My good friend Allison at From Within Wellness just returned from a silent meditation retreat. I’m fascinated by the idea of a six day silent retreat, mostly because I have never been quiet for longer than six minutes and our three children have the same tendencies to talk nonstop- Every. Single. Minute.
So I’m living vicariously through Allison and her path to becoming a certified instructor in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. Read on to find out what awesome things you might learn if you just shut your damn pie hole for a minute already.
Attending “The Power of Presence” silent meditation retreat in Santa Rosa, CA takes me one step closer to teaching MBSR. It was located right in the middle of Sonoma wine country. Being from Iowa, the location alone was one to behold and send me into complete bliss. The weather was absolutely perfect, scenery right out of a romance novel. It smelled like pine, rosemary, lavender, and was so fresh that it felt like I was clearing out my lungs and heart each time I took a deep breath. The location used to be a convent in the 50’s, and later, an all-girls school. There definitely was an air of the feminine which was lovely.
On the way there, I wrote down intentions for my time there. Since I had one long retreat under my belt, I somewhat knew what to expect. I tend to take meditation very seriously and solemnly, almost like I’m mentally gripping on by my fingernails. Because, let’s face it, anyone that has given meditation a serious chance, sees that there is a real sense of effort, determination, and discipline that goes along with it. However, I’ve noticed there can be real moments of letting things be as they are and a sense of ease as well when it comes to “just sitting”. So this time around I wanted to explore that side more:
Mindfulness is a serious look at our minds, and requires at times, immense amounts of curiosity and courageousness to sit with discomfort as well. As a culture, we’ve been taught to push away any kind of negativity and only search and hang onto the good stuff in life. It sounds paradoxical, but sitting with the BS of your life with a deep sense of inquisitiveness and kindness, by moving through difficult emotions and thoughts, getting up very close, is the way for real healing. “Radical Acceptance” as Tara Brach would say to your life. Most times, we can’t “think” our way through problems, because that’s how they were created in the first place. Healing has to go deeper.
In comparison to my 10-day Vipassana retreat in Wisconsin, this really did feel more like a vacation. It was much more gentle and enjoyable. That’s not to say that it was any easier!
This trip felt like a roller coaster; there were amazing but extremely flitting highs I’ve never felt before – almost a feeling of oneness with the world, then there were deep lows as well. Entering into Noble Silence of mind, body and speech is the way to really get in touch with our own humanity and realizing the humanness of others. Through different experience throughout the trip, even though I hardly spoke to any of these women, young and old, myriad skin color, backgrounds, faiths, and cultures, we all seemed to have such a deep rooted sense of community. A visceral feeling of really being in this thing together.
1. Create Space
Even though the schedule seems like a lot, it really isn’t. It’s specifically designed to do the same thing day in and day out, to give our minds rest from the incessant thinking of repeated, usually negative, sometimes catastrophic thought patterns. We eventually see the pattern of just sitting, walking, eating, and repeat. I remember over two years ago, talking to a co-worker about not having enough space in my life. I blurted out, “I just need time and space because I don’t feel like I have either right now.” This creates that container I so much needed. The schedule mimics a very simplified version of the basic things we do in life as well. In this space, both deep joy and sorrow arise when you least expect it and practically knocks you off your feet. However, inside these uneasy and uncharted feelings of despair, sadness, and guilt, intrinsically you find you’ve had this ability all along, it’s just never been nurtured or practiced on how to use this innate wisdom for good, not for evil.Slowly but surely you start to find this inner resilience.
2. Find Your Voice
Who would’ve thought that by being silent you can find your voice?? By respecting Noble Silence you get quieter on all fronts. By becoming quieter, we start to see how we react to certain emotions and thoughts. For example, during meditation, when my mind starts getting caught up in “The Story of Me”, I start mindlessly picking my fingernails, muscles around my eyes and jaw tighten so slightly, and muscles in my left shoulder and neck get tense. None of this is noticeable to me in my “normal” life. When I bring the spotlight of awareness to the tension, I relax without force. It’s fascinating. Imagine going days, weeks, years, with this perpetual, chronic muscle contraction — maybe that’s why there’s a chiropractor on every corner these days?? We begin to see what triggers us, and learn to respond more wisely and see the importance of true self-care and compassion.
3. Location, Location, Location
Let’s be real, who wouldn’t be relaxed in this atmosphere?? But seriously, it is possible create a retreat in your own backyard – Not literally, though- If I did this, I’d have children hanging on me, not very peaceful. You get what I’m saying though. The phrase is so true: “Wherever you go, there you are.” (This is actually a title of one of my favorite mindfulness books). You don’t have to be in paradise to go deeper into your humanity. The idea is to remove yourself from your current situation for long enough to strip away the usual titles we give ourselves: Mom, Wife, Daughter, Sister, Friend in my case, and figure out who’s really underneath all the stories we tell ourselves.
4. It’s All About the Food
FOR REAL. I live to eat – always have. I enjoy food like it’s entertainment, comfort, a celebration and exploration of all the senses. And retreat food never disappoints. When you think of mindful eating, and turning it into a meditation – basically using food as your one point of focus, using your entire felt sense to experience your food, it has to be exceptional. This retreat served us completely organic, vegetarian meals, including fresh herbs and squeezed juices for salad dressings – nothing dried, nothing even pre-frozen!! All probably grown a few miles away for this retreat– (by the way, I would be over the moon eating a PB&J if someone made it for me, but this was just pure heaven.) I’ve literally never eaten better in my life.
5. Sense of Community
Even though you don’t communicate in the “normal” way our culture does in this type of situation, being in relation to others, witnessing intense emotion in others and resisting the urge to go hug them and make it all better is very powerful. But also being on the other side – where I was crying at the breakfast table one morning, feeling very sorry for myself. Sensing the enormous, overwhelming feeling of embarrassment and wanting to desperately jump up and flee to the bathroom to collect myself. Instead, I just sat there and felt it, sat with the discomfort, which felt so uncomfortable at the time, but eventually, empowering. (Later, the girl that sat across from me that noticed I was crying, said it helped her to get out of her own hopeless story and reminded her of what she was ultimately there for.) We’re working in community and in this thing called life together. (We all had daily “working meditation” as well. Every morning I scrubbed the breakfast pots – I loved having a job title as “Pot Scrubber”) The teachers hold this fragile container for us to really see our shared humanness, that rarely happens in daily life.
6. It Will Change You if You Let it
It’s that Mick Jagger song, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find, you get what you need.” Just like life, it’s not always what you expect. Negative, dark things can arise – things you haven’t thought about in years will visit your thoughts – your old boss, school mates, rehashing past arguments from years ago, your ex-boyfriend and why he broke up with you, shit from childhood, songs you haven’t listened to in forever. It’s exhausting, but once we learn how to relate to all of this, treating everything with equanimity, we begin to see that the only way to fully heal is through the BS, not around or ignoring it, hoping it will go away on its own. Vulnerability has it’s own strength and wisdom. Retreats can pry you wide open and raw, kind of like you’re walking around inside out. If you’re brave enough and willing to see things as they are, not how you wish they would be….find a retreat. You just might uncover something precious, amazing, and vaguely familiar…You.
Allison Peet is a Des Moines, Iowa based mom, wife, career woman and aspiring instructor in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. Read more of her journey at www.fromwithinwellness.com.