Reflections on Retreat
One of the things I am often most proud and most ashamed to admit is that I strive to be the Queen of Productivity, almost to the point of obsession; while en route to teach a client or class I’m listening to a podcast on the latest yoga and psychology research, catching up on emails means time to roll out my feet on yoga tune up therapy balls (how else am I going to keep my feet prepped for relay races?!), time designated for responding back to texts is during my post-run stretch, indulging in an episode of House of Cards equates to a late night walk on my treadmill, the list goes on and on and ON. In fact, I admit that as I type this I’m sitting in gomukasana aka cow face pose, sans the shoulder bind since I’m not *that* talented…
Suffice it to say, I relish in my discipline to do something “good” for my body while completing a necessary task, forever knocking down items off my to-do list. So, while the thought of a meditation retreat didn’t necessarily cause a panic in me, I also had no idea the reprieve I would gain from some time just to sit and be with myself.
I attempted to dive head first into the deep end of the meditation retreat pool back in January 2014 when I ventured to Yangon, Myanmar to complete a 10 day silent Vipassana retreat. Heading into it I had full knowledge of the requirements; no talking, no reading, no eye contact, no journaling, no listening to music, and +10 hours of daily meditation. However, I had not prepared myself for the additional rules and rigor outside of these common requisites. Namely, that we were expected to sit in the same crossed legged position for all hours of meditation, listening to audio tapes repeat the same three lines of instruction, and forbidden to do any kind of stretching/yoga/movement. I should also add that it being southeast Asia, and me being American, I was particularly challenged with the retreat center’s lack of hot water or toilet paper. By Day 2.5 I had reached the limit of my sanity and abandoned my resolve to complete the curriculum (after my prior attempt to leave on Day 2 had been admonished). This style of meditation practice felt antithetical to everything I had studied and known to be true in my body, that movement and connection with my physical body is the way I feel connected, it is one of the most profoundly healing agents of how I cultivate awareness.
In May of 2015 I decided to dip my toe back into the formal sitting practice with a weekend retreat at the beautiful center of Esalen in Big Sur, California. Though it was not silent, I found it instrumental in leading me back to a practice I have always found challenging but deeply nurturing for my psyche.
The impetus for embarking on last week’s retreat was almost solely on the account of my curiosity to sit with a teacher and researcher whose work I had been following throughout my graduate studies. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, often titled the father of mindfulness in the West, has a legacy whose non-secular approach has drawn the likes of both the medical and spiritual community. I had very few expectations about the week-long retreat and was motivated to travel to Omega Institute for the gift and opportunity to absorb Jon’s teachings and practice being receptive to an embodied experience of learning and dialoguing with this “king pin of mindfulness.”
This is where I hope my blog won’t seem unsatisfying for the reader since it’s impossible to encapsulate such an experience. The complexity of being on retreat is incredibly personal since it means sitting with all of your stuff – your fears, reactions, hopes, distractions, projections, discomfort, and endless narratives. For me, it was a time to sit and be with myself on a deep level of inquiry, trying in earnest not to engage with my endless mind chatter but really hold a space of compassion, curiosity, and reverence for all these facets of me. It was a time to practice being my own best friend, when so often it feels like my mental dialogue is hell-bent on being the judge and jury.
I return from retreat feeling like the reset button has been pressed in a way that no solo travel, conversation with my therapist, or journaling session has ever inspired. Is it difficult to sit and walk in silence with yourself and the maniac commentary of thoughts that the mind is capable of creating? Of course. Is it strange to move, eat, and meditate among +200 strangers while sustaining no eye contact or verbal communication? Yes. Is waking up at 5am and dragging my butt to the cushion after only a few hours of sleep sound like an ideal way to spend a week off? Not necessarily. But it was worth every single moment. I realized I had gotten so well versed in my role as a busy and productive human doing that now I have some tools to bring me back in touch with my potential as a human simply being.