What Happened When I Went on a 30-Day Silent Meditation Retreat

Writer Sah D'Simone gets to know his real essence in dark and challenging moments of inner silence

by Sah D'Simone

September 6, 2018

In 2012, I was involuntarily bought out of my company, spiraling into a dark depression, and using drugs and alcohol as a means of dealing with my fluctuating emotions. It wasn’t until 2014, after two years of self-transformation, that I realized there might be another way. I traveled to India for a 10 day silent meditation retreat and had a glimpse of an alternative path. I decided to dive in fully and sign up for a 30-day silent meditation retreat in Nepal later that Fall. Some friends who initially agreed to go with me backed out last minute; my social support had fallen through before I even left. But I was committed. I swallowed my apprehensions and got on the plane anyway.

When I landed in Nepal, I bought a bag of hash, a bottle of whiskey and a pack of cigarettes, telling myself that they would be my backup plan. A little way of taking the edge off of my emotions in case they became too severe to cope with. As a driver took me through the mountains, weaving around hairpin turns, I closed my eyes and listened to the sweet bhajans playing on the radio. I began to relax and something came over me. By the time we arrived at the monastery, my mind was made up—I threw out my safety net of alcohol and drugs and decided to charge ahead without it. I didn’t need a safety net. I would be fine.

“I’m fine,” became my mantra that first week. Surrounded by 250 other individuals, most of whom were experienced meditators, I found myself flipping back and forth between feelings of imposter syndrome and feelings of peace. I had heard that many people would drop out, that they wouldn’t be able to handle the full practice. I heard we would get only one meal per day, and that meditations would last for hours and hours. All of it was true. Even in those first few days, other meditators were already having intense spiritual experiences and many were having emotional breakdowns. I thought they must have had a lot of problems to be so unstable. But not me. I was fine.

Until I wasn’t. After the initial shock of the experience started to wear off, the reality of the practice sunk in. Like my fellow meditators, I came face-to-face with my internal landscape. Emotional meltdowns over breakfast became a normal occurrence. I considered quitting multiple times. I tried to leave the monastery to smoke cigarettes, and ended up devouring Oreos and Coca-Cola just to find relief from myself.

In these moments, I realized that my emotions controlled me and not the other way around. I saw my problematic relationship to food, and felt how it impacts psychological and spiritual progress. I began to understand the power of sleep and dreams to bring repressed memories to the surface.

I experienced flashes of trauma and negative thoughts passed down like genetic blueprints through my family tree. It came as a psychosomatic response when painful memories came to me: a tightening in my stomach and chest, sweating in the back of my neck and heavy tears across my face. But my memories were much worse than the actual memories themselves. The stories I told myself were passed down from my Mom, and these psychological mechanisms were in place because of my Grandmother’s suicide when my Mother was just 13 years old. And through this messy and painful process of getting to know my internal landscape in meditation, I also came to relate to my memories with a newfound perspective—with forgiveness.

Coming to terms with these realizations and fully processing them felt like getting hit in the face with an ice cold bucket of water. It was incredibly humbling and sobering to realize all of the ways in which I had been fooling myself and being a jerk to others. Whereas the first two weeks were filled with uncomfortable realization after uncomfortable realization, the last two weeks of my retreat were focused on forgiveness and compassion. In those later days, I learned what forgiveness really meant. How could I forgive myself and others for all the things we all have done out of pure emotional reaction? What steps could I take to begin to forgive my family for passing down negative belief structures? Could I at last give myself permission to have compassion for all the ways I unconsciously fell into these patterns?

Throughout this entire process, I was broken down into many pieces. All parts of myself began to chip away and fall off. The space and silence of the retreat allowed me to take a good, hard look at all of the pieces that I believed made me who I was—to hold them with compassion and actively choose which pieces I wanted to build back into myself. I got to examine each piece and radically accept all of my contradictions, as well as embody what it means to be a living paradox of a human being. It was in this process of rebuilding in stillness and silence that I began to learn the truth about who I really I am.

Sah D'Simone