A Shared Solitude: Reflections from a Silent Retreat
By Mehdi Dumondel
Our most recent silent meditation retreat will be concluding tomorrow in Longeval. The smell of spring is in the air. The sun warms our skin and hearts. We were more than eighty people meditating together, diving into that place in the Heart, a little to the right, that portal to presence. Eighty participants and Karma Yogis observing the pauses between breaths, the silence between thoughts, asking “Who am I?” over and over again. And each time as if for the first time. A simple question, yet so fundamental…“Who am I?”
The transformation that occurs over the course of a retreat is visible. As the days pass, the silence becomes palpable; the body finds rest, the mind calms down, and any remaining agitation or lethargy slowly dissipates. The mystery unravels itself—and in so doing, becomes all the more mysterious.
There is a sense of sanctity during this time. Whether we are serving or sitting, a meditation retreat is always a moment of return to one’s source, of listening to the intimacy of one’s soul. When seated, we put everything we thought we knew to the test to find that which is most real in us. We throw all of our certainties into the fire of consciousness to find this essence beyond thoughts. It takes courage to dare to not know, to dare to stop and discover this space of silence in ourselves. To jump into the void.
In his Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote: “The necessary thing is after all but this: solitude, great inner solitude. Going into oneself for hours meeting no one—this, one must be able to attain.”
In retreat, we learn to be in solitude, together. From this experience a sense of deep connection is born, one grounded in a recognition of and gratitude for each participant. It’s what’s called a “diamond friendship” in Buddhism. A friendship beyond words, beyond time—the grace of this shared solitude. In silence, there’s so little place to hide, to pretend: our intuition tells us each person has been seen, even if no one was looking. The intimacy with ourselves is no different from that with our neighbors. To sit together is to dare to meet each other in what is most precious in ourselves, in our silence, this doorway to the vast solitude of being.
To meditate is to learn to die, while laying ourselves down in the eternal within ourselves. A meditation retreat is like a pause after a breath, a time of rest, of interiorization—after intense moments of activity—where the fear of the lack of air, of death, slowly dissolves into silence. The yogis call this retention of air bahya kumbhaka. Letting the ego dissolve in the Self, the mind in the Heart, and the temporal in the eternity of the Present Moment. Simply resting in this prodigious intimacy with life. “If you know how to die, living in love, you will become immortal in the mortal world,” Dîn Doyal sings in a magnificent Baul song.
Tomorrow, voices will burst out again and bring life to the castle, and we’ll be reunited with smiles on our lips. Lovers will find a quiet place to catch up. The birds will sing. The sun will warm us. And in the joy of finding our lungs filled with fresh air, certainly some buoyant and inspired souls, heading back home by train or by car, will ask themselves the question “Who am I?,” cherishing the echoes of the retreat as precious and mysterious treasures.
Mehdi is a teacher serving at our center in Longeval, France.