5 Day Silent Retreat – What I Learned

August 17, 2020

A silent retreat.

A good idea.

I thought.

I needed a rest, a reboot…

Too much stress at work. At home…

Too much anger and yelling with my family.

I need to be the father my boys deserve.

The Partner that my wife deserves and knows I can become.

I need to change…to do the work…

A silent retreat in Palm Springs practicing mindfulness seemed like it might be the way to achieve that.

As an aside, I would be traveling from Vancouver in early January so a six day weather upgrade wouldn’t hurt.

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After a couple hours in the Palm Springs Airport, I met my three car-mates.

One of the locals agreed to pick us all up and drop us off at the airport after the retreat.

I am truly grateful and not for the car ride. The camaraderie, the stories, the conversations and the laughs were one of my favorite takeaways from the journey.

Unfortunately, their stories are their stories and I will not be sharing them in my write-up.

We arrived at the Joshua Tree Retreat Center at ~ 4:00 to check-in and dinner was going to be at 6:00 with our first Dharma Talk at 7:00.

I was assigned my room and off I went.



We need to change the name of these things…

If I told you I spent a week at a Retreat, you would probably picture luxury…

This was not that…

This was the opposite of that…

This room gave me nightmares (more on that later) and I have lived in multiple residences on campuses across Canada.

We sat down for dinner, which was alright. Food was plentiful, presented options, and got better as the week progressed. No complaints here.

We met in the Noble Hall and sat for our first of many Dharma talks. Throughout the week we focused on Buddhist precepts and constraints to a mindful practice.

Each instructor brought a different element to the practice and embodied a different feeling, for me.

Beth Mulligan

Throughout the week Beth embodied loving kindness, which she spoke a lot about. Compassion shone from her and she radiated love for everyone and everything. She loved to laugh and we often did that. It was one of the few ways that we students broke our vow of noble silence.

Cayce Howe

Wow. This man radiates mindfulness. He looks like someone whose feet I want to sit at and learn from for years. I have now flipped through his book (proceeds went to scholarships for students that might not be able to afford these retreats). I am not surprised by the words or art in the book. they strike me as I would expect. His demeanor. Word choice. Diction. Poise. It all screamed mindfulness. It screamed Monk. It is no wonder his nickname at home is Mr. Mindful; though, it may not be used in the same vein that I would use it.

Hugh O’Neill

Hugh’s approach to mindfulness seemed different. Less go with the flow. More do the work or fight the fight. I felt it was a very blue collar, workman like, approach to meditation. One that I identified with. I could relate to. Did relate to.

Back to the first talk. We went over the precepts (rules) for the retreat.

Wait…You thought silence was only not talking.

That would be easy, sign me up for a 30 day retreat.

Noble silence is much broader than that:

  • No talking
  • No eye contact
  • No electronic devices
  • No reading or writing

You, alone with your mind, your thoughts…

My phone was shut off, I had started…

Day 1 to Day 4

I am writing these down as a single story, because the pattern of each day was the exact same and it all seemed to blur together.

I also followed the rules and am writing from memory, not notes.


Did I already say we need to change the name of these things?

How about pilgrimage, crusade, excursion…

It was hard work.

Fucking hard work.

Plain and simple, it was hard.

The schedule:

  • 6:30 AM meditation
  • 7:00 AM Yoga
  • Breakfast
  • Break
  • 3 hour meditation alternating 30 minute increments between sitting and walking meditation
  • Lunch
  • Break
  • 3 hour meditation alternating 30 minute increments between sitting and walking meditation
  • Dinner
  • Break
  • 90 minute meditation and Dharma talk

Morning session

While I have meditated for extensive periods, my meditation was quite different. Very different…

I practice heart rate variability training. I love it. I know how to get into coherence. For long periods.

I did not expect it to be an issue…

Not at all…


It was an issue…

Dharma talk, or not at times, and the bowl would be rung…

30 to 35 minutes of silence.

Your instructions: focus on your breath…

I am being dramatic, but not too much.

Someone who hasn’t sat in a Buddhist style and has only done headspace (or similar) short 10 to 15 minute guided meditations may be in for a wild ride and someone did share a hilarious story to that effect with me.

Not only might you be lost by the meditation, but the Dharma talks had words, terms, phrases that could be wildly unfamiliar to the uninitiated.

I did not mind either…While different than my heart rate variability training I have done some sitting meditation in Vancouver and have taken Shambhala meditation courses.

Even with that, it was hard…

  • Mentally hard
  • Physically hard
  • Spiritually hard

30 to 35 minute sit done, get up and take a quick break before a 20 minute walking meditation.

Walking meditation…W T F…I sucked at this.

We are supposed to be focused on our body…The movements…Did I say I sucked…Understatement…

The one thing I could get was focusing on the crunch of the sand under my feet, which restricted my walking meditation to the Desert. No concrete for me. I improved after my 1:2:1 session with Hugh later in the week.

Walking meditation done…

Get back on the fucking mat, it’s go time…



Three hours…

Break for lunch…boom…

Before we move on, I will digress on food. I learned something I am taking home. Mindful eating. Super basic: know what you are eating, where it is from and be deliberate. Be thankful. Chew your food. Slowly. Mindfully. Put the fork down. Chew. Get the enzymes working.

In my family, the fork is a shovel…Often I am scooping and sometimes eating the next mouthful before I am done the last.

Something that did surprise me, given the precepts, was that we had meat at multiple meals.

I did eat the chicken one time, but I went plant based else wise.

I am not a plant based proselytizer, it just felt wrong given the setting.

An amazing quote from Beth was:

Restraint leads to no regrets leads to happiness.

After lunch, we generally had a longer break and it is where I had my favorite moment of the trip → Mudita and the Fly.

Let’s rewind the story…Remember the precepts…No killing…bugs…insects…your snoring bed mate (I wish I had actually had a roommate).

What is Mudita?

Beth spent a fair amount of time speaking on Mudita.

Her stories were beautiful…A true joy…

One stuck…She mentioned wishing love and compassion to some crickets she once heard singing.

Back to real time: A fly had been buzzing in my room for two days…

I did not want to kill the fly…I couldn’t…

I realized though…If I left her alone, she would die…

This was the desert, I could not open the door and wait for him to get out, other critters, bugs, snakes, etc. would get in…there were signs that warned us against it.

I was sad in the moment for the fly.

I wished her love.

I wished her compassion.

I wished her life as she buzzed by me.

I turned to the bathroom to brush my teeth.

There sitting on the mirror…the Fly…

Surely she’d fly away as I reached the cup towards her?


She waited patiently, mindfully, like she had absorbed our lessons.

once in the cup, the Fly went crazy, but it was done and I got her outside. Alive.

W T F…

Okay, I am not the Buddha nor am I awoke…yet…this was awesome.

Afternoon session

Rinse and repeat the morning session…

No shit…

I said it was work…

It was intense. Next level.

Sit, walk, sit, walk, sit, walk…

Sometimes a talk, other times not…

Dinner → Not much new…

Evening session

Get back on that damn mat, it is go time!

the evening sit would often be as long as 35 minutes. Sit, one hour talk, ten minute sit, give or take…

We repeated this for four days…I repeat, hard work…


After that, off to bed…It was dark…We were exhausted…

On the walk back (I was the farthest cottage, I believe) I enjoyed the underpopulated Desert. The night sky. It was stunning…I sometimes stopped and marveled, if only because I did not want to get back to that room…

Okay. Full stop. I have bedtime issues.

My sister let me watch horror movies with her when I was four to five years old. It scarred me…It was a really horrible idea, in hindsight.

What do I mean by issues though?

Legit, I cannot sleep alone…Slight, very slight exaggeration.

Growing up, my Dad would often lay with me until I would fall asleep or I would lay with my Brother.

It has barely gotten better.

Replace my Brother with my Wife. She is my solace, my ace-in-the-hole. I feel safe beside her.

She still laughs about the time she booked a boutique room in NYC on a trip and I was petrified, even with her there. The last night, I did not sleep..At all…I read books all night long until we went to the airport.

This was worse…the room was 1/2 wall, 1/2 glass. The blinds had a lot of open spots. The heater, old and rickety. The glass, single pane. Noises abounded.

the rooms also did not come with keys, we locked them from the inside with a rickety key.

So, let me paint a picture → I am walking back to the farthest cottage alone thinking…Fuck…Someone is going to kill me in my room…

I would get in, lock the door, check under the beds, in the closet, in the bathroom, on the ceilings (don’t you watch horror movies, always check the ceilings)…

The first night was one hour sleeps, tossing and turning, afraid I would look out the windows through the gaps in the blinds and see someone with a chainsaw and a leather mask coming by for a visit.

I know, this in insane.

This is on me.

It is not the Retreat Center’s fault that I am a chicken shit…

As the younger folk would say, this room simply triggered me…

On the last night, I couldn’t do it. I did not repeat NYC, but I did break…I turned on my light and pulled a couple books out of my bag and read until the exhaustion was sufficient to drag me into sleep…Sufficient to overcome my fears…

Most mornings I was fresh as a daisy, even after the above I made the final day 6:30 AM sitting.

Unfortunately, on Day 3 I was weak. I let my mind win. I slept in until 8:30 AM and skipped the pre-breakfast sitting and yoga, which I later found out were optional.

My mind rejoiced, it attacked with a vengance.

Fight me?

Cage me?

I am back…

You are weak…

You cannot do this…

I sat down on my bed and said this is going to be war.

Interestingly, in the Dharma talk the night before, Cayce quoted one of his teachers who said:

You come sit for the Peace. you stay for the War

Teacher sessions — Day 2 and Day 3

On Day 2, we had group sessions throughout the day.

I sat in a group with Beth.

My issue I sought clarity on was that I had always done my HRV meditation with a Mantra Om Mani Padme Hum

I find it beautiful…

It also helps that I do Navy Seal / Box / Square breathing and the chant is four to five seconds long, perfect.

Unfortunately, in the Dharma talk the night before they had suggested that we not use a mantra…Fuck…

I had improvised. I was tapping each fingerprint with my thumb for a four count — was that okay?

Yes she told me. I was focusing on the physical sensation, in the moment, and the breath…Though, she did suggest that I focus on the breath only.

I did that the next day…Breath only until I could not hold down the thoughts…then fingertips until overcome…Finally, mantra if needed…Once calm, reset, repeat…Breath only, fingertips, mantra…

On the third day I talked with Hugh about how it was getting harder, how my mind was attacking, how it was assaulting me. This is where I got the Blue Collar Approach…Hugh described a way of bringing the practice back to the breath. An almost grimaced tooth approach with fist to open hand, visualizing a confrontation with the mind and telling it Not Right Now…I am NOT Interested.

This is me, I am a fighter. It is how I was raised. I GET IT.

I developed two sayings (not mantras) that I would use to return to center for sitting and walking meditations.

Sitting meditation

  • Not now
  • Not here
  • Not interested
  • The Breath is the Way

Walking meditation

  • The Here
  • The Now
  • The Footsteps

When the mind overcame me, I would use these to return to center. to the breath. To the footsteps.

My breaking

We did a lot of work on loving compassion.

On extending thoughts and wishes to others and then to ourselves.

I would often use these sessions to focus my thoughts on my wife…My sons…

I missed them.

It was hard.

After exactly four days of noble silence, I slipped away from dinner and reach out to them on Face Time.

My heart filled with joy talking to them.

My wife was driving one son so I only heard her and saw him, but it filled me with tremendous joy, love and compassion, it was why I was here…

I stopped there though…I did not read messages or go back to the world…I shut off the phone and went back to noble silence…Well, for three hours at least until my leather face fears overcame me, as I discussed earlier.

The Final Day

Up until, and through, breakfast it was same / same.

At the morning session, we did a shortened seated sit.

Next, we had a sharing circle where we talked about our favorite moments, our takeaways and leave behinds.

This was, for the most part, the first time we heard each other talk.

It was such an experience.

It was beautiful.

That room was filled with so much joy, compassion and energy for each other.

the laughter, the tears, the holding of space and the Mudita.

If anything, it was worth it. Just for that circle.

Favorite moment, takeaways and leave behinds

The fly and Mudita was my favorite moment.

The takeaways:

  • It works
  • It is hard work
  • You need to be disciplined
  • You should have a consistent practice
  • Never stop exploring — be curious — grow

The leave behinds:

  • The self-doubt (common), I can do this
  • Anger…Not realistic…However, I can improve on my response to anger

Would I do it again and next steps

Absolutely, without a doubt, I would do this again.

I have eternal gratitude for our teachers, my retreat teammates, it will be life changing.

I will do a retreat at least bi-annually. Eventually, I would like to do this with my wife. With my sons.

On my next retreat, I will choose a different center. Warmer. Softer.

I am getting old.

I am growing soft.

When part of the process is to recharge my batteries, I want to feel comfortable. Soothed.

In 2020 I am going to build a solid practice and implement a very disciplined approach (I have been reasonably successful holding to this):

  • Wake
  • Workout
  • Meditation
  • Work
  • Family
  • Write / Read / Learn
  • Meditate
  • Bed

My journey will be chronicled here, along with my takeaways and I will also add some of my past extreme adventures and what I learned from them:

  • Running every day for 1–1/2 years
  • Quitting alcohol for an extended period of time
  • Meditating at least once per day for forty consecutive days

As part of the Practice and Learning, I will pursue mindfulness teaching education.

Ultimately, with time, a part of my future will be teaching mindfulness and utilizing it in a mindfulness based coaching practice.

I am hooked.

Eternally Grateful,

Clint Robert Murphy

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2 comments on “5 Day Silent Retreat – What I Learned

  1. Graham Aug 27, 2020

    Cool summary. I love your writing style. I had the same fly experience as you when I did my 10 day silent retreat. Maybe the organizers put a fly in the rooms of participants LOL.