Going On A Silent Meditation Retreat Was Absolutely Nothing Like I Thought It Would Be
I had never meditated a day in my life before I decided to attend a five-day silent meditation retreat. Honestly, I can’t even say that I ever had a desire to try it out. What I was looking to do, however, was to feel a stronger connection to my own body, as I had just spent the previous year experiencing a slew of vague health problems that made me resent my dysfunctional anatomy. I had undergone countless tests, often changed medications, experienced bad side effects from the aforementioned medications, and was overall feeling pretty hopeless. I quite literally didn’t feel comfortable in my own skin, and knew I needed to try something out that wasn’t just another pill.
I took to staying up late at night, googling my symptoms in desperate hope of finding a miracle drug, herbal tea, or yoga pose that would cure my ailments. I found (and tried) a bunch of crazy remedies, but one common piece of advice stuck out through all my research: the importance of meditation. As a natural skeptic, I laughed at this idea. Yet, the more I researched, the more the idea of “loving my body” again via “positive thinking” appealed to me, or whatever. Plus, considering that I had already eaten a pill-sized camera and waited until I excreted it out before my doctor could analyze the inner-workings of my intestines, what was 60 hours of meditation in the grand scheme of things?
Thus, I set out for a meditation retreat in the woods of New England last January, to spend the time I had off for the holidays “connecting my body and spirit” like a forum I read on the Internet had suggested. And let’s just say it turned out to be unlike anything I ever experienced: strange, other-worldly, surprising, and in many ways, life-changing.
1. Quiet mediation got boring really quickly
Since items of distraction like cellphones, diaries, or books were literally locked away, my days were spent in silence, surrounded by 100 other blank-staring, zombie-walking retreatants. About half were in crisis (just divorced / married / laid-off 30-somethings), while the other half were in the we’re-just-excited-to-be-here 70+ crowd. I was – by far – the youngest person at the retreat, and I couldn’t help but imagine my friends at clubs or concerts while I was falling asleep at 9 PM in my tiny single room to the sound of a gong. They had all questioned me nonstop about my decision to attend the retreat, and didn’t stop reminding me that I was the kind of cold-hearted person who didn’t cry during The Notebook. In terms of connecting to my emotions, I was clearly a lost cause.
Seeing how little it actually takes to make me happy made it easy to put my whole world and values in perspective.
More gongs rang at 5:30 AM, at which point I would roll out of bed and start the repetitive schedule with a warm, inspired smile on my face and a bounce in my step (Just kidding! I was very cranky until around 10 AM at least). Our days alternated between sitting meditations, which took place in a grand meditation hall and was led by two teachers, and walking meditations, which involved walking in rows and focusing on connecting with the mechanics of our steps. For a retreat that was supposed to inspire inner peace, our schedules were definitely packed — I often found myself getting nervous about being late to a sit after a long tea-sipping / watching the clouds float rendezvous. The only official breaks in the meditation were for us to perform housekeeping or kitchen work, and to take our vegetarian meals. Everything was supposed to be done “mindfully,” meaning participating in the moment slowly and completely.
These days “mindfulness” is such a buzzword (see: Instagrams of overpriced hazelnut soy cappuccinos with captions explaining how we should all enjoy our drinks “mindfully” before running off to yoga). It’s been described as a weight-loss tactic (savor every bite of the 12 quinoa morsels you’re allowed! You’ll eat less!) or some quick-fix way to “connect with your partner more.” “True” mindfulness, however, takes a lifetime to achieve, and it’s a way to engage your body and mind equally in every single task you do. As someone who usually clicks the next episode of the show I’m binge watching after the last ends because I cannot wait the 10 seconds it takes for the episode to load automatically, practicing mindfulness was incredibly frustrating.
As instructed, I’d spend 15 minute segments focusing on enjoying the feeling of my socks touching the wooden floor and then have the sudden, deep urge to punch something. Eating meals so slowly in order to feel the flavor explode for each noodle ruined everything that’s fun about food for me.
Putting aside the frustration, I should say that there were times where I enjoyed all the extra time to reflect — when I wasn’t accidentally falling asleep on my meditation cushion or mentally cursing my choices, of course. Which brings me to:
2. Monotony allowed for a rare kind of introspection
Let’s be honest: I was incredibly bored for most of my time at the retreat. And I mean truly so. Excruciatingly. Bored. Yet, something strange did happen. I began to feel extreme joy at every minuscule change in routine. Yes, I got so comfortable spending time with myself and learning the patterns of my mind, that me, myself, and I formed actual inside jokes with each other and even developed some super fun activities.
One afternoon, I found a bucket of tennis balls and a yoga foam roller, and began to throw the ball against the wall and hit it with the roller like this was a solo baseball game. This kind of ruckus wasn’t really allowed, and I was probably supposed to be meditating somewhere, but, hey, my rebellious side doesn't take a vacation.
I also took to slowly savoring tea from the take-your-own tea bar as one would a fine wine, noting all the “tannins” and the bold “finish” of a lovely cup of Vanilla Chai as I’d sit by the window, waiting for a bird to nibble from a bird feeder. Whenever a bird did show up, my heart raced so fast I thought it would give out, like what happens to a little dog if he eats chocolate.
I do realize that this all might sound pathetic to you. It probably was. Yet, I hadn’t felt this kind of unadulterated joy provoked by such seemingly meaningless moments since I was a kid. Of course in my actual life, when I have responsibilities, stress, and actually cool things to distract me, I never would have been amused by those activities for nearly as long. But seeing how little it actually takes to make me happy made it easy to put my whole world and values in perspective.
3. Meditation was hard, but we got a lot of support
I was definitely worried that I wouldn’t be accepted into the community because I was a newbie meditator who usually can’t keep a straight face in awkward moments, never mind silent ones. I also assumed everyone would realize that I only half believed in all the spirituality — I felt almost like I was going to be an undercover narc trying to fit in at a high school party.
Yet, somehow, April and Pierre,* the incredibly patient teachers who led the sitting meditations, were truly kind and helpful. Their inner peacefulness and self-control was astounding (let’s just say they never took extra servings of gluten-free “Nirvana Noodles” that were served for lunch. Yes, I did.)
As a form of encouragement, April and Pierre would often silently meditate in front of us. They would also lead inspiring “Dharma talks,” which were lectures about Buddhism theory and stories from their extensive meditation practices. April often read poems or referenced literature that included the beautiful metaphors that are common tools to reflect Buddhist ideas (“our wild minds are just fish flopping in water that is too shallow.”)
Pierre spoke about real-life issues and often made jokes. With his unfaltering optimism, Pierre had every 75-year-old lady in yoga pants very clearly in love with him. Which is why the bomb he dropped on us during Day Three hurt even more: Pierre has HIV. This made him even more admirable, if possible, to me. He was so desperately lovely all the time and he has a life-long, incurable illness! Meanwhile, I’m passive-aggressively rude to slow-walkers in front of me! Both of these teachers quickly became my idols.
4. Meditating wasn’t all about relaxing; it was hard
Instead of telling us to silence our brains, what I always assumed to be the point of meditation, April and Pierre instructed us to sit back and let our minds go free in order to identify the patterns of our thoughts and to reconsider memories. This is where everything got trippy.
Relinquishing control over over my thoughts was like watching a silent film directed by Stanley Kubrick with the Sgt. Pepper’s-era Beatles as the actors and a soundtrack curated by 14-year-old stoners listening to Dark Side of the Moon in their parent’s basement. The images that flashed before my closed eyes during meditation often made no sense. Phosphenes, the little bursts of color and shapes we see when our eyes close, became dizzying. The randomness of my thoughts became frustrating. Yet, as an audience member of my own mind, I noticed some important patterns. Once I identified these patterns, I took a more controlled approach and chose which memories, many of which I had gone through a million times before, to revisit.
Of course, not all memory montages were pleasant. I saw painful arguments and family struggles. Yet re-living these moments in my mind’s eye was surprisingly not torturous, and it led me to accept the present state of life more easily.
Additionally, sitting in one place thinking for a while helped me consider my out-of-whack body calmly and matter-of-factly. I noticed each part that felt wrong, and thought about what it would feel like if it healed. This didn’t really do anything tangible at all, obviously, but it was still an exercise that probably gave me more hope in healing.
5. Meditating also turned out to be an emotional experience
Along with these memory-montages, Pierre and April encouraged us to let emotions “wash over us” in order to fully understand them instead of pushing them away, like I’ve always preferred to do.
Letting myself really feel emotions like I never have before meant following a joyful strange “warmth” travel from my chest to the highest part of my throat. And also: feeling a chill jolt through my body when I thought of something I dread. I swear, at one point I actually started crying on the cushion. I don’t know what they put in the tofu tacos they served for dinner that night, but for some reason, this outburst felt perfectly appropriate.
A thought occurred to me after this exercise: happiness is essentially one of the great goals of life, yet, when it comes to us, often we feel it, but don’t really let it consume us. We don’t take the time to notice how our ears, pinky toes, or the tips of our noses feel when we are truly happy. This is such a loss considering happiness is hard for anyone to come by. It only makes sense that we should be completely consumed by it when it passes through us.
6. Making deep, non-verbal connections with others was strange…and truly rewarding
Our individual living arrangements were pretty bleak (tiny single rooms “furnished” with a twin bed, one wooden chair, a sink, and a closet), but by just being on the retreat I felt so close with everyone there, even though we couldn’t speak or even acknowledge each other.
I often felt alone in a literal sense, but never felt lonely. One of the reasons I was able to avoid this was thanks to something pretty unusual that our teachers made us do. Pierre and April often led us in “loving-kindness” prayers, where we would send, well, loving and kindness to our loved ones as well as the other retreatants in the room. Then a really weird thing happened — I truly started to feel that all the sending “loving-kindness” prayers worked. I strangely felt so much love for myself and for every stranger in the room. A weird but satisfying feeling.
Despite all the strangeness and boredom, my silent days lost in my thoughts at the retreat were some of the most formative I’ve had in my life. The trip didn’t solve my health mystery, but it absolutely allowed me to appreciate some of the cool things that are going on in there rather than only noticing the painful and uncomfortable. At least for me, the really seminal adventure is the one that came with deep introspection, which, once you get the hang of it, can essentially be done anywhere — whether that’s on the beach, at a spa, or really any place you can freely access your brain and your heart.
*All names have been changed