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.