I got back a couple of weeks ago from a 10 day silent retreat at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre Mass. My friends asked me about the retreat and about how it was coming home. I fumbled with my words. How can I explain what coming home was like?
My very first day back I decided to go to the DMV to get my license renewed. I had to do it within the month. I didn’t need to do it on the first day back. What was I thinking? I just wanted to do things that needed to be done to have more order in my life. It turned into a true test of equanimity. There was a huge long line. Stand in one line, get to the front, get paperwork approved, go stand in the next even longer line. Utter frustration. In the past I might have stormed off or said something very pointed and even insulting to the staff who didn’t seem to have a lot of urgency in their job. Instead, I was able to slow down and contemplate my options. I could come back later. I could judge myself for being so stupid to do this on this particular day. I could lash out at the people serving us. I chose to simply take in that it was my choice to be there and to weather the experience with as much equanimity as I could muster.
Yes, coming home is difficult, but coming into the present moment, being awake, alive and aware wasn’t always easy on retreat either. While on retreat I was living in the midst of a supportive community. I had loads of time for sitting and walking meditation, plus hours to wander in nature. My meals were cooked for me. Our teachers filled us with endless words of wisdom. The outside world seemed far away, especially once I gave up my phone. All this might make it seem like a silent retreat is all peace and relaxation. Not so. In the silence, with no electronics, no books, no writing, little talking, no distractions, all the things I’ve been covering over with busyness, all the things I don’t want to think about, come up. In fact, some disturbing, compulsive thoughts started going round and round almost immediately. On retreat there’s time. Time to really sit with all those emotions, and thoughts and to experiment with skillful ways to work with them.
Our teachers suggested dealing with thoughts during meditation sessions by noticing what was arising and coming back to an anchor, whether the breath, sound, or other body sensations such as the feet on the floor, the sitting bones on the chair or the hands. I’ve developed focus and concentration in this way for years. Yet sometimes coming back to an anchor can seem like avoidance, an effort to stop thoughts. I know that stopping thoughts is impossible, yet that’s what it feels like. At the other end of the spectrum, analyzing thoughts, getting caught in the content and going round and round trying to figure everything out in my head isn’t so useful either.
On retreat I had time to explore a middle way. I went to the retreat with the intention of exploring loving kindness , particularly for myself, since I’m often so quick to slip into self-judgment and criticism. Our teachers suggested getting in touch with the feeling rather than an abstract phrase or thought about loving kindness. In one of the guided meditations I visualized being in the presence of a caring spiritual figure who could accept me with unconditional love. This helped me tune into a very direct and powerful bodily experience of warmth and kindness. After that, just the word “kindness” evoked memory of that experience. On retreat, when judgmental thoughts arose, I spontaneously came to the idea of saying the word “kindness” to myself. What a profound difference that made.
Now that I’m home, I find it continues to make a big difference. For instance, when I got home, I looked at my living room and started craving a little less clutter, a little more cleanliness. I watched as I didn’t do anything about this for days. I looked at it but didn’t do any cleaning. There was so much self-judgment. “You cleaned for an hour on retreat, at 7:15 in the morning no less, and were proud to do it.” On retreat I thought, “yes the bathroom will be clean for the groups that meet here. The floor won’t have dust on it. The stairs where people track in dirt from outside, I got the dirt there too.” I brought a bit of order to that area. Then I get home and I can’t do the same in my own living room??? What’s this about? First, I think it’s because at IMS others see it. I only do that for others. What about doing it for me? Doing it for myself doesn’t matter?? Once again I noticed how unkind and judgmental I was being with myself.
Finally, I get the vacuum out. I vacuum the rug. There’s so much more to do. I felt the tightness start in my body but this time I remembered to bring the word “kindness”. After that, I was able to tune into my thoughts. I realize it’s the overwhelm. There’s so much to do here. So much clutter. How do I deal with that? So many things just sitting around that vacuuming is difficult. So much to deal with. At IMS it’s just one job which can be finished in a finite time, one job that I can then be proud of. Once I realize the actual core of the problem, the self-judgmental thoughts subside. I say to myself, “I think I need a few days on this. I’ll do the rug now. Maybe the floor tomorrow. Maybe start with the clutter. Certainly the bills soon. And the recycling. And then cleaning out the drawer so I have somewhere to put some clutter.” I see clearly that it gets overwhelming and that’s why I just don’t deal with it. Once I know the real problem then I can work with it. Wow. What a relief to be able to slow down enough to see what’s really happening. Our minds, our brains are so fast. It’s so tough to catch all this stuff, all the stuff that goes thru my mind and determines my reactions and actions. The self-judgments just feel compulsive, out of my control, automatic. So much of my life feels automatic.
During the retreat I also noticed I have a tendency to harden my self judgments into a description of who I am. For instance, I might describe myself as a “lazy person” when I don’t get the cleaning done. During the retreat I saw clearly that getting caught up defining who I am in these limiting ways is part of what’s underneath my self-judgmental thoughts. It creates a lot of suffering.
Here’s one way this plays out for me at home. I often have strong opinions, whether about something I hear on the news, or just what someone is saying. I often seem to cycle back and forth between two options: either say nothing and feel frustrated, or say something which can come out judgmental and difficult to hear. The anticipation of saying something harsh trips me up so much that I often stay silent. Then I cement my concept of myself into “I’m just a quiet person”. I’m learning when I feel myself getting triggered, to first catch it in the tightness in my body. Then to bring in the word “kindness”. I can feel my body softening. What this means to me is I can have my opinion in all its fullness and also bring kindness into how I express it. There are other ways our brains are programmed that sometimes create suffering. For instance, we’re programmed to see and look for and take in what’s wrong, difficult, or needs fixing to the exclusion of what’s good, beautiful, or doesn’t need fixing. It’s all neural pathways groomed to see patterns because that’s what keeps us alive. Our teachers gave us a suggestion: to look for some beauty in each moment. Not just each day. Each moment. The play of light on a tree branch. The hummingbird who greets me on the deck at IMS. The mayflies at the pond. Each moment. Just come back to the present and see the world as it is to counter all the fixing and problem solving. Doing this helps me to expand my awareness to include what is difficult (suffering) and what is lovely and nourishing (appreciative joy) which helps me develop more equanimity with the inevitable ups and downs of life.
So now what I learned on retreat and what I faced after coming home seems to meld together. It’s all about coming home. Coming home to this moment, to this body, to my own little piece of the world, to tending my own small garden. When I do this, whether on retreat or back in my house, I am home.
Join us on July 23rd (on Zoom) for a Mindful Decision Making session to deepen your mindfulness skills and learn practical tools for integrating mindfulness into your daily life.
NOTE: Mindfulness and Wellbeing is co-sponsoring this session with Creative Transitions Inc.