10-Days Meditating in Silence in Joshua Tree, California
One week ago I emerged out of the desert from my sixteenth meditation retreat – also called a Vipassana or Insight retreat. This particular retreat was 10 days, however others I’ve attended in this tradition range from 5 days to 1 month through Spirit Rock Meditation Center and Against the Stream. Retreats are humbling, challenging, nourishing and eye opening for me. One might think the higher the number, the easier they get but that has not always been my experience. However, it has repeatedly been 100% worth the challenge, time and money.
Some things do get easier like getting in the rhythm of the schedule and knowing that the discomfort in my body will pass after the first couple of days from sitting for more than 6 hours a day (thank GOODNESS for an hour of Qi Gong each day). The body starts settling in and remembering how good it feels to be still after a few days and then the mind generally tends to follow in its path.
It is easier to be nice to myself when I don’t feel myself becoming enlightened as quickly as I’d like. I don’t expect myself to be a perfect meditator anymore (whatever that means). And, I’m not nearly as attached to “fixing” myself by the end of retreat and make space for what wants to arise instead of what I think needs to arise. It is also infinitely easier to let go of the impulse to relentlessly check email or watch Netflix and scroll Facebook. There is true joy in not having to spend time racing around and checking off the never-ending to-do list with a phone in one hand and a computer in the other.
The more experienced and mindful I become, it seems there is more space for harder things to arise – things I haven’t been able to look at and sit with before. My capacity to tolerate more pleasant and unpleasant experience increases. Emotions, thoughts and sensations reveal themselves while observing hour by hour. Often, especially in the beginning of retreat, they’re not so pleasant and when studied with a non-judgmental (or less judgmental!) curiosity, I can stand back and am often struck with awe that I have been living with these thoughts and beliefs just repeating through me on a daily basis – old worn out belief systems about myself, others and the world; past regrets and resentments; desires for a Hollywood future - OVER AND OVER AND OVER AND OVER again.
Most of my thoughts and beliefs (and probably yours too) are almost entirely in the past and the future – keeping me from hanging out in the present moment where honestly, everything seems to be just fine if I slow down enough to pay attention to it. I’m safe, I’m cared for, I have a beautiful life I’ve created, I have work I love, people I love who also love me, and the list goes on. Sure… there’s frequently pain and discomfort in my body and other issues that need tending to but in the big picture life is often so much better than my mind tricks me into believing. That’s what I love about mindfulness – when in the present moment, there’s an inclusiveness of all that is here. Often, we’re in tunnels and stuck in survival mode, only focusing on what’s wrong and what needs fixing. Or, on the other end of the spectrum unwilling to feel anything and distracting ourselves by numbing out or becoming intensity junkies.
While becoming mindful is not always an easy ride, it is incredibly fruitful. Since more and more trust has been built with myself and these practices and my teachers, there is more of an opportunity to let myself dive deeper and truly FEEL, in my body, the feelings that go along with thoughts and memories and sensations and allow them to move through. Accept the truth of this human experience – that it can’t be perfect, to remember that none of us are here to be fixed, and add forgiveness, kindness and compassion wherever possible – even if only for a moment.
The peace that comes on the other side of being willing to be with the discomfort is the kind of peace that fills that empty well inside. It is still and vast; stabilizing and comforting. For me, it comes with kindness and compassion; understanding and acceptance of the painful and difficult things that life has brought. It also comes with a wider view of so much that is good and so much to be grateful for.
Sitting a retreat is a reminder that when we are willing to sit with something simple that feels uncomfortable – like our bodies or breath, we can to take that out into the world where so much is uncomfortable and sit with that too. We’re so used to running or shifting gears or distracting or avoiding. When we have mindfulness we remember that everything passes and we have the ability to be with even the most difficult things with more of a sense of ease instead of adding stress on top of everything.
I am so appreciative of this practice of mindfulness and the ways I have made it a priority in my life. It is the foundation from which I live my life off of and it has changed nearly everything about my relationship to who I am, to my relationships and to life itself. While it’s not a quick fix or a pill, it is something I can trust and it’s sustainable and completely within my ability to practice. What more can I ask for for a better life?