When I signed up for a weeklong silent meditation retreat, I was looking forward to some peace and quiet, to deepening my meditation practice, and to having no choice but to unplug. When the first day actually arrived, I spent the six-hour train ride to the retreat center manically scrolling through Instagram-famous ferrets and art history memes like they were my very life-force. By the time I walked through the doors, the idea of spending seven days living in device-free, total silence with two dozen strangers felt unbearable.
And it felt unbearable quite a few more times throughout the week. But it was also life-changing. Largely in ways I’ll be figuring out with my therapist for a long, long time, but also in more practical ways I didn’t necessarily expect. In fact, I’ve incorporated some of what I learned into my life now that I’m home, which means I’ve become one of those insufferable people who tells others they should unplug, too. Here’s how I’ve changed since coming back.
I’m Not Glued to My Phone All the Time
Yes, I know that blue light messes with your sleep. And that spending too much time on your phone stresses you out. And that browsing Instagram after midnight leads to cutting your own bangs with a pair of kitchen scissors 100 percent of the time. Still, mindless scrolling is a part of my nighttime routine and my morning commute, and it’s usually what I default to during pockets of idle time when I don’t know what else to do with my hands.
I wasn’t cured of this in a week. In fact, there were plenty of times that my phone, tucked away in a bag in my room, felt like a phantom limb. But it also felt really, really nice to be away from it and to realize I didn’t actually need it to fall asleep or entertain myself as much as I thought I did. I was already a fan of long, phone-free walks pre-retreat, but now I’m also making a point to resist the urge to pick up my phone during those smaller moments when I feel anxious or bored.
I’m More Mindful
The hours I spent on a cushion weren’t my only meditative time during the retreat. I also meditated while doing my daily chore, cleaning one of the communal shower rooms. (By the end of the week, sponging down the shower curtains set my soul on fire.) I savored my daily walk up the long pebbled driveway to find the “good” rocks. Picking lint off my shirt became a treat. My lint-picking hobby doesn’t thrill me in quite the same way now that I’m home, but I’m still finding a sort of calm joy in being in the moment and practicing mindfulness while cleaning my apartment, cooking, and watering my plants.
I’m Even Eating More Mindfully
Every meal I ate at the retreat, I ate with nothing more than some critters on the porch to entertain me. Did I come to believe that I shared a deep psychic connection with a chipmunk I named Gary? Of course. But over the week, I also realized that, in my real life, I never eat without something else to do. I’m always deep in conversation with friends, reading, or watching TV. Just eating felt really uncomfortable — and to be honest, boring — at first. But by the second day, I felt like I was paying attention to my hunger and fullness cues and even enjoying my food more. Am I now canceling dinners with friends to sit on my couch alone with reheated leftover pizza? No. But I am starting many mornings with my cat on my lap and a quiet, distraction-free cup of coffee and a piece of fruit.
I’m Kinder to Myself
Things can get loud when you get quiet. You know that voice in your head that seems to be there just to criticize you? You know, like when you’re taking a workout class for the first time and you hear, “You’re doing it wrong,” with every squat, or when you’re trying to fall asleep and your brain is all, “What if everyone secretly hates you?” and “Are you maybe dead inside?” Seven days of silence took my awareness of that voice — and the authority I give it — to a whole new level. I came to recognize it not as the voice of truth, but just an especially loud voice, like a shouty mansplainer in a work meeting who sure seems to be talking a lot, but doesn’t actually know what the hell is going on.
Sure, I still sometimes fall asleep mentally scrolling through a highlight reel of every embarrassing thing I’ve ever done, like all normal people. But more and more often, I’m remembering that I don’t have to go to battle with that voice every time I hear it. I can hear it with a bit of detached bemusement — and for now, that’s plenty life-changing all on its own.