On this day two years I began a 6 day silent retreat at a meditation center in Massachusetts. No talking, no phones, no reading, no writing…
It was 6 days of blissful, life altering, self examination. As we prepared to head home on Day 6, the news was broken to us that the world was shutting down because the global pandemic was becoming real.
And life was immediately altered in a completely different way.
The effects of the retreat lingered for me, but only on the back burner. My hopes of writing about the retreat were overtaken by the pandemic, my own long lasting case of Covid, and several devastating losses. From time to time I read over the notes from the retreat, and I am transported back to that place of peaceful silence.
Following are some unedited excerpts from the journal that I was not supposed to be keeping.
3/10/20 Arrived at the retreat center. A big old building with a sparsely decorated lobby full of people. A room of cubbies and hangers off to the left, filled with shoes, jackets, backpacks and water bottles. An office to the right, where I was given a handbook in a binder, and my room assignment. The binder has a map of the campus, some basic scheduling information, rules and expectations. Written in bold face ‘May your practice benefit all’.
I wind through the halls following the map. My room is basic, but not as basic as I imagined. There is a sink, a mirror, a doorless closet, a surprisingly comfortable twin mattress, and an alarm clock. There is a floor to ceiling window with a view of the woods. The bathroom is down the hall and around the corner. That’s pretty far from my bed.
There is a tour of the campus going on, and we are allowed to speak to each other. It would be my last chance to talk to anyone for 6 days. I know it is time to get out there and socialize a little, but instead, I stay in my room until I hear the dinner gong ringing in the hallway. I have 6 whole days to introvert. I should go socialize a little over dinner.
Night 1- Opening lecture and silent sitting session. ‘Small moments, many times.’ That is what liberation is.
We live in a mind-made world.
Thoughts are like Muzak. They are not actually reality, they are copies of reality. They’re not really meant to be listened to. They’re just background sounds. And they’re often not very good.
There is a man in the room next door who talks on his phone. That’s not allowed! I say in my head, as I put prohibited pen to prohibited paper.
Day 2, the first morning. Awake at 5:30. I still have my phone, but I haven’t used it at all since arriving. I will ceremoniously hand it over this morning, if I choose to. I will choose to. So I will just text home to say hi right now. And check the primary results. And scan the headlines? I won’t scan the headlines…
Silent breakfast. The clanging of spoons sounds like the clanging of metal on the flagpoles down the shore on a windy day.
Your mind is like a cat. It goes out for a wander and it brings you things. Sometimes dead things.
The phone renunciation ceremony. In a large meditation hall, we put our phones in ziploc bags. Line up and walk up the center aisle. Put the phone in a basket. Turn and walk away. Heads turn as everyone looks around to see who is renouncing and who isn’t. Are they silently judging each other? It’s like Catholic communion.
I took a brief walk after a lunch of salad, rice and beans, then passed out for a 10 minute nap. Had dreams/hallucinations of everyone’s faces. What are they feeding us? Brainwashing drugs? Poison? How can I go sit silently after my carb heavy lunch? I expect a lot of bobbing heads.
Sitting meditation. Let’s close our eyes and play Is it Just an a Itch? Or is it a Giant Bug? for an hour.
Everyone is keeping noble silence. Which also means no eye contact. We keep our eyes cast down as we pass each other. It feels uncomfortable. rude? submissive?shameful? I didn’t realize how important eye contact, and a passing smile are. This is depressing.
The 3pm silent sit brought to you by The Digestive Juice Symphony Orchestra. Call and response bellies. High pitch, low grumble.
During walking meditation I went down the hill to my car, to get my yoga mat and bolster. There are so many Subarus in the parking lot. So so many Subarus.
So many legumes at dinner.
10 hours without my phone. I’m fine.
This 45 minute seated meditation brought to you by Sinead O’Connor’s Mandinka. I said I Do, ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho.
Let’s play Where Did I Leave My Water Bottle? Again
I don’t miss my phone. It actually causes a lot of unnecessary stress. The news. Current events. It sometimes feels like the world is ending. If it actually were ending, how would we want to spend the last hours. Watching the news? Being stressed? On the phone? No.
How does one poop without a phone?
The walls are thin, and the man next door snores very loudly.
My night time bladder holds a lot more liquid that a red solo cup. Don’t ask me how I know this.
My twice daily job is to empty the trash and compost. Putting all of the garbage into one bag seems like a great idea until you have to lift it up above your head to put it in the dumpster. Full compost buckets are also very heavy. And the smell of compost stays in your nose for hours.
The 30 minute hike I took during walking meditation had extra cardio because I lost sight of the trail markers and spent 20 of the minutes running around in the woods from tree to tree, like I was being chased by Leatherface.
Was that moose poop? I want to see a moose.
What day is it? I nodded off during loving kindness meditation. It’s my favorite meditation. But sleep was probably a defense mechanism against tears.
Back in my room I snack on a Lara bar, mindfully.
The thought has crossed my mind to walk down to my car to sit and listen to the news. What is happening in the world?
The past 20 minutes of pseudo silence brought to you by Andy Samberg’s Dick in A Box. Why? Why?!
Time is different here. I can totally understand the marking of time on a wall, like prisoners do.
During my silent eyes-turned-down dinner, I started writing The Movie in my head. Everyone in the country, other than these retreaters, has been stricken with Corona Virus. We are stuck here. So I looked around the room at all of the faces I’ve been seeing for two days and tried to figure out their stories and their skill sets. Who is a doctor, nurse, or EMT? Who is an electrician, plumber, carpenter? Who’s the MacGyver? The take charge person? The one with the most connections, and access to things? Who will lose their shit right away and have to be dealt with? Who will get in their cars and head home anyway… oh right, me. I’d probably still head home.
Two days of on and off Cage the Elephant’s Shake me Down, because everybody has their eyes cast down. Even on a cloudy daaaay.
Vipassana meditation. Vipassana means seeing clearly. It is like this now. Notice with curiosity and interest.
The five hindrances to the practice are wanting, not wanting, sloth, restlessness and doubt.
If there is no suffering there is no need for the practice. When the yogi has no suffering, then, they should cry. Suffering is the challenge for the practice.
Wednesday the wind is whistling through the pine trees.
Outside my window, about 40 feet away, about 10 feet from the tree line, there is a little wooden lean-to, that is meant to be for smokers. I haven’t seen anyone out there. And I can’t imagine what a smoker would smell like in this scent-free environment. I smell like soup. Ethiopian split pea soup. So many legumes.
Rain this morning. Is it raining at home? Did Shannon get to school? How is Maggie’s spring break?
How is Johnny doing today?
How are Lucy and Charlie? What’s going on with Corona? Has the percussion trip been cancelled? Will I be able to host the yoga retreat next week?
None of this is my concern. I will simply sit. And walk.
There is no thought of future without some element of fear. There is no planning without at least some bit of anxiety.
The rain comes and goes. The wind comes and goes. The worry comes and goes. The fears come and go. The tears come and go. Troubles come and go.
Earworms and the smell of compost hang around a long time.
This sit brought to you by a mashup of Joy Division’s Walk in Silence, and Naked Brothers I Miss My Family.
The snorer is in his room. Talking loudly on his phone. No, he’s snoring. No, wait. He is yelling in his sleep! For real!
There is a thing called Vipassana Vendetta. A desire to harm someone who is meditating with you even though you know nothing about them.
Some people also claim to fall in love with other practitioners in their minds.
Hello, Kim. My name is Michael, and you are in The Good Place. I’m in the Good Place! So, one of these fine folks is my soul mate. I hope it’s the tall lanky bearded guy with the nice scarf. Or the sweet woman with the sad eyes that keeps entering my line of vision. I hope it’s not the snorer!
Walking meditation. 30 foot straight line. Pace back and forth slowly. Peace, calm, this step, only step. Peace, calm, this step, only step. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
One of the teachers said that people are extra sensitive when they are on retreat. Boy, am I in trouble.
Everyone looks like someone else. The cartoon girl from MTV. What’s her name? Daria?
There’s a guy who looks like Laurel. Or is it Hardy. The thin one.
There is a woman who yawns just like my mom.
There’s my Uncle Michael’s doppelgänger. And Philip Seymour Hoffman. The list goes on and on…
Sitting meditation. 100 people in the meditation hall. Someone stands to stretch. Then someone else stands. Then someone else. I’m expecting someone to break out into Five hundred, twenty five thousand, six hundred minutes.
How about love?
Seasons of love.
Thoughts aren’t real. They can’t exist independently without other things. They rise when conditions are favorable for them to arise. They pass.
He’s on the phone again. I heard him say airports, Europe, and New York. What is he talking about?
I passed someone cleaning the bathrooms at work time. Everyone seems to do their jobs with care, and concern for the rest of the group. Not like at home, where we stuff pots into cabinets, leave messes behind, cram things into drawers. This is mindfulness. Talking and familiarity would probably change this.
On a silent retreat, no one says God Bless You when you sneeze.
Big sky mind. The mind is like a big empty sky. Clouds appear. Rain. Snow. Sun. Moon. Rise. Set. The sky doesn’t care. Thoughts arise and disappear all day. The mind notices but awareness isn’t always there. The mind doesn’t care. The mind doesn’t mind.
At breakfast I scored a seat at one of the coveted tables. Right by the sliding glass doors overlooking the only action in the place, the bird feeders. Watching the chickadees take seeds, fly off, and return, I began to think about all of the silent people round me. Clanging their spoons. Mindfully chewing and swallowing. I think about their full and complicated lives. I am almost moved to tears.
My neighbor walked out of his room as I walked back towards mine. I sent him thoughts of loving kindness. Then I went to take a shower with my unscented soap and shampoo.
There is a sign at the entrance to the meditation hall that says Take a Chant Sheet. Every time I pass by I start singing a modified version of the Abba song. Take a chant, take a chant, take a chicka-Chan-chant.
Sitting, watching the sun slide up along the pine trees I had a moment of profound joy. And as the tears welled up, and my throat and chest tightened, I tried my best to let it soften. Our instinct is to tighten up and close ourselves off when intense feelings begin to arise. But the loving kindness practice invites us to open to it, to soften to it. To be with it. Notice it. Be aware of it. This is what it is like right now. And it reinforces what I already know. That the world is a sad and beautiful place.
Our sense doors are: sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing, and thoughts, which are the ideas the the mind takes hold of.
Every thought can be pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Once the sense door of thought is opened a chain of events begins.
I wish I had my phone to record this. The wind is whistling through the trees. The clouds have parted and the sun set is more glorious than almost any other I have seen.
Last night I had a super scary dream. My husband John and my daughter Shannon were fishing from a dock on a lake. He gave her the rod and let her cast the line into the water. When she cast, it went sideways into the swimming area which was full of families. I woke up with palpitations, afraid of someone being snagged by a fish hook. Afraid of what might be happening in the world. I couldn’t fall back to sleep.
I opened the window. The wind is blowing through the evergreens. The sunlight flows through the moving blinds. I can see the wind on the wall. I want to share this with you. Nothing is real until I share it with someone. If it stays inside, hidden, repressed, it is a secret. Until it is shared. I will try to hold the moment in my mind so I can share it later. I hope I have the opportunity. I hope I can invoke this feeling again. I hope you can understand what I’m trying to say.
All of these hopes cause suffering. They are attempts at grasping and clinging. The writing down of thoughts is grasping and clinging.
Sitting meditation. You are an antenna. Receiving. Open to receive everything. You receive everything. What you then choose to broadcast in your mind is a result of patterns. Life, family, experiences… What you broadcast to others is your choice. Of all the millions of things you see, hear, feel and think daily, what do you focus on? What do you choose to replay for others? What do you ignore or choose to forget?
Where is my passport? I wonder where it is? Is it expired?
Saturday night after dinner everyone is starting to clean their rooms. The mood has shifted. Even in silence in can be felt. Re-entry is already beginning in some ways. I try to make to-do lists for next week. But I don’t know what the situation is in the world. Are folks getting sick? Are things being cancelled?
I feel deeply and wholly connected to 85 people I have never even spoken to.
If you have ever been blessed, even just once, with a beautiful sunrise, than you know what is always behind the clouds.
3/15/2020 The last day. A slow re-entry into the speaking world.
We were broken into groups of three, and told to take turns speaking to each other. One minute each. When I began to speak my whole body began to vibrate. My lungs, throat, mouth, nostrils, skin. Every part of me was vibrating. I never noticed that before. It took the extended silence to make me see how powerful speaking really is. I’m still buzzing two hours later.
The final meeting. Preparing to leave the comfort and safety of the retreat center. Our teacher began with these words: ‘‘First of all, let me start by saying, everything is mostly just fine.’
Then he told us a few things that are happening in the world. He was vague and very Buddhist about it all. As soon as I get in the car I will call home to get the full report.
This has been the most life changing experience for me. And I’m ready to go back out there. I think…