I went on a day long retreat last week to Quiet Place, a large and comfortable cabin with a wrap around porch near Lancaster, KY. It is a beautiful and secluded place that is used exclusively for spiritual retreats. I went alone for a time of silence and solitude and even though it was only for the day it reminded me of how difficult being silent and alone with your self can be. I have done extended retreats of four or five days but they have been at the Abbey of Gethsemane where you can at least see other people and attend services where the psalms are sung by the monks. That does provide some distraction from your thoughts.
The idea of silence and solitude is to do “God Alone”, and while some reading and reflection is ok as a jumping off place but the purpose is to enter into an attentive silence with God. This involves a meditative posture that goes beyond thinking and involves awareness and a listening for God’s voice. This might sound romantic or mystical but the nuts and bolts of letting your thoughts go, to get beyond thinking or beyond your feelings is rather messy and challenging. When you are quiet and alone with your thoughts and there is nothing to distract you from them, you may experience and discover some disconcerting or challenging things about your self. You may also have an incredible experience with God where you are aware of being in His Presence and you know this because you experience that He is with you. He is no longer just an idea or a concept, He is an experience. This is what the soul is hungry for, an experience of God’s presence. And you can’t think or feel your way into it.
I regularly teach many of my clients how to meditate, especially the ones that struggle with anxiety, panic attacks and PTSD. The benefits of meditating are amazing and they have been fully documented in the scientific community. It is one of the most effective stress reduction techniques that is available. Sitting in silence focusing on your breath with abdominal breathing for twenty minutes a day is all that is required. (follow this link for more information:http://www.webmd.com/mental-health/features/meditation-heals-body-and-mind). It is a very simple thing that is incredibly difficult, at least for most people. I encourage you to try it, sitting quietly focusing only on the in and out of deep abdominal breaths. You will likely find it incredibly difficult to keep your focus on your breath; instead you might find your mind wandering down random tracks or to concerns about the events of the day, tasks that need attention, or fears and obsessions that spontaneously surface. It can be very difficult to let things, thoughts, and feelings go, and just be in the moment.
Most if not all spiritual traditions have long included meditative practices for spiritual formation. My faith background is Christian and there is a rich tradition of contemplative practices that are centered in some form of meditation. They are tried and true paths to experiencing God. The challenge is that meditation is not a quick fix that soon produces a result. It is a discipline that is practiced.
I had a very difficult time at Quiet Place last week. I could not settle, could not get quiet and enter into silence. I sought out things to distract myself and avoid this unsettled state. My mental and emotional self was agitated and I could not enter into the present moment. I left disappointed but not discouraged. Acknowledging and facing our inner demons is an important part of the process and affirms the power of silence and solitude to expose what needs the Light of Day, the Love of God, and the Peace of Grace. All I can do is give myself to it.