What 8 Days of Silent Meditation in Sri Lanka Taught Me About Myself

By Carrie Hoffman 01/04/19

I wanted to get something out of this week of mindfulness meditation. I wanted to live mindfully, feel spiritually connected, to be less of a disconnected, frenzied entrepreneur run by self-will and ego.

Woman on rock in Sri Lanka; mindfulness meditation
I usually don’t want more of the things that really serve my growth and bring me balance. More meditation and quiet? No thank you. PC: Unsplash

When we arrived at the meditation center in the middle of the Sri Lankan jungle during a downpour, we were greeted by leeches. The first victim, a tall German girl, started screaming and flailing when she noticed the mini monster stuck to her hand. Truth be told, I would have reacted the same way had I been the first victim, but she got it out of the way so I could steel myself.

“Oh, you will definitely get zem,” the white-haired German meditation instructor informed us in his grandfatherly accent. “You just pluck zem up and put zem back into zee nature.” He demonstrated this, gently removing the leech and lovingly transferring it to a leafy plant, more compassionate towards the creature and more amused by its human victim.

“What have I gotten myself into?” I wondered.

After filling out paperwork, we were shown to our rooms. They were closet-sized, blank, and crumbly, with two tiny, thinly mattressed beds and a couple nightstands. Of course, Leechy Screamer was my roommate. That would be okay, I thought, because this was a silent retreat and we wouldn’t have to talk to each other. Except, she didn’t seem to get that memo…

She was “Chatty Cathy” as we unpacked our things. I let it slide, responding in just one or two word answers, hoping she’d get the point about this being a SILENT meditation retreat after our meditation sessions began that evening. As an introvert, the lack of social pressure to talk to new people, even when sharing a closet-sized room with them, was refreshing. But it was weird not talking to my husband, who was staying in the men’s section on the other side of the retreat center. Throughout the week, we’d pass each other entering the Meditation Hall or the Dining Hall; he usually piously avoided eye contact, while I jumped to conclusions about how he was obviously “doing so much better than me” at this, as my brain likes to make even meditation retreats into a competition. 

After the initial shock of the first day wore off, what did I realize on day two? Eight days is a long time. Eight days are a lot of days. Why did I think I would breeze through this eight-day-long experience like an ultra-zen fairy princess? By day two, I started questioning: “Is this really necessary for my life?” Obviously, I had deemed it so when I had signed up a couple months before. Just over two years sober and a newbie yoga teacher, I thought this intense meditation training seemed like the next right step. Disconnecting from technology and the demands of our constantly-connected world, diving deeper into my meditation practice to silence my chaotic thoughts, doing nothing but 100% spiritual personal development work for a week? This sounded thrilling and important and like something I was ready for, but that was before I actually tried to do it.

Struggling to Stay in the Moment

The sitting was the hardest part. Five hours a day of seated meditation (although broken into five separate chunks) was enough to drive my “go go go” ego into full-on rebellion mode. I’d be sitting on my meditation cushion, trying to do nothing but observe my breath as instructed, when I’d realize I’d been chasing the craziness of my random thoughts around my head as if I was watching a pinball machine for the last 15 minutes! Why, at 5 a.m. during morning meditation, does my brain need to start spontaneously planning how I’m going to hike the Pacific Crest Trail to celebrate my 40th birthday? I’m 31 so it’s not like it's around the corner. My obsession with planning and controlling every detail of my life was ridiculous. Why was it so hard for me to stay in the moment? The harder I tried to silence my brain and meditate, the more I felt like my thoughts had their own individual thoughts and my brain was capable of splitting itself into infinitesimally small segments all at once, each thought wave following its own path of distraction.

And that is why I sorely needed this retreat. The disconnection from the outside world, lack of external stimuli, and plodding routine of each day forced me to turn inward and reckon with the darker parts of my ego. I’ve heard some say that addiction is the “disease of more,” and I realized that the objects of my addictive personality had switched from substances and codependency to adventure and overthinking. Just as I had always wanted more alcohol, now I wanted more stimulation, more work, more travel, and more excitement. I usually don’t want more of the things that really serve my growth and bring me balance. More meditation and quiet? No thank you.

Sitting on those cushions hour after hour, I realized just how much of my mental capacity I was spending “creating suffering” as our Buddhist instructor taught. By not accepting the true nature of reality, I create mental anguish for myself. I’m a specialist at avoiding the present moment, either living in past memories or projecting myself into the future — obsessing about the next meal, the next time I’d get to check my phone, my next trip home to see my family, etc. Even when I’m thinking about happy times, I’m removing myself from the present moment and denying myself the gift of seeing things for how they really are. Meditation trains us in non-attachment and non-identification with our thoughts. Being cloistered away from “the real world” on this retreat, with no phone or laptop or work or even anyone to talk to, struggling with the leeches jumping onto my feet and the rain and the other Sri Lankan insects constantly invading our space, and not being able to talk about it with anyone? My struggle with mindfulness emerged in all its large and ugly reality.

The retreat also helped me realize just how judgmental I am. There’s really nothing like being alone in silence with my own thoughts to expose me for the Judgey Mcjudgerson that I truly am. When faced with limited entertainment options? “OMG, why is she putting so much sugar in her tea?” I’d catch myself thinking as I noticed someone in the breakfast line. Or, “Really, he’s wearing the SAME SHIRT AGAIN????” I even wrote these judgements into my journal sometimes. On Day 3 I wrote, “My roommate just asked me for a pen. She is so unprepared. I am so judgmental!” Well, at least I caught myself. “Loving kindness!” I next wrote, as if writing it in bold with an exclamation point would make me practice the spiritual qualities our instructor had been teaching us about.

Finding Clarity and Learning to Detach

Throughout the week we were taught lessons about Buddhism and meditation twice a day. I started to see many similarities between the Buddhist “dharma” (teaching) and the 12 Steps of AA. Non-attachment, non-reactivity, and non-indulgence in every craving or story my brain starts to tell me are basic tenets of Buddhism. These are in essence the same lessons I had to learn in my initial trudge through the steps with my sponsor. But now, two years later, living in Sri Lanka, and many months removed from my last AA meeting, the universe was handing me the same lesson in a different context more relevant to my life now. I found this pretty cool, yet still pretty hard to grapple with.

One of my favorite parts of each day was our closing mantra, which echoed the “nightly review” concept of Step 10: 

“I do admit all my failures on this day
And promise to learn from them
Should I have hurt somebody through thoughts, words, or actions
I ask for forgiveness.”

On the third full day, I started to get space, little glimpses of a clear mind in between thoughts, as if my brain had finally dropped down to a lower gear. The walking meditation was also becoming easier than the sitting meditation. Walking through the meditation garden, every plant and flower seemed more vibrant and enthralling each day; bird sounds seemed louder and more distinct, as if all my senses were heightened. Rather than getting bored with the walk, every pass through the same garden revealed more natural wonders in intricate detail. It was as if by finally shutting off all the external stimuli, I was waking up to the free beauty the universe surrounds us with every day.

The rigorous meditation schedule still stayed hard though. My husband and I started passing each other notes like middle school kids, “I’m struggling today, urgh!” he said, to which I responded “If you want to call it quits, I’m down. Just kidding!…maybe….?” Neither one of us wanted to crack first, so we stuck with it. Our next notes shared the nicknames we’d come up with for our fellow meditators — his descriptive names such as “Gentle Walker” and “Sings in Shower” and my 7 Dwarves variations such as Sneezy, Twitchy, Chatty, and so on. Like I said, I’m judgmental.

I realized that my obsessive tendency towards multi-tasking and overthinking probably began at a young age. In high school I would only half-listen in most classes while doing as much of my homework as possible during class time so I could have after-school hours free for a myriad of extra-curricular activities. This efficiency was praised and rewarded so I just continued. My nickname should be Queen of Doing Too Many Things at Once and Inefficient Future Over-Planning. Thus what should have been so easy, to follow a strict timetable from 4:45am-8:45pm, was challenging because the content of each activity — meditative mindfulness — was too simple. “You’ll never get this week of your life back,” I heard myself think multiple times. “STOP TRYING TO SPEED UP YOUR LIFE!” I’d argue back at myself, every time I caught my ego wishfully counting the days left on the retreat.


Eventually, faced with no other option, I started to accept the fact that maybe I couldn’t kill my cravings and silence my thoughts in only eight days. But, perhaps everything I was craving would still be there when I got back from my week in the jungle: work, people, the busy world. I suspected all of it would be waiting for me, largely unchanged. My To Do list would still be never-ending and my goals still large and vast. I wanted to be a person who could do this week of silent meditation. I wanted to get something out of it. I wanted to live mindfully, feel spiritually connected, to be less of a disconnected, frenzied entrepreneur run by self-will and ego. And yes, by the end of the week I did realize that all of those “wants” were indicative of the problem itself: my desire-filled ego. But at least now the things I wanted were good things?

The end of the retreat came, and I was right, the “real world” was more or less the same when I got back to it. My roommate and I finally got to have a real conversation (about how much of a struggle the week was for both of us, of course) and became good friends. Although I don’t think I made a miraculous transformation on this retreat, I made progress. By the end of the week, in a squirmy, uncomfortable way, I started to accept a little more easily the cyclical nature of life. I had to allow the rain and the leeches to lead to the sunshine and birdcalls. I had to be a drunk for years in order to be sober. I had to take this week of quiet introspection in order to be ready for the thrills and opportunities I know will come to me when the time is right. What is the point of rushing it all? Especially if, as Buddhism teaches, all is one. As our nightly mantra ended each evening: “We are all flowers in the same soil in the same garden.” Now take a deep breath and love the cycle.

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Carrie Hoffman is a “multipotentialite” digital nomad writer and yoga teacher obsessed with travel, Burning Man, coffee, hiking, photography, and adventure! She loves finding authentic travel experiences with remarkable people, learning languages, breaking down the stigma against addiction in America, leading yoga retreats, helping people become entrepreneurs, and going on wilderness backpacking trips! Find her yoga and retreat adventures at www.biggerlifeadventures.com and her travel tales at www.laaventuraproject.com. Follow Carrie's adventures on Facebook and Twitter.