I honestly don’t know if I would have ever signed up for a silent retreat if it wasn’t a stepping stone to something else I wanted. Although I’ve developed a daily mindfulness meditation practice over the past few years, and enjoyed my experience at a day-long silent meditation retreat several years ago, taking a week away from my normal life to spend all day in silence didn’t appeal to me.
However, last year I decided that I wanted to get trained to become a Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) teacher in 2019 and before I could attend the teacher training, I had to attend a 5-day silent meditation retreat. Which is how I found myself at a retreat center in SW London last month, preparing to spend the next five days in silence.
On the first evening of the retreat, before we entered into silence, we were asked to share our intentions, or hopes, for our time at the retreat. While others said they were looking forward to reconnecting with themselves, taking a break from day-to-day life, or deepening their meditation practice, I confessed that my attendance was primarily out of obligation. I was there because I had to be there in order to attend the MSC teacher training. Surely I would gain something from the experience, in addition to the certificate of attendance, but at that moment I really wasn’t yet sure what it would be.
It turns out that there would many things I would take away from the retreat. Over the next few days I would come face to face with many painful spots inside of me that I would be able to use MSC practices to heal. But before I got to the place where I was willing to greet these wounds with self-compassion…I almost left my silent retreat!
It happened on my first night there. We’d just entered into silence and retired to our rooms for the night, I was caught off-guard by a perfect storm–the combination of anxiety and shame. However, it wasn’t until much later that I was able to recognize that this is what was happening. In that moment, all I noticed was a looming sense of dread and a need to run as far away as possible from the retreat. My inner critic arrived (again, I didn’t recognize that it was my inner critic until later) and told me I wasn’t cut out for being at a silent retreat, I was obviously a fraud, and I had been foolish for thinking I could be an MSC teacher.
Thankfully, in that moment I was at least able to grab a pen and paper and write out some of my swirling thoughts which helped me to gain some distance from them. I also focused on taking some deep breaths. This helped to ground me and allowed me to start to observe what was happening at that moment. It didn’t make the anxiety or shame dissolve entirely, but it allowed me to step out of the storm and plan my next move. I practiced a self-compassion meditation and this act of self-care and soothing must have been just what I needed because before I knew it, I was waking up the next morning.
As part of the retreat, the teachers had organized small groups where we would gather together and intentionally break our silence. Although this might seem strange to do on a silent retreat, because this retreat was focused on helping us to deepen our self-compassion practice, they had created these small groups to cultivate one of the three components of self-compassion: common humanity. When we’re hurting, we tend to tell ourselves that something is wrong with us, or that no one else would feel that way. Common humanity helps provide an antidote to this by reminding us that we are not alone, that being human is hard, and that perfection does not exist.
In these small groups, we were invited to briefly share the challenges that we were facing on the retreat. I was still feeling a sort of shame hangover from the previous evening, but I dared to share with the group that I had considered leaving the retreat the night before. To my surprise, I discovered that others in my group had had different variants of this same thought. I was truly not alone.
In her book, “The Gifts of Imperfection,” shame researcher Brene Brown shares the following–
“Shame hates it when we reach out and tell our story. It hates having words wrapped around it- it can’t survive being shared. Shame loves secrecy. When we bury our story, the shame metastasizes.”
Shame is one of the most difficult feelings to untangle ourselves from because with other uncomfortable feelings like fear, anger, or sadness, we can practice mindfulness and unhook from the feelings by observing and accepting them. Shame, however, is a whole other animal. As MSC co-founder Dr. Chris Germer says in this article in the Harvard Business Review, “Shame has a way of wiping out the very observer who is needed to be mindful of our situation.”
So, when being mindful of our emotions isn’t enough, we need to reach out. In the moment that I allowed myself to be vulnerable and shared my own struggles in our common humanity group, my shame truly did dissolve. Sharing our story is a way for us to break free from the clenches of shame, to remind ourselves that there isn’t anything wrong with us—that being human is full of challenges.
I had a number of discoveries during the retreat, but one of my biggest realizations was that I had unconsciously gone into the experience with unhelpful expectations. I had viewed it as sort of a test to see if I could survive it and thereby earn the right to be a MSC teacher.
On the retreat I was reminded of the three stages of progress in self-compassion:
- True Acceptance
I had gone into the retreat with an attitude of striving. I felt disillusioned when I found myself in a shame storm. But by the end of the week I found myself more in a place of true acceptance. Acceptance of the fact that the journey of deepening my own self-compassion practice does not have a destination.
This is lifelong work where I will continually have opportunities to do the hard, often counterintuitive, work of turning towards myself in moments of pain, instead of away. And it is only in accepting this reality and fully embodying self-compassion practices, that I will be able to guide my future students on their own path towards befriending themselves. As meditation teacher Pema Chodron says,
“We can still be crazy after all these years. We can still be angry after all these years. We can still be timid or jealous or full of feelings of unworthiness. The point is not to try to throw ourselves away and become something better. It’s about befriending who we are already.”
I’m overjoyed to announce that after returning from the retreat, I received the exciting news that I was accepted into the MSC teacher training this July in the Netherlands! I can’t wait to bring this work to the international community that my clients are a part of. Everyone, everywhere, can benefit from deepening their compassion towards themselves, and others, but I think it is especially relevant for those of us whose lives span cultures, continents and languages. It’s so common for us to feel alone and rootless, and self-compassion offers us a chance to find a sense of home inside of ourselves. And practicing self-compassion alongside other global citizens seems like the ideal way to deepen our sense of common humanity.
“My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.”― Desmond Tutu
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