When I drove to the retreat center near Cincinnati inundated in pouring rain, thunder and lightening, even hail, I thought very seriously about turning back. I was already frustrated by the incredible amount of work I had to get done before I left Columbus. My new apartment, into which I moved just a few days before, was left filled with unpacked and disorganized boxes. I spent an enormous amount of time finishing my paid work and too little time packing and preparing for the retreat. Add terrible traffic and a horrific thunderstorm to the mix and I just wanted to go home and pull the covers over my head.
Even though I arrived to the retreat center later than was ideal, I was greeted by friendly, calm, forgiving faces. I quickly realized: Soon I don’t have to talk to any of these people. A flood of relief hit me. I settled into my simple room, shaking off the rain and anxiety as best I could. I met up for our first group session that ushered us into silence. I was so relieved that all I would soon have to do was silently get back to my room and go to sleep. I didn’t even care that I had shut down my electronic devices and locked them in my car. I wasn’t intimidated by the potentially awkward silence of sharing meals with a group of people committed to NOT talking to each other. I wasn’t worried that I wouldn’t have enough to do during breaks. I just wanted to be left alone.
I learned many things about myself during this retreat, but this was perhaps most startling — I spend A LOT of energy planning what I need to do for or say to other people. Mind you, I’m an extrovert who LOVES to talk. I love the buzz of large summer festivals, raucous dinners in bustling restaurants with friends, and greeting dozens, even hundreds, of strangers after Sunday worship when I’m serving as a pastor.
The dark side of being able to feed off people’s energy — I’ve learned in middle age — is that I can always use it as stimuli when I am exhausted. I can mask the need for rest, quiet and rejuvenation just by seeking out a crowd. In a group silent practice like this retreat, I had to plug into the primary, universal energy source in a more intentional way. I felt every bit of my energy depletion, but I also recognized how simple and easy it is to reconnect through spiritual practice, silence and community.
My intention for the silent retreat weekend had been fairly dramatic — I wanted God to burn away whatever unhelpful habits, thoughts, emotions or … whatever … was holding me back from living my calling and fullest life possible. I began wondering just what it even means to bring my whole self. Just what is the whole self I don’t feel that I’m able to bring to all aspects of my life? I paused to journal on this question during the Saturday afternoon walking meditation. I wrote a long list of personality traits, gifts and skills I offered this world and my work. I felt better, but I was still stuck — what made me feel like there were other things, less desirable things about me getting in my way?
After another evening practice session, the realization and relief hit me at the same time — I could welcome those hurt and broken parts of myself without feeling the need to fix them. Just give them the attention they need and let them rest by my side. My wounded parts are helpful to me: warning me when things are wrong, telling me when I need rest and comfort, helping me to be an even greater person because of my vulnerability. God didn’t need to take away anything, I just needed to learn to welcome all parts of myself, even the ones that I prefer remain hidden or at least that I could bring into the light only long enough so I could fix them.
On the final day of our morning practice, as I felt the energy of the practices shift necessarily to the outer world, I felt my body and mind resist leaving the silence. Though much-renewed, I was still very tired. I wished that I had another couple days to stay in the safety and nurture of the silence. Since I couldn’t do that, I have tried to take pieces of this silent practice with me into my daily life. I’m trying to insist on spending at least 10 minutes a day in silence — the time I spend eating a meal setting my devices aside, taking an “unnecessary walk” just for the quiet, to just sit and do nothing or allow myself a much-needed nap.
As a trained religious leader, I’ve learned how to do active listening, being what we call a “pastoral presence.” The lesson I learned is that even listening to people, processing what they say and gauging how you are going to respond to or care for that person takes energy. Although religious leaders will talk a good game about self-care, we don’t spend much time discussing what those practices actually are and how to practice them in the midst of busy lives and taxing ministries. If we don’t talk much about them, I’m guessing most of us don’t spend much time actually doing them either. I suppose that’s why I turned to yoga so soon after seminary. This silent retreat affirmed what I’ve been learning over and over again in my yoga practice — that I need to rejuvenate myself, comfort myself and, most importantly, take what I need to forgive and heal myself.