[Listen to me read this reflection here]
Last week, I got ‘snowed in’, in beautiful Portugal.
Technically, there was no snow in Portugal however the dumping of snow in Canada and the Eastern US led to me cancelling a planned short visit to see my family over the Christmas weekend.
The days leading up to the holiday were celebration-filled here in Lisbon. I hosted a large holiday party, exchanged with my closest friends, listened to Christmas themed-songs on repeat and even watched a few of the classics, like Home Alone, with limitless popcorn. Needless to say, I felt satisfied with the ceremonial celebrations & traditions at this time of the year.
The unexpected cancelled trip meant that I had 4 days without a single commitment in my calendar. I cannot recall when I last had this. Recognising how rare this was, I used it as an opportunity to experiment.
My experiment was to go into a silent retreat, in my own home, by myself, for 4 days.
The setup was the following. I physically disconnected the wifi router in my apartment. I turned off my phone and my computer. I unplugged the TV, all of the smart speakers and all of the clocks, including reprogramming the time displayed on the kitchen microwave and oven. I had enough groceries to last me the duration of this experiment, knowing that I would not be eating out or ordering in. I picked out only one book that I would read, and set up my journals from the past year in a nice stack, with the intention to read every word I wrote to myself this past year.
With no external distractions, no sense of time, no consumption of information other than what I had carefully selected and planned, I was ready to disconnect from my outside world, albeit temporarily.
I have long believed that only 10% of the noise within me is provoked by sources external to me, and that 90% of the noise I experience is from within. It is only once I remove the external 10% can I start to notice the internal 90%, which is where the real work lies.
This monk-like discipline is not as difficult as it may seem, as knowing it was only for a few days, I did not think too much about it in advance. It was truly spontaneous. The understanding that something is temporary often provides the courage to try something new.
My days felt long. The 4 days felt like 4 weeks.
Limiting myself to the simple activities of meditation, reading, writing, eating, walking and sleeping, at times I felt bored. It is precisely this feeling of boredom that I needed to get more intimate with though. Learning to get comfortable with myself, without any distractions to help me escape myself, I had no choice but to see, feel and be with whatever arose within me. It felt at times like a mirror was constantly with me, gently encouraging me to see what I otherwise may not regularly see.
I wrote recently about our current culture of abundance, in our material world but also our mental states. The unconscious belief that more is more. More stuff. More people More information. More experiences. I see now that my impulse to grasp for more is a form of escapism from facing reality. The pursuit of more is a denial of reality and what is here and now. The pursuit of ‘the different’ is similar in this respect.
Although I struggled at first, I learned to combat this impulse to grasp for more. It helped transport me to a place of greater acceptance. And acceptance is a key to unlocking a happy and satisfying life.
From a place of deeper acceptance, of all that is and is not for me, I noticed a spontaneous feeling of gratitude emerge from my heart. I began to naturally acknowledge all of the people, who knowingly or unknowingly have contributed to my reality. It is one thing to practise gratitude as an intentional practice, which I journal on nearly daily. It is another to observe it spring up naturally. The former starts from the mind, the latter from the heart.
Yesterday as I emerged from my experiment, I noticed an inner peace, a mental clarity and a heart-felt connection to others that was not previously as present for me.
While on a video call with my mom post-experiment, she spontaneously commented that I looked younger. I think the signs of stress had started to wash away from my face, even though I also decided to not shower for the 4 days, as I did not see the need to.
I feel happier, and probably look happier as well.
From a scientific standpoint, I now realise this experiment reduced the production of dopamine by removing all external stimuli, and increased the production of serotonin, by cultivating feelings of acceptance and gratitude. It also shifted my nervous system from a sympathetic (fight-or-flight) state to a parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) state. Now I better understand why I feel happier.
The most powerful part of this experiment for me was that it was unaided.
I did not take any pills or drink anything, other than my herbal teas. I did not use any external therapist or teacher. I did not travel to escape my home. I actually did not spend any money.
In our current culture of self-development and in the pursuit of self-growth and spiritual connection, we can start to believe that we need something or someone external to us to find the peace or clarity within us that we seek.
I believe the conditioning to look out is what gets in the way to look in. This dependency can become a disease, whereas independence can be the cure.
The unaided nature of this self-retreat builds a self-confidence that is one of the greatest gifts that I can give, and receive. The gift to believe in myself.