The day before I went on a silent meditation retreat I wrote my sons goodbye letters. One of them read his before breakfast and came downstairs as I sat in the kitchen staring at my suitcase and he said, “Mom, it’s not like you are going to Afghanistan.”
Before deciding I needed this retreat, I was doing my best to recuperate from a bad business breakup that left me heartbroken and reeling; and prior to that, managing a string of family crisis sparked my teenage son’s anxiety disorder. But despite what felt like a long period lived at def-con 4 intensity, I managed to have an on again off again relationship with acceptance. My years of yoga conditioned me to breathe softly into the tight places quite possibly prevented me from closing in on myself altogether. I had a daily life to wake up to, children to rear, a marriage to nurture, a new business to germinate. Life is unapologetic in its pursuit to keep marching on despite the obesity of pain that it sometimes insists you make space for.
To keep the ache of stress at bay I drank wine. To tolerate the decibel level of my noisy mind, I smoked a lot of pot. I suppose this was my body’s clunky way of trying to steer me in a direction of feeling better. I was on a kind of adrenalized auto-pilot. I not only got good at putting out big fires, I got used to it.
It was my husband who told me I should go on a silent retreat. I had been flirting with the idea of retreating. I spent months listening to dharma talks—hour long teachings inspired by the tradition of Buddhist meditation. “It’s one thing to talk about the practice,” my husband said, “it is another thing to actually experience the practice.” I had this sense that being alone in a noiseless cocoon would be a welcome thing. I was also terrified of what I might find when I got inside my mind.
I booked a seven day retreat in mid-February and the day I arrived it was dark and freezing rain. I thumped my suitcase up the staircase of an old estate that sat high up on a hill side surrounded by miles and miles of icy frozen trails. The only real noise I heard for days was the quiet hushing of other bodies walking to and from the meditation hall carrying mugs of hot spiced tea; and the whir of the vacuum I dragged across the floor of the dormitory each morning as part of my yogi job.
The monotony was oddly comforting. I slept. I ate. I walked at a snail’s pace through the dimly lit hallways. Or, when I felt more ambitious, I walked those frozen trails where the crunch of my footprints and the crash of fallen ice from heavy branches was musical accompaniment.
I sat several times a day in the same spot on two cushions and a blanket over my lap my hands clasped in a kind of dream state. I leaned back and let myself wander. I had enough time to see that all of those stories, those theatrics, those personal tales I had written, directed and starred in, endlessly changed and morphed into something else. After a few days, I was amused by what my mind would arbitrarily dole out.
When the retreat was over I drove home slower than I had ever driven. The highway was blinding and my voice, when I called my husband, sounded clear and resounding. I arrived home to my youngest, who waiting with open arms, brought me a puzzle and we sat on the floor and assembled the scattered pieces one by one until they formed a decipherable image — a map of the world.
The retreat was not my end road to wellness after an emotionally torrential period, it was a marker, a pin dropped in the middle of nowhere, it was the hail Mary my whole body asked for. I haven’t returned for another one. I have found other ways to cloister and care for myself and I have found the older I get, the more vigilant I am about those things. Try as I might, I can’t prevent life from presenting me with some unforeseen situation. My parents are getting older. Two of my three children are now adults living away from home. My livelihood is not always stable. There will always be a what-if but I have learned to let the uncertainty be there. I wave to it. I respect it.
The skill of living life awake for its magic insists that we are also awake for when it burns. Our journey to be well, to know what we need, to regain our footing, find our poise is a dance we choreograph all the time and our breath as it journeys from space throughout our bodies and back out again is making that journey with us every day of our lives.Read More