7 Life-Altering Lessons from My 7 Days of Silence

by Donna Khalife, Co-Founder of Surprise Ride

This is a longer blog post but is intended to actually be useful in your life! Hopefully it’s worth the ten minutes you set aside to read it…

As part of our Screen Free Week initiative, I spent last week completely disconnected at a silent meditation retreat. No phone. No reading. No writing. No talking. No eye contact. For the first time, I had to really think ahead and notify anyone who might need me during that time. I wasn’t going to “keep an eye” on my phone or inbox and forward any messages to the team.

So I filmed a few videos for my 22-month old little girl, and tried to make them sound like Facetime videos! I called a close friend who was expecting a baby, wished her the best, and let her know why she wouldn’t hear any congratulations right away. I put up an out-of-office message at work that made it clear I wouldn’t respond to emails under any circumstances. A lot of founders/CEOs are expected to always be plugged in and I’ve noticed their out-of-the-office notifications aren’t real. They’re more like “I’m out of the office [but I’m still checking email even though I’m supposed to be taking a break and will likely respond to yours unless it’s spam.] I had to make sure mine was legit!

On Friday evening, I arrived at the retreat center, sent one last message to Rosy (my co-founder and sister), made one last call to my other half, and officially turned off the phone. A few minutes later, I reached for it to pull up my registration email and remembered it was off-limits. I had to patiently wait to be checked in. Then I was told that dinner ends in half an hour. I realized I had no way to check time. A watch (remember those?) would have been handy, oops! No camera to document the place and no social media posts to announce my arrival. So began my slow ascension into my device-free week…

I’m not a regular meditator. At most, I’ll sit for 5-10 minutes a couple of times a week. On good weeks, I attend a half-hour meditation class and talk that I love. And we always kick off our weekly team meeting at Surprise Ride with a meditation to open our hearts and creativity. All of this doesn’t exactly add up to the 11 hours a day of meditation that was in store for me, for seven days in a row… I was feeling “fearlessly nervous”. 🙂

Here’s what you need to know about the retreat:

  • Each day begins with a wake-up bell at 5:45am. [Ding!]
  • The last session ends at 9:30pm, so at best you’re in bed by 10pm. [Zzzz]
  • There are three breaks for buffet-style meals, in addition to the 11 hours of meditation. [Silently chews…]
  • You take a vow of “noble silence” upon arrival. The goal is to allow each person to be with their thoughts and emotions, happy or sad, and not be influenced by others. [Avoids eyes…]
  • Meditations alternate between three types: sitting, walking, and two sessions of mindful body movement (yoga).
  • Walking meditation is not your typical walking! Instructions are to close your eyes, put one step in front of the other for about 20 steps back and forth, and feel the weight of your body shifting, your toes curling/uncurling, the breeze on your skin, the temperature, etc. [Walking zombies alert…]
  • If you really need to say something, you can write the teachers or retreat managers a note. [To write a note or not to write a note? That is the constant question.]

You might be wondering why I signed up for this. The retreat is led by an amazing group of world-renowned meditation teachers. Getting in is done by lottery, so I threw my name in the hat months ago. 100 people get to go, and they travel from all over the world. I went with no expectations, mostly out of curiosity to practice what we preach at Surprise Ride about the benefits of taking time off gadgets and to give my mind a break. (Yes, it did occur to me later that an all-inclusive resort in Mexico would have made a good break too…)

What I got from the experience was a lifetime of revelations. I feel transformed. Since I know many of you will likely never go on a silent retreat, I’ll share with you some of my favorite takeaways. I hope they inspire you in your daily life:

1. It’s true, all the answers are already inside you. A couple of days in, my body was really hurting from sitting for such long periods. I couldn’t think about anything else except the pain in my shoulders and lower back. I started to talk to my body parts. Hear me out…

  • I’d say “Hey shoulder, how are you doing today? I see that you’re in pain. Thanks for hanging in there with me. What can I do for you?”
  • Sometimes the pain would ease; other times the shoulder would tell me what it needed. “Hey Donna, thanks for noticing! I’m doing ok. I could really use a stretch right now.” So I’d stretch. Or “Could you take some deep breaths and breathe into the left shoulder?”
  • The conversations were always kind and loving. I’d say “You bet! Here we go.”
  • I would scan my entire body and check in with “everyone”. One time my stomach asked me for water, so after the sit, I gave it a full glass of water. Another time, my body felt too tired for the next session and really needed a nap, so we took one. At night, my mind (whom I started to refer to as “Maestro”) would tell me it was time to stop thinking and go to sleep. So I’d let the Maestro lead the orchestra into a beautiful symphony and help put my body to sleep. It would say “Lungs, fire up the engines… Let’s get Donna to sleep!” I’d focus on my lungs rising and falling, the feel of my heart beating, and slowly drift off to dreamland.
  • Here’s one last funny example: They had delicious potato blintzes with blueberry compote at lunch one day. After finishing my plate, I wanted a second one but felt full. I was torn. I quickly asked my stomach what it thought – why try to make the decision alone when I had direct access to the source?- and it said “Hmmm, I hear you. Those are delicious… But I really don’t think we have any room left. :/ How about you put one in a to-go container and we’ll eat it as a snack later?” Great idea! And that’s what we did.

So you see, it sounds crazy but your body has a lot of answers for you. You don’t ever have to feel stuck if you can’t sleep or if you’re feeling anxious. Ask it what it needs. You can talk to each part of you, including your heart, no matter how big or small the situation is. When your body realizes that you’re paying attention, listening to its needs and taking action, it starts to trust and give you more info. It’s a beautiful synchronistic exchange!

2. Nothing in life is permanent. Everything in life has a beginning and an end. Remembering this simple fact can be very powerful. And without an ending, there can’t be a beginning. Even entire civilizations have come and gone. Someday, the world as we know it and our current civilization will no longer exist. There are places you can visit in Israel and Lebanon where you can see a dozen layers of civilizations buried beneath the ground. As you’re walking, you’ll suddenly see the top of a door at your feet from a previous civilization. Know that if you’re holding onto things for the sake of holding onto them, you’re in a losing battle. Letting go is not a choice or a learned ability, it’s a fact of life. The sooner we accept this, hard as it may sometimes be, the sooner we can move forward. If you’re holding on to a job that makes you miserable out of fear or you’re with a partner that doesn’t make you happy, you’re preventing something else from beginning. If anything is no longer serving you, find the courage to let it go so that you can make room for new beginnings. Start by truly accepting the simple fact that nothing in life is permanent; this will empower you. Likewise, appreciate and be grateful for those things that do bring you joy while you have them.

3. An open heart is a precursor to making any right decision. You can’t make the “right” decision when your heart is closed off. If you’re feeling stuck on ANYTHING, start by opening your heart. Stop everything and take this first step: do whatever makes you feel good. Depending on the decision, you may have a few minutes to spend on this step or days, but it will be worth it. Here are some ways I learned that can help you access that softer side of you: interact with an animal, go for a walk in nature, listen to music, play anything, observe a small child, star gaze or stare at the moon, meditate, create art of any kind. Whatever works for you, let it be something that touches your heart – from simply making you smile all the way to moving you close to tears. From that open heart space, you can tackle any decision. If your heart is closed off, you’ll be driven by the wrong reasons and can count on decisions taking twice as long (or infinitely longer) to make. You can’t regret a decision you make from an open heart.

4. Meditating can turn your creativity on turbocharge. Days into the retreat, I was wishing I had a drawing pad and some charcoal pieces. I felt the urge to draw, anything and everything. I came up with ideas for new products and children’s books daily. I wrote a poem – I never write poems. The list of creative urges goes on. If you want to be creative for ANY reason – personal or professional – meditating will open your heart, feed your soul, and lead to a flood of creativity. Meditate regularly and we will all benefit from your creative contributions.

5. The one thing that you can’t afford to forget. Love yourself. If there’s anything from this list you should commit to remembering, it’s to be nice to yourself. Sounds cliche, but I hope it sinks in. As I started to pay attention to my thoughts, I noticed how often we are critical of ourselves over the silliest things! Things as silly as how you open the door, how you pass someone as you walk by, what you’re wearing (at a place where no one is even looking at you…), what you’re eating and how much of it, etc. etc. There is a never-ending stream of judgements you feed yourself every day. If you catch one, imagine it’s coming from a person looking out for you and start by telling it “It’s okay!” Then tell it whatever else it needs to feel better. This will release the negative energy, which would otherwise get absorbed into your body, bottled up, and released as judgements towards others. So here’s an example:

  • Thought: “I’m so late right now. Aaaah. I’m always late.”
  • Feeling: Loser. Can’t do anything right. Everyone else is better than me at life. I suck.
  • Notice this is happening. Start to remember how these moments make your body feel. For me, I feel tense and a bit jittery when I’m being self-critical.
  • Reply to it: “Awww, it’s okay! Anyone would feel this way.” Memorize this phrase, it works for every situation. Smile and take a deep breathe.
  • Add anything specific to this situation: “You’re doing everything you can. You’ll get there when you get there. You’re really tired; it’s ok to be a little slow today.”
  • If you’re not feeling better yet, take it a step further: “Time is a made-up illusion. Pretend it’s an hour earlier and finish getting ready!” When I’ve said this, I find that I’m so much happier and less distracted by my anxiety. I get ready in the same or even less time. Crazy, right?
  • Then smile. And smile some more… 🙂 Life isn’t meant to be hard or painful, so catch those moments and ease up on yourself. You’ll be amazed at all the joy that can fill up the new space you’re releasing…

6. Start every day with this simple question. What is between me and presence? Said differently, what is keeping me from feeling relaxed or happy right now? If I told you that you had no problem to solve and the only thing to do is to be here in this moment, what would make you feel uneasy about that? Is it that deadline you’re up against? That fight or difficult conversation you just had with a co-worker or loved one? That trip you have to pack for tomorrow? What is it? What are the things that would make you go “No! I can’t relax right now.” Call them out and tackle them one by one. I often forget to ask this question at the start of my day, but you can ask it anytime you remember to! So memorize it and ask it often to return to the present moment and not be stuck living in the past or future. For example…

  • Question: “What’s keeping me from feeling relaxed or happy right now?”
  • Answer: “I have to finish this blog post and it’s taking a while to write. I feel antsy and am already thinking about the next to-do on my list.”
  • Reply: “I’m writing my last point and I’ll be done soon. I can proofread it later since I’m too hungry and need to grab lunch. Maybe I can grab a snack. Okay, that sounds good.” Great, I feel better knowing I have a plan that lets me eat soon.
  • Repeat question: “What’s keeping me from feeling relaxed or happy right now?”
  • Answer: “I have to pack for my business trip tomorrow. I’ve got a packed schedule until then. It’s going to be hard to enjoy my dinner with friends tonight knowing I have to leave in the morning.”
  • Reply: “It’s only a quick trip; packing should be easy. And you’ve been looking forward to this dinner so you deserve to enjoy it. How about you plan to wake up a half hour earlier instead of packing tonight? It’s an early morning regardless. You can bring up your suitcase from the downstairs closet on your way in tonight.” Great, I feel better knowing I’ll be fine for my trip and can enjoy my night out.
  • Repeat process until you feel free…
  • Update: I just got up and grabbed a snack since that was keeping me from feeling relaxed! I feel much better and can now enjoy writing, which I love to do. Here’s the evidence…

7. Time is not linear. Two days in, I visited my older self. I went 25 years into the future and knocked on her door. She opened, spread her arms open, and gave me a hug. I asked her if she had a message for me. She smiled and proceeded to share her wisdom about her/our life. It was eye-opening. I realized that all the things I was driving myself insane over would not mean as much in the bigger picture. She shared more info about my future and life purpose. On my way out, she lovingly held my face in her hands and told me how proud and grateful she is that I went on this retreat. I learned a lot from the conversation and walked away realizing that our wise hearts are already within us. You can visit yours anytime. All you have to do is close your eyes and truly be open to the experience. Try it. Go visit your older self as many years into the future as you’d like (don’t overthink this piece) and ask a question. Patiently wait for the answer. My older self looked a bit like Gena Rowlands from the Notebook but with longer hair… Ha

One last thing – The secret to actually remembering these… Practice makes perfect. Great, these lessons resonate with you. You may have even heard some of them before. But how are you gonna remember them this time? Practice is the answer. We can’t change years of conditioning overnight and that’s okay. Spend one week focusing only on the first lesson you want to remember, then add the second one the following week, and so forth. It’ll be easy and fun. Here’s how you can incorporate these seven:

  • Week One: Befriend your body and rely on it for answers.
  • Week Two: Visit your older or younger self.
  • Week Three: Remember impermanence; notice anything no longer serving you or anything new wanting space to begin.
  • Week Four: When you feel confused, stop everything and open your heart.
  • Week Five: Meditate once a day or every other day for 10 minutes, and notice the flow of creative ideas. Here’s a simple guided meditation you can use.
  • Week Six: Notice any critical thoughts and practice the process of saying “Awww, it’s okay! Anyone would feel this way.”
  • Week Seven: Ask daily “What is keeping me from feeling relaxed or happy right now?”.
  • All Weeks: Smile. A LOT. Just the act of smiling triggers happiness in our brains. Go ahead, try a smile right now… 🙂

Some photos I took on the last day after the period of silence ended…