We are an inquisitive bunch at Sharpe & Abel, and whilst we are truly devoted to our legal careers, we sometimes like to put our copies of Hansard to one side, leave the office and try something different. In this, our first edition of ‘I did something crazy…so you don’t have to’, our Legal Director, Melissa Kirby shares her experience of attending a ‘Silent Retreat’.
“So, Melissa, what is a silent retreat?”
There is no fixed definition to what a silent retreat is, and everyone seems to have different degrees of what silence actually means. In this particular case, it was about not speaking to other participants. The people who ran the course were very practical so you could speak to the manager of your part of the camp (they divided the camp into male and female sections) if you needed to find a hair dryer or soap or something like that. The point was not to speak to other participants so that each person has their own particular experience without comparing notes or trying to be like anyone else.
“You could have gone to Mauritius…why did you choose this instead?”
I guess more than anything I was just curious. It was not because I had some sort of deep-seated need for anything. I just wanted to know what it was all about. To step back in time a little bit, there’s a bit of a story to all of this.
When I was growing up, I was diagnosed with asthma and back in the day, we were told that going outside to play was not a good idea. So, as a result, I was the child who used to sit in the classroom at lunchtime and I got to choose a friend to stay inside with me. As a result, I never did any of those sports like running, or playing in the outdoor space because the medical establishment at the time advised that that would exacerbate or trigger my asthma. So, any physical activity that I did was indoor: I did things like ballet and gymnastics instead. I of course had the mandatory embarrassing experience at playing cricket where I was the kid who was always chosen last.
In any case, fast forward to university days. As we all know we are all absolutely invincible and immortal in our twenties! In my final year at the Australian National University, some of the people who lived in my college participated in an event called “Inward Bound”. Inward Bound is a crazy activity that is held in Canberra by the ANU. At the time, it basically involved teams of four being blindfolded at about 2:00 AM in the morning, put in a car, and driven out for three hours and dumped somewhere and told to get back to a specific spot. Bear in mind that this is way before the time of mobile phones, or GPS. Anyway, the guys who participated from my college actually managed to run the complete wrong way and ended up somewhere close to Maroubra! In the end, they came back bedraggled and tired but laughing like crazy. I recall thinking that that looked like a lot of fun and since being twenty-something meant that I was immortal, I thought I would give it a try even though I had never run in my life.
For the following year, I started slowly running. At first, running a couple of hundred metres then stopping, running a couple of hundred metres, and stopping and slowly, bit by bit I managed to run further. The following year, I did participate in Inward Bound, and we managed to get home safely and without too much problem.
That sparked for me a bit of a period of long-distance running. I did not do it for fitness or because I wanted to be a long-distance runner, I just wanted to see whether I could. Nine marathons and two ultra-marathons later (I was never fast, in fact I am extremely slow) I decided that I could, despite what the medical establishment had earlier told me, run long distances without killing myself.
Back to the silent retreat. The silent retreat was basically an extension of my curiosity to see what happens when I do certain things. Having run the marathons and ultra-marathons I figured that I could do that (it clearly took me some time before I got the message). Getting older also meant that my body did not really want to continue to do clock up 80km a week. So, I thought I would challenge my mind instead and when somebody told me about attending a silent retreat, I thought “Cool, why not?” So, that is why I chose to do it.
So, the short answer to your question as why I chose to do a silent retreat was simply because I was curious, and it sounded interesting. I am certainly no seeker of wisdom or any amazing truth, I have a fairly critical mind and even if it was some sort of cult, I trust myself enough to recognise nonsense for what it is.
“Are you now an enlightened being? Any discoveries to report..?”
Discovery number one is that sitting cross legged is really tough if you are anywhere above age 10. As kids we all sat down on the floor cross-legged, but as adults we never do that. So, sitting down was actually the toughest thing – you get used to it over the next few days, but it is pretty hard on your lower back and knees. So, making sure that you have good core strength and flexible knees is probably a good thing. I realise that is nothing to enlightening, but that is the reality.
The other thing I discovered is that being silent is not actually that hard. Actually, it is quite a relief not to have to talk to people. It was an interesting experiment being alone with my own thoughts- no books, pens, books or mobile phone. What I did discover is that things were not as bad as I thought they were. To give you some context, I did the retreat in April 2021. It had been postponed from Christmas 2019 when I was originally due to do the course, but after two days, we were evacuated due to a bush fire in the surrounding area in Tasmania. Then it was postponed to Christmas 2020 which unfortunately did not happen due to COVID. Finally in April 2021, I managed to get on the course. I think everyone will agree that 2020 was quite a stressful year and certainly anyone who is leading a business through 2020 and 2021 has been finding it tough. By the time I got to the retreat, I felt like I really needed a break which was coincidental at the time. However, with the luxury of silence and distance I realised that things were not actually that bad. We are lucky to live in one of the best countries in the world and in one of the most beautiful places in the world as well. We are not starving, we do not have civil war, and while the pandemic isn’t exactly anyone’s idea of fun, we are all in this together.
I suspect that the people reading this piece are wondering if I discovered or came up with any pearl of wisdom or anything terribly enlightened. I am sorry to disappoint you, but I did not. I can tell you that what I discovered was this: Tasmania in April is cold. Really cold. Given that the retreat took place over 10 days and the washing facilities are limited, you need to bring clothes for all 10 days or else be prepared to handwash. So, if you want to figure out what is the warmest clothing that will dry the quickest when handwashing, I can tell these are my results: I compared bamboo, merino wool, and fleece made from polyester. All are great fabrics, but bamboo is damn cold (so great for summer) and takes a long time to dry. Merino wool is really warm but also takes forever to dry- if it’s damp, you smell like a wet dog. I realise this isn’t going to be popular given current sentiment about plastics and artificial materials, but human-made fleece polyester is amazing in terms of its lightness, warm, and the speed at which it dries. Hands down my favourite fabric for this kind of situation(I am a bit of a textile’s geek in case you have not realised)!
The other thing is that often when people talk about meditation and retreats and these sorts of things, we imagine some leftover hippies going around looking to “find themselves”; now don’t look at me that way, you know exactly what I mean! We are all thinking of the people who wear odd clothes and want to travel to India to “find themselves” and their spirituality, whatever that means. Well, this course had a few of those types of people but it was also taught by a middle-aged bald guy with a slight paunch who looked like a school teacher or somebody’s dad. There were people there from all backgrounds, a Russian woman who fled, wealthy, label-conscious Moscow to enjoy the peace, quiet and beauty of the Australian bush, a matriarch of of 80+ years who had accompanied her husband around the world while he automated ports in places everywhere, as well as a Pacific Islander young woman who had served in the navy and wanted some peace and quiet to figure herself out. They are all people who you would walk by every day and not think twice about. So, they certainly were not all weirdos wearing kaftans and eating bran all day.
“So laundry tips aside, what is the most useful thing you will take away from this experience?”
Certainly, the most useful thing I will take away from this experience is the practice of vipassana meditation. I love the fact that you do not need any equipment and you do not need a special place- a bit like running that way. You have everything that you need right on you, and you can do it anywhere.
A few months later, I was listening to a podcast called “Against the Odds” and it ran a series on the 12 Thai boys who were trapped in the cave. It turns out that their teacher who was with them used to be a vipassana monk. One of the ways that the teacher got the boys through that gruelling period of being inside the caves without any food, was by practicing vipassana meditation.
I think it is a really good tool to have and certainly something that I will continue to practice. Although there is no way that I will achieve the two hours a day prescribed, I will do my best and, in any case, it feels pretty good when you do it.
“Did you find it difficult readjusting to ‘normal life’?”
Actually, you can see that there has been a lot of thought been given to how the course is structured. All the participants are silent until day nine and on day nine, they do allow you to quietly talk to fellow participants. This gives a way to readjust to normal life. So, it is not too weird coming back to normal life afterwards. I was very lucky in that my husband met me in Hobart and checked us into a luxury hotel. I really enjoyed having a bath in hot water and just soaking it all up. I also really enjoyed sleeping on a soft bed with a nice fluffy duvet.
“So key to this whole process is a partner who can book you into a nice hotel then..?”
Yes, and a silent retreat will make you appreciate both of them so much more! There are a couple of things I thought I’d mention which might be useful. The retreat was incredibly well run and easily out did for-profit organisations that I have seen. In terms of a business model, it is incredible. First, the whole retreat is run on donations. When you first enrol you are actually not allowed to pay anything until you finish and when you finish, you can make a donation. They do provide you with data on how much it costs to run the retreat and the costs are incredibly lean, I remember it being something like $210 per person for 10 days and that includes feeding, accommodating, and making sure that everyone is safe. Talk about running lean! The labour resources are largely by volunteers who volunteer their time to serve. They can only volunteer after they have done the course themselves. Volunteers also help to maintain the grounds and do all the things that you need to run these kind of places –things like fire safety, OH&S, making sure that you get the requisite council permits etc. This business model has been so successful that they are spread throughout the world and have some mighty fine buildings in places everywhere. Certainly, they have something going for them!
The organisation that runs the silent retreat is a not-for-profit organisation and has impressive governance and obviously a lot of resilience given the fact that they have been able to maintain themselves for years and grow the organisation. Maybe there is something for us to learn from their business model and not just meditation.
“So all in all, this has been a really positive experience and one you would recommend to people who are perhaps looking for a real break – not just a holiday from work, but a break from modern life and a bit of a reset?”
Absolutely. But, you know, Mauritius is nice too…
Melissa’s silent retreat was with the Vipassana Meditation Centre in Tasmania