6 Hours of Silence: A Meditation Lesson

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:

  1. Decreases anxiety
  2. More energy
  3. Improves ability to focus
  4. Improves memory performance
  5. Reduces intensity of physical pain
  6. Increases accurate self-knowledge and reduces many cognitive biases
  7. Heightens positive mood
  8. De-excites the nervous system to give the body rest
  9. 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


Can Dieting Shorten Your Life?

How many people do you know who are trying to lose weight? I bet you can name at least five in your close circle. The numbers are staggering. Our culture is obsessed with weight loss. Yet out of those people trying to lose weight, there is a 95 percent chance they will gain it back within a year. Many live their entire lives this way, a constant weight cycle. What are the real consequences to this yo-yo dieting?

Whether it’s societal pressure, personal body shaming issues or a health concern prescribed by a doctor, the weight loss game is always a battle. People are impatient and most often go the drastic calorie cutting route. The body reacts by going into starvation mode, slowing metabolism, holding onto weight and then finally giving into the body’s signals and binging on a huge meal. Millions of years of evolution has programed us to eat as much as we can since we don’t know when the next meal is coming. You can only fight biology for so long. When our bodies are denied calories, biology pushes back.

Deprivation diets don’t work.
Our body fights it. Our brains fight it. Our environment fights it.

Once the mini-starvation diet is over, the body will actually want more food causing us to gain back all the weight plus a little more. And then the cycle begins again. 

Dieting causes a stress response, releasing the hormone cortisol into the bloodstream. Little moments of worry about your body image or the calories you’re eating add up throughout the day. Each time you step on the scale and you disagree with the results, cortisol is reaching a new level. As it rises so does a long list of health consequences.

High cortisol levels raise susceptibility to infections, decrease bone density, increase blood pressure and damage blood vessels. The body also becomes more insulin resistant and any increased fat gets stored in the abdomen, which is known as cortisol belly.

The most worrisome consequence from dieting is it’s impact on telomeres. Telomeres are protective caps at the end of chromosomes that affect a person’s lifespan. Every time a cell divides, telomeres get shorter and lifespan shortens as well. The more cortisol people release in response to stress, the shorter their telomeres. Chronic dieters are shown to have shorter telomeres than non-dieters.

Weight cycling or yo-yo dieting has been shown to increase risk of illness and death.

This shortened life span is even regardless of other lifestyle choices. A person can be healthy in all other aspects of their life. Yet if they’ve spent years shedding and gaining fifteen to twenty pounds, their life expectancy can be negatively impacted. Keep in mind this is based on early research studies but it’s still alarming.

It is possible that the stress from dieting may accelerate the aging process.

Weight maintenance takes a real understanding and connection with your body.
Ask these questions:

►When do you feel your best?
►What does it take for my body to function optimally? 
►How do I manage stress and reach mental clarity?

Through a deeper understanding of your body’s inner workings, you’ll be able to find your body’s comfortable, healthy weight.

It is also important to mention that your “ideal” weight may not be aligned with your healthy weight. A BMI score is not a measure of health. If you’ve been 120 pounds your entire life but battle to stay there then you may be physically content gaining five to ten pounds. A large percentage of people fall under the overweight category and are perfectly healthy. What if the BMI measure of “overweight” is that person’s healthy weight? Many studies are finding this to be true.

►Keep a food journal – Tracking your food intake and portion sizes is a mindful practice that will show you how much food your body needs.
►Eat three meals per day and minimize snacking
►Be mindful of portion sizes
►Listen to your brain’s fed signals. It takes 20 minutes after a meal to feel that “full feeling.” If you’re still hungry, wait 20 minutes then decide on seconds.
Set weigh-in dates – I say this cautiously and only for those without a current eating disorder. Having a weekly date with the scale can be a good check-in for consistency.
Be patient – It took me two years to figure out the right portion sizes for my comfortable body weight.
Manage stress – Meditation, exercise, deep breathing, mantras, affirmations and gratitude practices can help. Find what works for you and do it weekly.
Eat and enjoy food. Deprivation is not the answer.

Slowly back away from quick-fix solutions. Give up the diet cycle and move forward into a long, healthy life.

Secrets from the Eating Lab: The Science of Weight Loss, the Myth of Willpower, and Why You Should Never Diet Again by Traci Mann

Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives by Gretchen Rubin