The Noble Silence
My first meditation retreat
I went on a one week silent meditation retreat at Spirit Rock in Woodacre, CA. The retreat had a flexible schedule. All sitting and walking meditations were optional — you could go hiking, draw and color, do yoga, drink tea, take a nap, etc at any time. I’m sure it won’t come as a shock that the center was a quiet tranquil place. Just being there can make participants feel a little more still. Participants were encouraged not to verbally communicate with each other to enhance and maintain this stillness, though the center itself was far from silent with the wind blowing through trees, birds chirping, people working on their chores, and the clinking of dishes in the dining hall.
Although the benefits of the retreat are indescribable, I experienced a few moments I wanted to share. Each section can be read as a stand alone story — no need to read this whole (very long) post in one sitting.
I have a memory from this summer that I’ve thought about a few times since. I was at a burn with a few friends, and we walked over to the temple to read the dedications, and maybe make a few of our own. But I never write on the temple. When my friend Kristen asked me why, it took a moment for me to translate the feeling in my body into words for her.
I never feel I have something weighty enough to say.
I’m not sure why. It just seemed true. Everyone else had deep seated upset over love and loved ones lost, poetic sentiments, photos, drawings — something beautiful. Anything I could think of to say felt too pale intensity-wise in comparison to what I saw already there.
This memory came to me on retreat. And surprisingly it only took a moment for the thoughts to float to the surface which identified this feeling in many areas of my life.
- Feeling like an inconvenient friend because my presence and efforts aren’t worth as much as other peoples’, so I should try extra hard to not make anyone upset or put stress on them.
- Dissatisfaction at work because I can’t make the impact on the world that I want to make.
- The fact that I have a very negative/critical personality at times, due to feeling that a positive statement from me would be meaningless or worthless as it is already something known, whereas negative statements identify potentially undeclared areas for making a better experience.
- My natural draw to nihilism, and not quite understanding why exactly I’m doing anything at all??
- Not wanting to learn to play an instrument or make complex art because it wouldn’t be good enough.
- Feeling that there’s nothing I can do that would hold any weight, uniqueness, importance, etc because no matter what I do, there will always be someone else that can do it better, making me effectively completely redundant.
As you might imagine, this is a terrible way to experience your self as a person. No one wants to feel completely redundant or feel like they contribute nothing to a social setting.
I’m not going to lie, I started crying as soon as I had this realization. I’m not usually one to self-pity, but it just seemed like it was the right moment. I could never have a thought like that about anyone else. It was really confusing to find I’d been feeling that way about myself all this time, and had never noticed it before.
It was one of the first times ever I felt my self-expression was worth something more than a laugh.
Food is a very sensitive topic for me, and it has been as far back as I can remember. On one hand, I believe eating heartily to be a sign of health and vigor, but on the other hand so many people, myself included, occasionally engage in overindulgence to the point of sickness. Unlike other indulgences, you can’t avoid food. And as an athlete I’m extra concerned with making sure my food choices are the “best” ones to keep my training going strong. Food is something I think about a lot. And some of the thoughts are just bad or untrue or true but overwhelming, but they still pop up, undesired, from time to time:
- You make over 200 food related choices in a day.
- You need to eat more of X food to get more Y nutrient for Z reason.
- The new superfood being marketed at stores is always changing, better than any other before with 17 added benefits.
- Everything good for you tastes bad, and everything bad for you tastes good.
- If you eat to the point of feeling sick, you deserve it.
- Indulging in junk food does not help you meet your goals so you shouldn’t do it.
- No matter how much I eat, I rarely feel satiated. My appetite and physical hunger aren’t in sync.
- For some reason, I continue to eat, long after the enjoyment of a particular food has diminished.
- It feels impossible to lose weight even with a heavy training schedule.
- If you’re a person with a special diet, it’s scary to show up anywhere without prepared food. Especially if you have an allergy.
Food is a major source of anxiety for me! And I’m aware of this. One thing I spent time thinking about on retreat was where that anxiety was coming from. Of course, some of it comes from society marketing beautifully thin and strong models as the ideal body type. But there are a lot more layers there. As a person who eats a plant based diet, and also does not eat onions or garlic, I know I should not expect people to accommodate me at family dinners or parties. But a small piece of me holds on to hope. Many people in my family are overweight. I want to do certain activities I currently can’t because I’m not strong enough.
Though Spirit Rock had primarily plant-based foods available at every meal, I wasn’t surprised when I walked in to the dining hall one day and saw quiche was being served for lunch. I knew it was not an all-vegan retreat. I experienced the anxiety in full force. It was just there, worrying. Logically I knew there was likely an alternative for vegans on the back table, but it didn’t stop the emotion. It didn’t stop me from feeling “other”. With the quiet all around that week, this anxiety felt tremendously LOUD.
It was so odd. I just saw it there. And I saw my logical brain there telling it to go away. I saw a part of myself wondering what I was even worrying about. As I sat down to eat chickpea-flour quiche and salad, I thought about the anxiety. During a pause in the thought, another voice came in my mind. It was still me, but another perspective from my default, thinking mind.
It explained about the social ties to food, and how I had always felt inconvenient.
It explained about all the times I wondered if anyone had thought of me when preparing food for group dinners or camping trips.
It explained about the fire and fury of constantly feeling to desire to eat, even when completely full. Or over full. Sickly full of food.
It didn’t say anything else, or judge really. Just said some thoughts and went away. Stated things in a calm, matter-of-fact fashion, like if I had asked it it recite the alphabet. That there was nothing wrong with these things and it was alright to feel them.
When I processed that moment later, I was particularly struck by the gentleness of my mind’s voice. It was as though the voice were someone else comforting me and telling me it was ok to have felt and reacted that way so many times in the past. I would later learn the teachers would consider this to be an interaction with Guan Yin — the goddess of mercy and compassion. In some depictions, she has a thousand eyes and a thousand arms to hear and comfort the suffering of the world. When you experience self-compassion in your mind, it is considered to be Guan Yin embodied.
After years of reading about and trying to deeply understand the meaning of “self-compassion”, I had finally experienced it for the first time.
This particular retreat had two one-hour group meetings where we were able to (made to, actually) talk about our experiences and share what we had been struggling with so we could get assistance from a teacher.
During my group meeting on Friday, I had a truly precious moment. When it was my turn to share, I did not have much to say. It felt odd that all the others seemed to be struggling with their own particular suffering, but no heavy suffering had come to me yet this week. It made me slightly uncomfortable, both because I worried I might be “doing it wrong” and because it seemed unfair that I should be the “lucky one”. The teacher looked at me and asked “Why did you come here?”.
Well, the truth was there wasn’t any particular reason why I had gone. I had known several people to go on retreat, some lengthier or more strict than others. All had returned with positive things to say (though I now know it is not possible to truly convey what great benefit can be had from it). Even if I had no idea what the retreat might be like, I wanted to know how I would experience it and if I would benefit. I told her so.
I was worried she would be annoyed.
But instead she asked me to do some out-loud mindfulness in front of the group. It was something like this:
T: What are you feeling right now?
M: I feel happy.
T: What does that feel like in your body?
M: It’s tingly in my cheeks and behind my eyes.
*group mates chuckle*
T: Ok, good. Does it feel like anything else?
M: It’s wiggly in my heart.
T: Do you feel it changing at all?
M: It’s like it is too much energy, like I want to move around or something.
T: Alright, good. Close your eyes. Instead of moving, breathe space into that feeling. Feel it spread out over this room.
T: What does it feel like now?
M: Like it’s been dissipated enough for me to be calm.
When I opened my eyes, and glanced around, everyone in my group had the biggest smile on their face, and two people were crying from joy. I have no idea where this magic came from, but the teacher gave me the best advice. It was meant for use during the remainder of the retreat, but I think it is also applicable to my life generally.
It is your job to exuberate joy with space, and bring happiness to those around you. We all want that job.
I have a few friends in my life who are positively rays of sunshine — the essence of exuberating joy with space. No matter when I see them, they are always singing or smiling or telling jokes or dancing or doing something absolutely lovely. I have always wanted to be like that. But I get so afraid of making a mistake, being redundant, or not meeting expectations that I often stifle my self-expression.
In that moment, my ability to bring happiness to others felt real and natural. It was something I wanted to embrace and bring with me everywhere.
For a while I have been lamenting the loss of a trait I consider to be central to successful learning: curiosity. Despite many attempts to learn something new by following through on commitments to community college classes or online courses, my interest never lasted. It seemed to me that others didn’t struggle with this, but I did.
Was I just less smart? Less motivated? Apathetic? Why couldn’t I maintain focus?
The longer I stayed at the retreat, the more I realized: I am positively curious about everything, just not in the way I had thought about it canonically. Previously I had only thought about curiosity in the consistent, academic sense. You choose a topic. You learn a bunch of stuff about it. It holds your interest. You remember it.
But for me, curiosity is different. I don’t feel curious about topics like circuit boards. I feel curious about people and interacting with the physical world.
I can’t tell you how many questions I have about every single person I know. I don’t think you could answer all the questions I have about you if you tried. Why is X person like this? Do you want to play? Where did this social convention come from? Why are you doing that? What are you thinking or feeling? Did it change since I asked the last question? …?
What happens if I push this button over here? Do these art materials smear together nicely? How can I pack these things into this bounded space? What happens if I run at this thing as fast as I can until I smack into it? Will this break if I pull a little harder .. shit.
It is not the kind of curiosity that is satisfied by traditional studying. And it builds a kind of knowledge that’s not always easy to convey to other people. It can feel really frustrating because in some ways I feel like I’m wasting my time by not trying to maximize my book-smartness and keep up with other people I know. It can also be frustrating because it’s not always clear how to measure progress because the definition of progress is not the same in all contexts.
But in the end, I was satisfied with this finding. At least I have not run out of wonder for life. At least I’m not jaded and over the world. At least there is still magic, and now I know where to look.
While on the retreat I had a fascinating realization. I get bored. Very easily. By Day 3 I was starting to kind of feel like “Wow this has been great, but I’m ready to go home now!”.
But then I thought … If it’s been so great, why do I want to go home? Where is this boredom coming from? I’ve felt more clear headed, well nourished, and full of realization than I’ve ever felt, and yet I feel there’s something missing here. I didn’t have my loved ones around me, true, but that didn’t actually seem to be the source of the boredom.
I intentionally thought the thought again, seeing what feeling it would conjure in my body. It was an exercise I learned on the retreat. There was boredom. But what else was there with it, if anything?
It was anticipation. And expectation.
Anticipation of what good things would be at home. Expectation that I would love to be back. Knowing that I had gotten something good there before, and wanting that goodness again and again.
And when I felt that anticipation, I realized I had been getting so much of my life’s enjoyment from that feeling only — from thinking about the future and possibilities. I had missed so many moments of NOW by focusing on what was going to happen next. And so, enjoyment in almost anything could feel elusive at times.
- not enjoying dinner because thinking about dessert
- not enjoying work because thinking about vacation next week
- not enjoying socializing because thinking about going home to see Nipunn
- not enjoying visiting friends or family because thinking about training
- not enjoying personal relationships because thinking about how scared I am to potentially lose them later
Or, in summary: not enjoying NOW because thinking about LATER.
It felt really sad! I’ve had many experiences in my life that didn’t live up to my expectations. Partially because the expectation was unrealistic. Partially because I wasn’t engaged. I was too busy anticipating the next thing.
So I eventually came to the conclusion: it makes absolutely no sense to ever be bored. No matter where you are and what you are doing, if you can manage to take your brain out of your automatic thought loops and take a look around at what’s going on, you will never have a shortage of things to wonder at.
I had a ton of thoughts while on the retreat, many of which I forgot. The weird thing about epiphany and insight and you aren’t guaranteed to benefit from it, or even remember it. I remembered these gems because I wrote notes down to expand upon later. The exercise of revisiting and reliving and expressing these stories are what will help them have a more permanent place in my mind.
For internal calm, insight, rejuvenation, and reconnection with the living self, I can’t recommend a retreat like the one I attended enough. If you have any questions about the retreat, I would love to answer them! I have so many more stories and ideas I can share.