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Everything I’ve ever heard about meditation has always been about the end “result.”
The focus always seemed to be on the final goal of becoming a relaxed and happy person all the time, on its “stress relieving” properties, and on its ability to magically, somehow, make the world a brighter, slower one.
And that’s where, if you learn more about meditation, this all goes sideways. You see, there is no end “goal.”
But I didn’t know that when I began.
I started meditating a few years ago, chasing more relaxation and happiness. I have struggled for the larger part of my life with anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and meditation seemed like as good a way as any to rid myself of these ailments forever.
So I jumped in headfirst — obviously.
I took Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction foundations course and completed 200 hours of yoga teacher training. I started meditating regularly, and much to my unfortunate dismay, my anxiety, depression, and PTSD went nowhere.
Instead, I was met with insight—into who I am, and the suffering that comes with being stuck in the endless, mindless existence that so many of us fall prey to.
After meditating for a couple of years, I decided I was ready for an intensive retreat. I felt ready, invested—it was time. I googled meditation retreats within driving distance with scholarship options ; I would not have been able to attend otherwise.
I spent hours poring over retreat options on the internet, and I applied only to one. On a small island off the coast of British Columbia, I found a humble, sustainable farm that hosts a New Year’s reset retreat every year. It was perfect.
By some miracle of the universe, I found myself there a few months later, staring up into the night sky, wondering how on Earth I managed to arrive at this moment in time. My entire life led me to that one moment, and there I was.
I knew no one, had no idea what I was doing, and had no idea what to expect. Still, in the time leading up to the retreat, the path my mind took most often was one of expectation. I expected revelations beyond measure, transformation, and a whole new me by the time I arrived home. It was quite the tall order for myself.
The first night, all 35 retreat attendees took agreements of silence and began to get acquainted with the space. Our first group meditation had me spaced out, running after fleeting thoughts, and obsessing over the coming days in silence.
I felt trapped—trapped in my body, and trapped in my head. My skin was crawling, and my mind was grabbing on to anything it could: How was I going to not speak for six days? Who are these people? What if I don’t like the food? What if I needed something?!
The questions kept coming, and I kept looking for answers. It felt like never-ending waves driven by never-ending currents crashing into me over and over again.
I continued to sit there with my eyes closed, silently losing it inside my own head, grasping and attaching to anything that came my way. I wondered what my dogs were doing. I wondered when the rain would stop. I wondered how I’d make it to the end of the week.
And then, just as I was about to say f*ck this and go to bed, a tiny bell rang, signifying the end of our first group meditation.
I opened my eyes, stretched my legs out in front of me, looked around at everyone else, and realized that a lot of other people’s expressions matched my own. I wasn’t alone.
My feet softly padded the floor as I made my way to my room — just off the meditation hall. I crawled under the comforter and my weighted blanket, and found that sleep came easily with the sound of the rain falling outside.
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The morning bell rang at 6:00 a.m. — it was time for our first sit of the day. I flopped out of my bed, brushed my teeth, and found my meditation bench in the hall, still wearing my pajamas.
Our teacher quietly came in, sat on a bench at the front of the room, closed her eyes, and said nothing. She wouldn’t move for almost an hour. Silent guidance.
Within a few minutes my back started to hurt. It wasn’t used to being in this unsupported position. How the hell was I going to do this? What was I thinking coming here?
My knees started to hurt. My neck. My shoulders. Everything somehow hurt. My mind immediately jumped to the worst-case scenario and took off with it: My body is turning against itself. I’m not going to make it. I’m going to die here on this meditation bench.
And then, some calm and collected thoughts joined the party. Clearly I’m not going to die here. Come back to the present moment, Kendall. Focus on your breath. Your body just needs to adjust.
My internal monologue ricocheted between panicked hypochondriac and soothing mother figure repeatedly, with no slowing in sight.
And this went on—for 45 minutes.
The tiny bell rang: breakfast. Thank god, I thought, I’m starving. I didn’t know how I could have possibly sat there for another 60 seconds, and the bell was a welcome relief. We all slowly got up and wandered sleepily in the dark over to the barn where the food was cooked and served. Oatmeal, yogurt, toast, and fruit. A simple meal, with almost all local ingredients grown and prepared on the farm.
I stood silently in line, keeping my gaze down, I got my breakfast and went upstairs from the kitchen area to the eating area to sit alone and eat my breakfast in silence. No one looked at each other; everyone took their time.
About an hour went by, and we all met again in the meditation hall for another 45 minutes of silent, group sitting. After my back hurt so much that morning, I was apprehensive to sit back on my bench, but I took my seat and tried to get comfortable. Everyone in the hall had cushions, blankets, benches, chairs, and big fluffy sweaters to aid them on their meditation journey. I wondered how everyone else’s backs and knees and shoulders were feeling.
I settled in and closed my eyes. My imagination took over immediately, and I was swept up in the inevitable wandering of my mind. The thing about meditation is that in the silence and stillness, there is now room for everything else to come through. As soon as we take away the busyness of our everyday lives, what we are left with is space, and our mind immediately tries to fill that space with anything and everything it can.
“Darkness has a hunger that’s insatiable
And lightness has a call that’s hard to hear .”
~ Indigo Girls
When trauma has been such an integral part of your life like it has been for mine, meditation can feel claustrophobic and smothering. Whenever I found the darkness behind my eyelids, long-lost scenes of trauma flashed before me.
As I noticed my mind wandering, I’d get mad at myself, judge myself for not doing better, being better. It was so difficult to stay present, right there. I started to notice my reaction when I wasn’t getting something correct all the time. I noticed that I immediately jumped to calling myself “not good enough” when things were not going as perfectly as I thought they should be.
How was I supposed to sit there with all of that? But then again, that’s what meditation was actually about, wasn’t it? Learning to sit with uncomfortable things, even painful things, and cultivating kindness and compassion toward yourself, even when your immediate reaction is judgement and criticism.
It’s nothing short of magic in the making, and it’s a beautiful sight to bear witness to.
After 45 minutes of sitting, the bell rang yet again, and we were off to our first walking meditation of the retreat.
If you have no idea what walking meditation is and were to encounter a group engaging in this practice somewhere out and about, you would think you discovered a mass sleep-walking phenomenon. The pace is slow, no one is looking at each other, and still no one is speaking.
Around the farm, there were gardens and greenhouses and walking paths around ponds. But it was also winter—raining and cold. I put my coat on and stepped out into the wet darkness that defined the first few days.
My boots sank into the mud, but I took one slow and steady step after the other, feeling my heel sink into the earth as my opposite toes started to float away from the ground behind me. This was much better. My breath slowed to match the rate of my steps, and I fell into the present moment. There it was, ease.
When we are constantly thinking and moving and striving and doing, our brains and bodies are on constant alert, perpetually preparing for something more. But when we are able to slow down and pay attention, even in moments of stress or panic, there is a sense of ease to be found. A pervading pull toward balance, and it’s able to be found in all things; we just have to pay attention to it to gain access to its profound abilities.
The walking meditation went much better than the sitting meditation. I had something I could actually focus on, and feeling connected to my body in movement helped me with being in the present moment. But the bell rang sooner than I wanted it to, and I knew I’d have to return to sitting and the inevitable difficulties it brought.
On and on this went, alternating between sitting meditation and walking meditation, with breaks for resting and eating.
By the end of the second day, I was exhausted. Who knew doing nothing was so incredibly draining? Who knew meditation would not be relaxing? The things that came up during my meditation were relentless. My mind would not yield to my constant efforts to stay here and now.
At any and every opportunity, I was thrown into trauma scenario after trauma scenario. Moments and memories from years ago, but also things that had never even happened. Hypothetical what ifs, chances that were never taken, decisions that should have been made differently. Details lost in time flipped over and over in my head.
But again and again, I came back. I came back to my breath, I came back to my body in the present moment, and I tried to greet myself with kindness and compassion. I allowed what appeared to appear, and I came back.
That’s what this practice is: a constant returning to myself with open arms and a heart full of space.
By the end of the fourth day, I’d settled in.
I knew the schedule, I knew what I would encounter in meditation, and I knew I had the ability to cultivate space and kindness and compassion toward myself no matter what appeared.
Judgements and criticisms of my own experience only lead to more suffering, so the Buddha says. And I believe him—I have experienced this on my own meditation bench.
After years of meditating, I finally started to see what this practice cultivates. What this practice was about. It wasn’t about relaxing, or relieving stress. It wasn’t about breathing or sitting for as long as possible.
It’s about stepping back from the small, controlling ego mind that wants to have a hand and a say in everything, and connecting with the larger, truer self we all have access to. It’s about learning how to be with yourself, here in this present moment, no matter what that means.
By the end of day six, I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to stay at the farm forever and come back to myself again and again. It was easier there; there weren’t so many stressful, difficult things. After a life I described at best as challenging, my entire being craved ease and softness and allowance. I was learning to find balance.
In my short time meditating, I have discovered that this practice is like coming home, coming back to the self in the only moment we have. It’s like tuning in to a homing beacon I never knew was on, and as the journey continues, realizing that the homing beacon is bringing me back to myself.
This practice teaches patience, allowance, and compassion, and it teaches it in a subtle way, in a way that builds slowly over time.
And then, all of a sudden, you are sitting in a meditation hall in another country, after you haven’t spoken for days, and ideas and philosophies that have been repeated to you for years finally settle into your bones, and you catch a small glimpse of what this practice really is.