March 31, 2015

Six Days in Silence.

winter meditation

“That sounds abominable.”

This was my friend Alberto’s reaction when I told him I’d be spending six days at a silent meditation retreat on an isolated mountaintop.

You see, Alberto had invited me to he and his husband’s farmhouse to spend time eating homemade dinners, drink exquisite wines, lounge on their giant-sized sofa, and take occasional naps with their two pugs, Herman and Betty.

I kindly declined, explaining I’d be attending a silent retreat with a hundred strangers and no access to the outside world—no phone, computer, internet. I would be served three sparse meals a day, wake at 5 a.m. to sit and breathe, over and over again. Every day the same. The definition of “abominable” caused me moral moral revulsion.

Indeed, after Alberto’s take on my plans, I too felt like I was heading for moral revulsion, one that I’d freely chosen.

After much thought on my decision to self-surrender my brain and forgo a trip to gay Mayberry with my boys and pugs, I started to realize that I genuinely needed to do this.

In fact, I salivated at the idea of unplugging from my professional, social, financial and personal endeavors. Unplugging from being an almost-neurotic New Yorker. Unplugging from that person who struggles with, “What’s next?” or “What am I doing here?” Unplugging from the world of FacebookInstagramGmailHuffpostNPRSpotifyPandoraiTunes. The world of i: Phones, Pads, Pods.

This looked more and more attractive to me, since social media and the way the world turns can sometimes be the real cause for moral revulsion. Then, there’s unplugging from the mind (I’ll get to that). With great clarity, I beamed, a week of silence was exactly what I needed.

Insight Meditation Society (IMS) was founded in 1976 by Vipassana teachers Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein. It is situated on the idyllic and fittingly-named Pleasant Street. It is a large complex of buildings cobbled together and connected by what they’ve aptly named “The Connector”—a hallway attached to the three main houses for residences. The main structure is cozy with a large kitchen, areas for walking meditation and a very spacious Meditation Hall.

The retreat was called “Mindful of the Body,” focusing on the Buddhist principles of “awakening the heart” to surrender to the wisdom of the dying body. Through this loving practice of mindful awareness of breath, we can recognize greater joy in our day-to-day lives. It’s a teaching I connect with, and probably the reason why I’m so drawn to the practices of yoga and meditation.

On our first evening, we were encouraged to hand in our phones—this was easy for me, since the phone can be the gateway drug to my insane modern life. They also asked us to refrain from writing and reading—this, not so easy. We were expected to be completely silent even while meandering around. Also, silence during our yogi work time and while eating meals together. If someone does a kind deed, such as holding the door for you, we were told to avoid eye contact and send them “loving kindness.” This was especially hard for me, since I’m one of those rarities among New Yorkers who walks around the city trying to make eye contact with others. We were encouraged to wear simple clothes and no perfumes. This was a solo journey we would take together but apart. IMS is dedicated “to providing a spiritual refuge for all who seek freedom of mind and heart.” I planned to do my best, and was secretly excited about all of these rules.

“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn how to surf.” ~ Jack Kornfield

My doubts began to re-surface during the end of the first day. I was told by veterans of these retreats that if you get through the first two days, the rest becomes easier. “How can I do this?” Meditating ten sittings a day?! Then, walking in meditation?! I felt like I was losing my mind—perhaps this was the intention?

Actually, I felt frightened of my mind, like it was an unruly stranger I had never met. The simple instructions were to follow the breath and “note” thoughts that arose, then return to the breath with a kind heart. Catch yourself and arrive back at the present moment, they told us, over and over. I soon realized how much my mind isn’t fond of this present moment thing. Yes, I felt like I was going crazy.

Yellow people walking through my head

One of them’s got a gun, to shoot the other one

And yet they were friends at school….

But we’re never gonna survive, unless

We get a little crazy

~ Seal, “Crazy”

Perhaps we have to be comfortable with a little crazy?

I began to notice how quieting of the external world turns on the internal chatter. Perhaps we’re meant to “be” with our crazy instead of living our crazy? In the absence of distractions, I saw my mind like a monkey, thoughts bouncing around.

My brother Perry, who died in 2009, was the first to say “hello.” Then came a deluge of family and friends. Memories poured over the dam and a rush of joyful and painful times roared in. Inevitably, emotional issues arrived as anger, jealousy, joy, contentment.

In Buddhism, they teach the various “realms of existence”—I went from hell to heaven, and then back again. There were moments when I felt blissfully free of the monkey, but they crashed away and were replaced with an insane or weird thought, an emotion, an aching back, a daydream, or a strong urge to fall asleep. I tried my best to find my breath, in and out, noting with self-compassion the thoughts that entered. It wasn’t easy, but at some point three days in, it felt liberating.

“We may be in the habit of manifesting seeds of anger, sorrow, and fear in our mind consciousness; seeds of joy, happiness, and peace may not sprout up much. To practice mindfulness means to recognize each seed as it comes up and to practice watering the most wholesome seeds whenever possible, to help them grow stronger.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh, “Touching Peace”

When the silence of the retreat broke, we were able to hear each other’s voices; a Vipassana Crush—the phenomena that happens (along with your Vipassana Enemy) at some point during the retreat, whereupon your mind creates grandiose stories about another person on retreat. When I heard my V crush speak, he turned out to have a British accent and we were not only planning our lives together, but now, moving to the English countryside—my own Mayberry with our own pugs. Ah, the mind…

Upon my “re-entry” into New York, friends asked me, “Did you enjoy your time?” I’m not sure a silent meditation retreat is meant to be enjoyed. I enjoyed being “unplugged.” I appreciated the opportunity to go on a journey with my mind, no matter the labyrinth it careened into. So I ask, what was my epiphany? Would I go again?

In the silence, I discovered….

Kindness and Compassion

The reaction I had toward the “angry” visitor was frustration and sorrow, especially for my sometimes confusion about not knowing what I want, or how to ask for what I need, or how to ask for what I need if I don’t know what I want. Others surely feel this too, I thought. At the retreat we were told to “listen with our hearts.” When I got back, I was reminded of a personal ritual I used to do before getting out of bed in the morning. I would recite the “The Serenity Prayer”—recite and listen to it with all my heart.  I’m going to reincorporate that into my morning routine as a way to surrender and inspire myself for my day ahead.

Slowing Down

I realized only by quieting the outside world could I see the fast motion of my life. Watching folks at the retreat walking around looking like zombies (walking mindfully) initially freaked me out. Then I got to thinking how I move about in NYC as the real freak. Sadly, I too often curse at pedestrians or drivers while biking through the city. Running to get to a yoga class or to give a massage. Sprinting to catch a train, annoyed with tourists in my way. These types of behaviors are abnormal.

“Maya,” or illusion, would have me believe they are the norm. Maya has me believing that New York City never sleeps. Well, it doesn’t have to operate that way. Perhaps walking slowly with deliberation is how we should be walking? Therefore, I’d like to slow down and enjoy my life more.

Self Care = Better Care for Others

I also plan to take better care of myself. As someone who works in the healing profession, we are too often the worst at taking care of ourselves. As a yoga teacher and massage therapist, how do I inspire or sooth others if I’m not taking care of myself?

Talk about crazy.

Will I do it all again? Absolutely.



Relephant Read: 

The Reluctant Meditator: Reflections & Insights from 10 days of Silent Meditation.


Author: Marcus Berardino

Editor: Emily Bartran

Photo: Flickr


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