it, I realise. This is why I’m here: to unplug, focus on simply being, and truly experience the nature around me without distraction. It’s a feeling so simple, raw, and innate; a part of me I’ve left by the wayside for too long.
The power of silence
Out here, in a beautiful, bush-lined valley near Wentworth Falls in the Blue Mountains, it’s easy to reconnect with this side of myself and just be. With such a serene setting to buffer the outside world, it’s no wonder Athil Singh, the founder of Happy Buddha Retreats, established roots here. It’s the perfect place to escape to and explore the power of silence, which is where I now find myself, at the beginning of the Journey into Stillness retreat.
I’ve never attended a retreat before, let alone a silent one, but they have always intrigued me. So when I had the opportunity to try one, I was game. There’s something about silence that calls to me; the peaceful aspect of shifting my focus within and letting go of all the distractions from the outside world. I worry, however, that as a rookie I may feel out of my depth, but I learn soon enough that being a beginner here is not only acceptable but very welcome.
Happy Buddha Retreats retreat house and outbuilding. Image: Sarah Webb
Peter guides us through the final meditation for the evening and declares it’s time to hand in our phones and enter into silence. “Speak to you all on Sunday,” he says.
Walking inside the three-storey brick retreat house, I’m immediately in awe of the simple yet beautifully crafted spaces – a large lounge room with a toasty fireplace, a cosy library with a charming reading nook, a small dining room for mealtimes, and aptly named bedrooms upstairs, such as the one I’m in – Shambhala. The house emanates a quiet, cosy warmth, and I’m ready to bask in this blissful cocoon.
Meditation in many forms
For two and a half days, along with the eight other guests, I navigate the ebbs and flows of the silent meditation retreat. The beauty of it being that meditation comes in many forms. Each day, Peter guides us through seated mediations, yin yoga, mindfulness activities, and a nature walk – all undertaken in silence by the guests. Athil, the founder, tells me that this retreat, like all of their programs, is a true collaboration with the facilitators, and I see this reflected in our sessions with Peter. He brings his individual spirit, experience, flair, and insights to the meditations, and does so with kindness, humour, balance, and equanimity. As a beginner, I appreciate this approach, as it makes for a smoother transition from my noisy real life to the calm, silent retreat life.
I’m finding many benefits to being still and calm in such a pristine, natural environment. As we wander the grounds of the retreat and meditate among the trees during a sensory and nature walk, I feel myself attune to nature. The moment is so surreal and made all the more magical when I focus on the element that draws me in the most. Oddly, it’s sound.
As beautiful as it feels to sweep my hand across the rough bark of a tree or smell the aromas of the native flora, it’s the sensation of my ears pricking up at the slightest but curious sounds that appeals to me. The crunch of the grass beneath my bare feet, the happy murmurs of hens and baby chicks as they roam freely with us, and the flutter of birds’ wings overhead are enchanting me the most. It’s the roaring sounds of the nearby waterfall and the clapping of thunder during our deep listening mediation – an incredible display of Mother Nature – that deepens my appreciation for the natural world around me.
Food for body and spirit
Later, we gather for a delicious, home-cooked meal of pea and potato curry, dhal, and salad – completely vegan, by the way! I’m so delighted at how fresh and wholesome it is that I want to share my joy with the rest of the group, but I can’t. Instead, I look to them and nod my head eagerly in approval, gesturing to my polished-clean plate, and everyone quietly laughs in mutual appreciation for the food.
Peter tells us they have collected their vegan and vegetarian recipes over the years from the founder’s family, the kitchen crew, and even volunteers who love to adapt and create new dishes for the guests to enjoy. Just like the simplicity of silence, the vegan food I eat is calming and nourishing, healing as well as fuelling my mind. The food seems to complement the meditation sessions I’ve been attending, so my sense of wellbeing is flourishing and I’m finding better balance both mentally and physically.
Aside from my food-inspired gesticulations, it’s interesting that throughout the weekend experience, I don’t feel compelled to share my thoughts and feelings with anyone – not an urge to post on social media nor send a text to a friend – it’s enough to just be with myself and relax into stillness. Perhaps it’s because by handing in my phone, I’ve silenced that part of myself that’s stimulated by devices. I also find that the more time I spend with myself without the constant companion of my devices, the clearer my mind feels.
Being without any form of technology has also left me living without a way to tell time, which is an experience in itself. There’s a grandfather clock in the dining room; however, its face has been cheekily covered by a piece of paper that has ‘NOW’ written on it in thick, black marker. And that’s the whole point, isn’t it? We’ve literally shaped our lives around an intangible concept, ruled by the pressures of time in our day-to-day lives, often without ever truly being present. And so the absence of time has never felt more freeing.
Happy Buddha Retreats meditation and workshop space. Image: Sarah Webb
By immersing myself in the present moment, nourishing myself with healthy food, meditating, and focusing on the sights and sounds of nature on this silent journey, I have let myself – perhaps, for the first time – experience life as it is. I’m hesitant to share this with the group during our closing circle at first, not because I’m afraid to – we’ve all had similar experiences – but for a much simpler reason: I’m thriving in my own silence.
It feels like gazing at the distant horizon from the beach or witnessing the expansiveness of an uninterrupted landscape – my world is opening up. And there is a part of me that thinks once I speak again, the spell will break, and a wave of clutter will flood my mind again. But once the other guests begin to share their experiences with the group, I’m reminded that stillness is not about control, it’s about learning how to cultivate an inner silence within myself and harnessing this to reach a deeper, personal understanding of life.
While Peter told us that the experience would be different for everyone, I think we all learned that communication isn’t just about what we say. Through silence, we can foster some of the most meaningful connections – with nature, with others, and, most importantly, with ourselves.
Lead image: Polina Kovaleva on Pexels