How to feel true mental rest

How a four-day silent retreat gave me a taste of true mental rest

Cycles of Work and Rest, Bernadette Cay 2015. Sumi ink on Stonehenge paper, veiled by lokta paper.

I welcomed the New Year through a four-day silent retreat. This is the story of how the process helped me feel, even briefly, true mental rest for the first time.

Voracious mind, as a strength

My mind has always been voracious. As a child, I constantly read everything — even the obscure ingredients on the back of the cereal box at breakfast.

Usually you can’t tell when someone is “thinking.” In spite of this, my constant thinking is sometimes evident on first impression. Upon meeting my friend’s mother for the first time, she mentioned that I look as if “the wheels are always turning up there.” My friends would tell me repeatedly, “Just be chill” or (in the words of my Latin American classmates) “Relajate, muchacha.”

Over the years, such constant thinking has been one of my strengths. I’m naturally curious. I have a number of interdisciplinary interests. I have explored several distinct roles and industries in my career so far. In my daily life, I pair rote tasks or transportation with a queue of audiobooks or podcasts. My voracious mind has been critical in being able to digest all of this content, to perform on exams and to manage and ship multiple competing cross-functional projects at work.

This hunger of the thinking mind is a separate from intelligence or any other mental faculty. The content of my ruminations doesn’t matter— the point is that my mind was always thinking about something, without respite.

Voracious mind, as a weakness

Every strength can become a weakness. In this case, my ever-thinking mind was a big blind spot — I had no idea I was unable to experience true mental rest. Here are the three main drivers for why:

First, I didn’t know what “mental rest” was. I guess it’s something we all do but don’t really talk about. I understood the need for physical rest and the concept of a repetitive stress injury, but I didn’t understand mental rest was a thing. When a leadership coach once described something called “mental rest,” I was surprised and embarrassed to have so many follow-up questions. (I never guessed that a year after that conversation I would write this post.)

Second, “rest” was low on my list of priorities. As a daughter of immigrants working in a fast-paced industry, coupled with my many interests, unsurprisingly I was a workaholic. I had so many interests and wanted to do so much.

Finally, I thought I was already resting. For example, I prioritize sleep and I meditate daily. Once in awhile, I watch TV or movies or go on vacation. These activities can indeed be restful. Through this silent retreat I found a different quality of rest.

A stillness that's solid, like bedrock

For the mind to be still, it helps a lot if the things around it (like the body) are still as well. For example, during a yoga class a few years ago, I was fidgeting so much during savasana that the instructor put 10 pound sandbags on each of my arms to help me hold still.

Now imagine scaling up this concept to include the limitation of other sensory input and output. As expected, during the silent retreat there was no need to talk. Everyone’s phone was on Airplane Mode. Even reading and journaling was discouraged. Cradled by a routine of meals, meditation and various other activities, our daily survival was taken care of — we didn’t need to think about what we were doing next.

For the first two days, my hungry mind continued to churn. I became acutely aware of the presence and power of my thinking mind in a way I hadn’t before. My body also felt its own accumulated tiredness, so I slept a lot.

My mind chewed on its usual topics — the pros and cons of future plans, or how things could have been different in the past. After two days of cycling through this content repeatedly, I had no more excuses: I could no longer believe that my constant thinking was 100% useful, urgent or important.

By the third day, my body and mind felt more rested. During a meditation that day, I experienced a place of stillness beyond my thinking mind.

I felt as though I had found a dial on the radio and slowly turned down the volume of the talk show of my thinking mind, until I couldn’t turn the dial any further.

And for a few minutes I experienced what remained — a stillness. A stillness that I can only describe as solid, like a bedrock. A deeper, truer state of mental rest.

Dental floss for the brain

When friends ask me how the retreat went, I call it dental floss for the brain. The week after the retreat, back among my normal surroundings, I was surprised to continue to feel so rested and refreshed. For the first time, the “thinking work” I usually love to do and can’t stop myself from doing (like reading, writing, making art or future planning) didn’t feel as urgent.

I don’t claim to be “enlightened” or to speak on behalf of all silent retreat participants. I can’t guarantee what experiences you’d have on a silent retreat. I don’t know that much more about the place of stillness than what I have described, or whether I’ll be able to experience it again.

What I do know is this: I’m thankful for this brief experience of deep mental rest. I’m glad that such a place of stillness exists. I’d be open to participating in a silent retreat again. I look forward to exploring more ways to incorporate mental rest into my daily life.