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What I learned About Myself From A 10-Day Silent Meditation Retreat

Written by: Alec Jiggins, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

 

Nothing can prepare you for the pain in your ass (and every other part of your mind and body) that you get from a 10-day meditation retreat. It doesn’t matter how you position the cushions or how you sit. When you’re sat in one position, without moving, for an hour, the pain is excruciating. But, on the other side of the pain, I discovered something amazing. Peace of mind and an inner sense of calm that is energizing.

Group of people meditating in a yoga class outdoors and looking peaceful

Prior to the retreat, I had a difficult relationship with meditation and mindfulness. I knew its value; I just struggled with a regular practice. I occasionally listened to Calm or Headspace, usually reclining on the sofa or laying on the floor. As the sweet tones of a guided meditation released the tension from my mind, I would drift off to sleep. And then there’s the whole “right way” of meditating; life is packed with people whose opinion on the topic supposedly matters. I’ve spoken with a number of “gurus” and come to the conclusion that, like noses, everyone’s opinion varies. So, choose what works for you and ignore the noise.


So, last summer, after discussions with my coach, I decided to jump all in. I booked myself on a 10-day silent meditation retreat. In the days leading up to the retreat, I tried to build some discipline, I even bought an “official” meditation cushion off Amazon and tried, unsuccessfully, to sit on it for an hour. But nothing could prepare me for what was coming.


I arrived at the retreat, a beautiful country house in the English countryside. I was welcomed warmly, guided through the onboarding instructions, and shown to my dorm. We were still able to talk at that point, my iPhone a heavy presence in my pocket. I unpacked my few clothes, made my bed, called my wife, and turned off my phone, passing it to a smiling course mentor who whisked it away into a locker. Immediately, I felt lighter. With my phone gone, I walked into the garden, found a chair amongst the wild grasses, sat down and closed my eyes. Bring on the nirvana.


That evening, we were taken to the meditation hall – a large warehouse of a room, covered with a soft beige carpet, punctuated with a staccato of blue cushion “islands” that would become both our torturer and saviour, juxtaposing in each heartbeat. We began our vow of silence and meditation training, and I experienced the first taste of what was in store.


We woke daily at 4 am, started meditation at 4.30, and then followed a programme of meditation training, with breaks, hearty vegetarian meals, and rest. Silence was observed at all times and as the course progressed, the rigour of the meditation grew in intensity. If you’ve never experienced something like this, you may ask yourself “Why would I do that?”. And here’s why.


When something distracts you, it can take you anywhere from 17-23 minutes to regain your focus.


You know exactly what I mean. You’re focused, in flow, totally immersed in your work ‒ and someone interrupts you, perhaps with a welcome cup of coffee, or a question, or demanding hugs or food or a walk (yes, I too have a lockdown puppy). And in that moment, your focus is lost, your train of thought derailed.


I’ve been a leader for over 20 years ‒ nothing kills productivity and creativity faster than a working environment full of distractions.


Sitting still, in silence, for two weeks allowed me to really listen to my inner self. We are engaged in a constant conversation in our heads, with ourselves, and sometimes we can use the most debilitating and downright nasty language with ourselves. It can make us… or, in most cases, break us.


After the retreat, I can now “reset” in a matter of minutes and have a powerful conversation with myself, which enables me to be a better person and a more effective leader. I want to share some simple techniques that will allow you to calm your mind and get back on track in a fraction of the time.


5 Reasons why mindfulness is the key to success


1. Improved productivity


Remaining centred and focused through regular mindfulness practice helps us to better filter the “chatter” of the mind. We can choose how to respond to what's actually important. By developing greater clarity on what's truly important to us, we can do less and actually be more productive.


2. Greater understanding and influence


There is no better way to develop understanding and build influence with other people than to understand their needs and help them meet those needs. Over time, mindfulness practice changes our brain’s responses and helps us do that. It allows us to be fully present for another person, aware of self-talk, and seeking to understand rather than trying to be understood.


3. Better decision-making


We’re human and, as such, are hardwired to be biased. Our biases can cause us to make decisions that are less than ideal. Mindfulness training helps to develop the higher levels of self-awareness that are necessary to be aware of our biases before they influence our decisions. Equally important, mindfulness helps us develop the mental agility needed to be able to make decisions that are outside of our comfort zone.


4. Improved health


Science fact. Mindfulness improves physical health in a wide variety of ways. Research from the University of Massachusetts showed that people who regularly practice mindfulness are less likely to get ill, feel happy more often, feel more positive about life, are more alert, enthusiastic, determined, pay attention better, have more energy, sleep better, and have lower levels of stress.


5. Happiness


Mindfulness is about reducing anxiety and stress. Put another way, through mindfulness you can achieve unconditional happiness simply by making the effort to be mindful during as many of your daily activities as possible. Mindfulness begins with becoming aware of our thoughts and making sure these thoughts are productive and positive.


Simple mindfulness techniques


We all have a critical voice inside our heads. It’s okay. You’re not alone and you’re certainly not crazy. Sometimes it feels like that voice will never stop talking. Regular mindfulness practice helps you become aware of your self-talk, and we can move beyond thinking about what we feel and instead accept reality as it is, not how we want it to be. In essence, that’s how you achieve inner peace.


To practice mindfulness, there’s no need to sit cross legged, chant, light candles or burn incense. You can do it anywhere. It just requires you turning your attention inwards rather than outwards, observing (not judging, labelling, or reacting to) your thoughts and feelings.


Technique No.1


Sit comfortably. Rest your hands on your thighs/knees.


Place your hands palms upwards, and touch the tips of your thumbs to the tip of your index fingers (like you’re doing the OK sign).


Apply very gentle pressure, and slowly start to circle the tip of each thumb over the tip of the index finger. You should feel the ridges of your fingerprints glide past each other.


Breathe slowly and naturally. Don’t force the breath.


Do this for two minutes.


Science fact ‒ your stress hormone, cortisol, will reduce by 20% and you will be in a better frame of mind and 35% more likely to make better decisions.


Technique No.2


Sit comfortably. Rest your hands on your thighs/knees.


Breathe in for three seconds


Hold your breath for four seconds


Breathe out for five seconds


When your exhale is longer than your inhale, your brain naturally feels “safe” and reduces the activation of your stress state and you will move into a thrive state. You don’t have to do anything other than control your breathing.


Try this for 2-5 minutes and listen to your body and see what works for you.


There are apps such as Calm and Headspace, as well as hundreds of Youtube videos of guided meditation that you can try. Experiment and find out what works for you. I guarantee that if you make mindfulness part of your daily routine, just like brushing your teeth, you will experience greater happiness and success.


Connect with me on LinkedIn, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and visit my website.


 

Alec Jiggins, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Alec Jiggins is an award-winning executive and leadership coach, a global associate with Marshall Goldsmith Stakeholder Centred Coaching and the Global Coach Group. Alec's mission is to change the world, one leader at a time. His motto is "Love, Live, Lead" and he works with executives on leading authentically, confidently, from the heart. Alec has lived and worked in 7 countries and three continents in a range of industries and roles, taking one startup to $6 million in turnover and breakeven within 18 months.

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