They say when you return from a silent meditation retreat and people ask how it was, it’s best just to say, “Good” and leave it at that unless asked for more. As a blogger, though, I don’t have to wait until people express interest to say what I think. It’s pretty great. And while some things I experienced last week are too personal or difficult to put into words here, there’s much I can say.
I’m sure it’s different for everyone, but one generalization I think I can make is that sitting in silence for a week is a mind-altering psychedelic experience. Think about the highest you’ve ever been, the best sex you’ve ever had, every time you’ve ever fallen in love, and every time you’ve ever been heartbroken or hurt. Now imagine experiencing all those things AT THE SAME TIME and ONLY IN YOUR MIND. It will break you the fuck open.
This was my second year in a row doing this retreat. The first day is like Buddhist college orientation (the retreat is for young adults). Remember your first day of college–the only time in your life when that many strangers freely walked up to each other and introduced themselves? That’s how it is at the retreat, except after you meet all those people, you spend the rest of the week not talking to them or even making eye contact. You wake up at 5:30 every morning to sit in the meditation hall for 45-minute stretches, alternating with periods of walking meditation, breaks to eat vegetarian food and rest or hike, and a teacher talk every evening. You’re not supposed to read. The idea is to see what happens when you have no choice but to be alone with your own thoughts. You know how some people do those cleanses where they ingest nothing but lemon juice, cayenne, and maple syrup for a week? Well, a retreat is like that but for the mind. It’s like flossing your brain.
Sometimes, you floss spontaneous joy out of the gaps–there’s always a point when I find myself thinking, “Everyone should do meditation retreats! My parents, my ex-boyfriends…”–but it’s maybe not for everyone. Spontaneous grief can come out too. Last year, a woman cried heaving sobs in the meditation hall every afternoon. It was hard to listen. I felt a range of feelings bearing witness to a nameless person’s nameless grief. I felt concern. I felt morbid curiosity about what she had been through that made her cry. I felt worried that my experience might be less meaningful because I wasn’t moved to such emotion. I felt guilty for not having a hard time. It isn’t that hard for me to sit for a whole week in silence, which isn’t to say I sit there like some enlightened Buddha. I get bored. I rehash the same breakups over and over. I use my mind as an iPod. I remember telling a friend in high school that I didn’t think I could meditate because I couldn’t clear my mind. I didn’t understand then that that’s the work of meditation practice–you try to clear your mind and fail. Given enough opportunities to fail, the brain eventually repatterns itself. Whatever you suffer from, you practice to learn how to stop.
Retreat isn’t hard for me, but reentry is. What I feel when a retreat ends is even more difficult to describe than retreat itself. The first day of the retreat, I kept making grocery lists in my head. Now that I’m back, the last thing I want to do is go grocery shopping. I feel more alive than ever, which is jarring in a world we’re deadened to half the time. Last year, I tried explaining this feeling to a friend who said a retreat seemed like a lot to go through just to feel out of sorts at the end (this is why they tell you just to say, “It was good”). Since I started sitting retreats, other friends have asked, “Since when did you get all spiritual?” Sometimes, it’s easier to explain to a new friend who I’ve been than to explain to old friends who I am. The answer I rarely give is that I started sitting meditation in 2007 when I was living with an ex-boyfriend who was an addict. The most profound love relationship of my life was ending, and I was terrified of coming home to find him dead. I started meditating to stay sane in an insane situation. What did F. Scott Fitzgerald say about holding two contradictory ideas in the mind at the same time without going insane? In a way, I continue sitting to understand that I once left a man I loved and that I too have been left by men who loved me. I don’t mean to understand why. I mean to understand that.
I’m sure what each sitter flosses out of their brain is different and unpredictable. Before entering noble silence, retreatants say to each other, “See you on the other side.” Historically, I’ve had a hard time with unpredictability, with not being able to see the other side of something I start, especially if I have to commit to starting without that foresight. I wasn’t scared when my parents took me on The Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyland when I was five until the elevator doors shut and a voice said, “You can’t turn back now–mwahahaha!!!” I remembered that as I hiked around the retreat center this year. Last year, one of my favorite things about the retreat was hiking after lunch. Normally, I don’t hike alone. I’m afraid of running into a beast or falling down and hurting myself. I did a few short hikes last year but always turned back, not knowing where the trails eventually led. I suspected they all connected, however, and this year, I was determined to find my way all the way around. It took me two tries, and even on the second, I almost turned back a few times. I hiked up hills of rock and chaparral, under oaks, and through tall grass. I hiked up so high I could see the city and the Richmond Bridge. I hiked behind the hills above the center and past the back entry of a redwood preserve. I kept going. I kept going and going until I realized I had done it–I had made the loop! It was, in fact, a loop; all roads lead home. Alone on the trail, I pumped my fists and cried.
And the last night of the retreat, I cried. I cried and cried. I cried myself a headache that lasted into the next day. I think I might have been mistaken to assume the tears I overheard last year were grief. What drove me to mine was what I think Christians call grace: “the love and mercy given to us by God because God desires us to have it, not because of anything we have done to earn it….generous, free and totally unexpected and undeserved.” Grace came to me in the form of a thought, an idea that finding love is like tuning a radio. The signal is always there, but sometimes it flickers in and out, and other times it’s just static. Even when it does come in, sometimes the song is shit. But on retreat, it’s like you’re perfectly tuned to a crystal clear signal and the station is playing your favorite music. You feel grace and communion and true love, and I don’t care how cheesy that sounds; it’s fucking true.
I’ve been back for a few days now, and I feel…changed.
I’m trying to smile at strangers on the street and to tune the dial of my heart without being afraid or embarrassed of the static.
I didn’t grow up with religion. When I was a kid, Easter was just about egg hunts, and I didn’t know what happened at Passover Seders until a couple of years ago when an old roommate hosted one at our house. I still don’t know the difference between Good Friday and Palm Sunday or what all those days signify.
Last night, I went to a Seder at which I was the youngest child, so I got to read the questions and find the afikomen. I really like Seders–the symbolic foods, the history lesson, the prompting to contemplate oppression and liberation from oppression. It felt like a fitting, if coincidental (??), end to Lent, a bookend to winter as a meaningful period between holy days. That I am conflating traditions here hardly seems to matter. The upshot of having no religion is the freedom to choose.
Last year was the first time I tried Lent. I didn’t even know what the exact dates were, but for an undefined period in February and March, I gave up thinking about ex-boyfriends. Every time I caught myself thinking about an ex, I had to sing the opening strains of a familiar pop song (“oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh”) in my head. I told myself I was practicing mindfulness. In retrospect, I think I was practicing distraction. In any case, it was moderately successful, and this year, I knew I wanted to do Lent again.
I had already decided to give up meat and alcohol for six weeks when one of my students, an Episcopalian, told me you could also add things to your routine for Lent. This changed everything. I decided to add at least five minutes of meditation a day and an extra yoga class a week. The experience has been profound. I got more out of what I added than what I took away. Although I skipped a few days of meditation (what a sad commentary on modern life that I sometimes felt like I could not spare five minutes), I sat with more regularity than I ever have and discovered that 20 minutes is the ideal length of time for me to sit by myself at home. I honestly felt a sense of inner peace and increased energy during this past month-and-a-half, which I attribute to the meditation and extra exercise.
The meat thing, on the other hand, lasted about halfway through. The first time I broke was right before my period. I went easy on myself, believing it was just my body saying, “Must stockpile iron!” In truth, I am not sure how much I bought in to the dietary restriction and pretty much stopped following it after that. I have always been a conflicted meat eater in that I am not convinced it is morally OK to eat animals, but I am not convinced it isn’t either. I don’t cook meat and believe it is enough to eat it sparingly. Lent reinforced this. I only broke the no alcohol vow a few times and for social invites. I am OK with that too, though I have decided from this experiment not to keep alcohol in my house anymore. I had been in the habit of having a glass of wine some evenings a week, believing it helped me relax when really, it just made my brain feel fuzzy. Lent taught me how comforting it is to have a routine and that you can have healthy routines or unhealthy ones; it is the habit itself that comforts. Thus, deprivation is useless without inserting a positive addition in its place.
It is hard to talk about spiritual calling. I don’t have the vocabulary for it, and my friends are almost all atheists, agnostics, or/and rejected whatever faith they were brought up in. But I believe in god and ritual practice. I get out of these things what I think other people get out of therapy. If I have kids, I want to raise them in some kind of spiritual tradition. At the Seder last night, I thought about how cool it would be to have one myself when I grow up, even though I am not Jewish. Passover, Lent, Buddhism, to me they are all the same, really. Religion is about the liberation from suffering–personal, cultural, etc. In this light, it is impossible to imagine living a life without faith.
“In every generation one might to regard himself as though he had personally been liberated from slavery.”