I can hear a man snoring through the paper thin wall in our tiny cabin in the woods. Should I lovingly leave him a nasal strip with a smiley face as they suggested to do for snorers? But today our talk was all about how happiness comes when we stop pushing against life. Maybe I should just accept the snorer? But then again Adya( as Adyashanti, our spiritual teacher on this retreat is fondly known to his students) also told us that what we value most is what we do. So what does it mean if I can’t tolerate the snoring? I can’t believe I didn’t gas up my car before driving up this mountain. I wonder if I will run out on the way down? Am I the only person that already wants to get out of here? God, this is so peaceful. Can I have some caffeine?
This is my brain on my second silent meditation retreat. I wrote about my first silent retreat several years ago before having children. It’s title had something to do with being the hardest thing I”d ever done. After having two children and currently pregnant with my third, this was definitely not even close to the hardest thing I’ve ever done. In fact, it was mostly enjoyable. I got to leave my poor mind alone for a change and reconnect for brief periods to that interior place that is quiet, simple, open and peaceful. I got to meet myself again, which was actually a good thing.
My spiritual seeking began in my mid twenties, when I had outwardly achieved many things I had never dreamed of, but was still unfulfilled. It started with yoga, different types of breath work, meditation, holistic retreats of different kinds and trips to India. I had done as much as ten days of silent meditation but being still and silent definitely has never come naturally to me. I am by no means what some may call an expert meditator or spiritual teacher, but all of these practices have helped me to find my true north within, and to return to that place when I wish has gotten easier over time. This has been the greatest gift digging deep into spirituality has brought me so far. I no longer feel like I”m seeking.
I was led to my retreat with Adyashanti when my husband asked if I”d like to go away somewhere alone before our third child was born. At first, thoughts of luxurious spas and beaches came to mind. However, I knew what I needed most was to be alone with myself and sit with some questions about how I want to live in this world now that I am a parent, and still a woman with goals and dreams. With a two and a four year old, it had been a while since I could really have time to think about anything besides how to keep pants on my kids and keep myself sane.
Adyashanti’s sweet, gentle nature and a recommendation from both a friend and an Oprah podcast made his five night retreat appealing to me. Off to Northern California I went for some peace and quiet, new teaching and hopefully rejuvenation.
As we settled into our assigned rooms, I accepted the fact that the retreat was fully booked and nobody had their own space. My rustic little cabin was packed with six people and we had about two minutes to chat about how to least disturb one another before silence commenced.
The retreat center was aging but cozy and joyful. The parking lot was filled with vehicles ranging from a dinged up Subaru with a bumper sticker of the smiling Dalai Lama that read “Be Stoked,” to Tesla’s and Mercedes Sprinter vans that rolled in from Silicon Valley. We all came for something different, but by the end I realized once again we are all so very much the same.
On the first full day, many of us were tired from travel and the daily madness that is life for so many now. As our minds started to let go and we locked our smart phones in the car, a few people physically fell over and asleep out of their lotus postures during our group silent meditations because this was such an exhausting process in itself. One of them was right next to me and I couldn’t help but giggle and look around at my fellow 200 meditators sitting silently. Nobody else was giggling. It was easy to tell who had been on retreat before by the attire they brought. More experienced retreat participants wore overly comfortable gear and had all their cushions and accoutrements for sitting extended periods of time. Others were visibly uncomfortable and wishing they would have known how much we would actually be sitting. The most experienced didn’t need cushions. I’m sure the Zen monks in Burma who’s teachings we were learning are not sitting all day with ten cushions under their bum but my pregnant body was grateful we could.
I loved the format of our retreat as it was much less intense then others I had attended and this is just what I needed. We sat upright and aware during silent periods of forty minutes, and then enjoyed thirty minute breaks to drink tea, have a vegetarian meal or find deer or other wildlife to watch outside. Many of us chose to sit by windows and look at the breathtaking scenery of nature as there was no chatting going on during our breaks. Then back to our chair or cushions it was, for a guided or period of silent meditation. There was no use of phone or reading allowed as to allow us to be truly with ourselves and not distracted. Having had some practice with this, it was okay with me, but often when I got sick of myself or obsessed with the need to get something done, I thought of Anne Lamott’s quote that says “my mind is like a bad neighborhood. I try not to go there alone” and had a good chuckle. After dinner was my most favorite time of day as for almost two hours, Adya would answer questions from the few who were burning with desire to speak.
Each night when people asked their questions I found it remarkable that on some level, I always could relate to what was said or learned something valuable from the way Adya guided people to find the answer to their own questions. “How do I balance achievement and sitting quietly in meditation? I often am thinking when I meditate. I always fall asleep when I meditate. My body moves erratically when I meditate. My life is so bad right now….how do I even begin to experience peace? I’m aging…how do I get okay with not having achieved what I thought I would during this life? I’m Catholic. My family thinks going on a Zen retreat is dishonorable. How do I deal? I am super successful in life. Why am I so unhappy? When is the enlightenment coming?” The questions were mostly very real to us all and in many cases took deep courage to ask in front of hundreds of others. Adya laughed that he sometimes wishes people would spend a year in good therapy before they came to him for answers, and most of us got the gentle joke. He went on to say that therapy and personal growth endeavors definitely go hand in hand with meditation and spirituality. Both are necessary for most of us. You can only stuff your unresolved childhood issues by sitting quietly for so long. We all laughed in unison as we thought of a “spiritual” person we know who’s life is still in shambles to prove this point. Meditation is definitely not a quick fix to a great life, but it’s a huge step in the right direction for most of us. I know the simple fact that it helps me remain calm and stress less has a hugely positive impact on myself and those around me.
By day four everyone looked more beautiful. We were all rested, feeling comfortable in silence and ourselves. Eyes sparkled. I was no longer craving coffee. I noticed people here and there laughing to themselves over their vegan breakfast and I think it was a sign of fully letting go. I had made up stories about my fellow students and started to wonder how much of it was true? What can we really know after watching someone in silence for several days? What did they see in me?
There are never any promises when it comes to meditation. It can be the ultimate act of faith because it’s not guaranteed life will get better because of it, but it always seems to. Sometimes we uncover things we would have rather kept hidden in the closet. That’s happened to me many times, and in the past year one of my biggest insights was that this is a period of my life where I need to slow down and put my family first. This also meant putting my career on hold which was a tough call for me, but I know the correct one. If I hadn’t been able to get still enough to hear and feel the signs over and over I would probably be pushing and pulling against reality and attempting to do it all. For me, this meant doing nothing very well, falling ill way too often and always being slightly distracted.
On our last day we were instructed to ask ourselves one more time, “who am I and how do I want to live this life?” Once we reach mid life it’s not often that we get an opportunity to reflect like this. This was not the first time days on end in a sparse retreat center wearing dirty clothes reminded me that if I can live life presently, joyously and peacefully within, it’s a pretty good life no matter what it looks like on the outside. It scares me to realize this over and over because I also love to have my creature comforts but I know it to be true.
When the retreat ended we had the opportunity to stay for a lunch and speak to our fellow participants. I left immediately, as I liked to leave everyone in my mind just as I had made them up to be. For a minute I had some self judgment about that, until I realized Adyashanti was driving down the mountain right in front of me. I made it to a gas station and saw seven rainbows on my drive back home. I learned once again, if we can get still enough to see the signs, they are always walking us home.