Monks is brown robes greet me in the entry. Each person bows and and I’m warmly welcomed. I find a spot on the floor, fold my legs beneath me and settle in for the first meditation.
This year I added meditation retreat to my 2015 goals list as a building block to support my daily meditation practice. Since January I’ve done my best to meditate daily. The type of meditation has changed around a few times and I’m always curious to explore other practices.
I do genuinely enjoy my meditation practice, although the time commitment is a drag. Every day I remind myself that I never have the time, I just have to do it. That’s how I felt about the retreat too. So I picked one and made the time for it.
I blindly signed up for a six hour workshop. And unbeknownst to me so did several hundred others. The retreats I’ve taken part in the past have been small, under 20 people. So this was a bit overwhelming. But I’d already committed and there was no turning back.
For me, meditation is a tool to manage my ever-building anxiety. I have a tendency to live in the future, projecting forward to all the things I want to accomplish tomorrow, next year and five years from now. Meditation brings me back to now and I’m able to clearly focus without distraction. Well maybe with much less distraction than before, I don’t think it will ever cease to exit. The constant nagging of my to-do list is softer now.
This spring I began a walking meditation. Every morning I take a short walk around my neighborhood and listen to a looping mantra song. I take in the lovely streets, passing people and I’ve noticed that I actually smile the entire time too. It truly is a joyful experience.
Meditation has mounting evidence of benefits, including:
- Decreases anxiety
- More energy
- Improves ability to focus
- Improves memory performance
- Reduces intensity of physical pain
- Increases accurate self-knowledge and reduces many cognitive biases
- Heightens positive mood
- De-excites the nervous system to give the body rest
- Mitigates the effects of the “fight-or-flight” response, decreasing the production of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline
The retreat was hosted by Blue Cliff Monastery, a mindfulness practice center in the southern Catskills, founded by the Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. Thich Nhat Hanh’s approach is a
combination of traditional Zen teachings, Buddhist traditions, and ideas from Western psychology for a modern approach to meditation.
The monks and nuns seated themselves around the room with all the public participants.
This looked strategic, as a way to put everyone on the same level. We sat silently, listening to the soothing words of the first meditation. The day was divided into four practices: seated, walking, eating and active relaxation.
As I sat, my thoughts went immediately to planning an exit strategy. I started to compromise with myself. Okay, if I stay through the first part then I can sneak off towards the doors. No, no, no I’d already committed and meditation is about sitting through discomfort, I could do this. And then nope, I’m done, out of here. My thoughts fought back and forth, my body shifted every two minutes and then Ding!
I’d make it to Part 2. Everyone stood and began forming a line for the walking meditation. This was my chance to escape…just walk over to the door and slip away. But I stayed. And out the door we went, all filed in a neat little line silently walking towards Union Square and through the busy farmers market.
Our group sat down in Union Square right next to a passionate Syrian protest, rallying to persuaded the U.S to let in the displaced refugees. I do not think this was a coincidence. Thich Nhat Hanh is a well-known peace activist and by positioning a group of peaceful meditators next to the protest, he was making his message clear. The protestors chanting made it difficult to focus on much else.
Part 3. Mindful eating. Now this is the part I most wanted to experience. Everyone brought their own lunches and we were encouraged to share with those that did not have food. It was inspiring to see such generosity. We were instructed to take small bites, notice each flavor and chew thoroughly. It was even suggested that we chew each bite 40 times. Now I’m all for appreciating food, but this seemed excessive. I tried it and every bite liquefied too much for my liking.
After the meal, we sat for another meditation. By this point the hard concrete in Union Square was making my butt numb and I had to really concentrate to stay put.
My mind darted off into every which way and direction. I thought about:
- My arms are so sore from carrying those cucumbers.
- What I am going to make for dinner?
- Is it rude to go to the bathroom in the middle of meditating?
- How should I write my story about this experience?
- Feeling guilty for not calling back a friend
- What in this retreat can I Instagram?
- Does this retreat have a hashtag I should use?
- Why can’t I stay still and everyone else can?
- I wish I could sit in a chair and get off the ground.
- Do we all need this much silence?
- I wish that women would stop looking at her phone.
- Maybe I’ll get ice cream after this.
Ding! The bells chimed and we all walked back indoors for Part 4: active relaxation. We were instructed to find enough space to lie down on the floor. I pushed two large floor pillows together and collapsed into them. After three hours of uncomfortable sitting I was relieved to have a cozy spot.
Everyone worked together to make room. Over 100 people were packed in, laying on the floor like we were kids at a big sleep over.
No one seemed bothered to be laying near complete strangers. The shared experience of the retreat had brought us together, we were open to the connection.
Part 4, active relaxation, was the most challenging type of meditation. 45 minutes of laying in stillness. Absolutely no sleeping allowed. The monk talked us through it as I fought my body’s inclination to close my eyes. Ten minutes in and I was out (and this is why I switched to walking meditations…).
Ding! The instructor spoke, “Slowly begin to wiggle your fingers and toes, stretch your arms, then legs and gently roll over to your side.” The room rolled and everyone sat in their own time.
Every urge to leave the retreat vanished. I didn’t want to move. I was content and my mind was finally at ease. The group had shared something so intimate and I felt a closeness to every person in the room. There was one thing missing though, human touch. I wanted a hug. We’d shared something intimate and it did not feel right just walking out the door.
But there was no one to hug. It did not feel appropriate. I left the space with a strong feeling of isolation. All of the silence and reflection had been too disconnecting and I felt separated from the world. Many of my friends have partaken in 10 day silent meditation retreats. 10 days of complete silence, no writing, no reading, no distractions, just you and your thoughts. I’m not sure that much silence is healthy, for me anyway. The anonymity is paralyzing.
“To meditate means to go home to yourself. Then you know how to take care of the things that are happening inside you, and you know how to take care of the things that happen around you.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
I walked out into the city, straight over to my favorite ice cream spot, bought a scoop and sat down in the park to metabolize every emotion arising from six hours of silent reflection. Then I noticed that something in me had tapped back into my eating disorder. The food reduced the intensity of my emotional responses. I didn’t get upset, I just recognized it. Instead of satisfying my craving for human connection, I replaced it with ice cream.
This brought my meditation practice full circle. Proving that I still have much to learn and many moments of silence are ahead of me.
5 Reasons why meditation is awesome
Why meditation and visualization aren’t the same and how to use them
Why Meditate? http://www.chopra.com/ccl/why-meditate