I was dreading this meditation retreat.
My mind was throwing up doubts, obstacles, and reasonable sounding excuses to not go. Seven days of silence, seven days of sitting, walking, sitting, and walking—in the beginning phase of MindStrength, my start-up business, surely this was not the best way to spend my time.
Turns out, it was.
What I find so incredibly powerful in the practice of meditation is that it brings me back down to the absolute truth about me and my life. No show, no pretense, just me—with all the good and all the challenging. At this meditation retreat I had the opportunity to deepen that reality, and again, came out more powerful because of it.
Whether you are a meditation retreat veteran, or meditate every now and then, or never meditated before, I hope these observations trigger something in you that you find helpful:
- Meditation is about getting real, not about relaxing.
Interestingly, I often heard people tell me that they hoped I would have a “relaxing” time. I think this is based on the belief that meditation is some kind of relaxation technique, and that by going on a meditation retreat, you will basically enter a state of relaxation.
I did have relaxing moments, but I also had restless, stressful, and anxious moments. Does that mean I am not a good meditator? I don’t think so (mostly because there is no such thing). Meditation is about opening up to whatever arises in your experience, and learning to step out of your automatic reactions.
I sat through the relaxation, and noticed that I liked it. I sat through the restlessness, and noticed that I did not like it and that I had the tendency to open my eyes and check out my fellow meditators. I sat through the anxiety, and noticed that I am used to that and can be with it.
During a meditation retreat, you see your mind for what it is—warts and all. This can be quite challenging because some of the things in our minds are not so nice. We notice what emotions need expressing and are inside of us, we notice our story and our ego, because even in a meditation retreat, we still star in our own movies. But at the same time, we can experience the calm and awareness that our mind also holds. In my daily life I often cannot feel this; I am so busy and constantly bombarded with distractions that it feels like my mind never stops. But it does. It can.
In a retreat I feel that, even if just for a moment. And the freedom and power that this gives me is incredible.
- Meditation is personal, not selfish.
While you sit in silence, you still have a lot of interactions with a lot of different people. You hold the door open for them, you wait for them in line for lunch, you sit opposite them at dinner, you hear them breathe in the meditation hall. I really felt the power of being in a group. I often read in the Dutch or Belgian press that mediation and mindfulness are selfish practices that make people more focused on themselves and less on others. While I have never recognized this in my own practice, I believe that meditating in a group, like on a retreat, shows even more clearly how non-selfish meditation really is.
Sure, your own experience, your mind, your body, and your emotions are the basis on which you focus and to which you return your attention when you meditate. But as I meditate, and especially when I meditated in this group for a week, a couple of things happened. One was that I could feel that my experience in life is a human experience. My mind is not the only mind that is busy, that has insecurities, that has fears, that has brilliant ideas. My body is not the only body that hurts, that gets restless, that feels tired, that finds calm. This has given me a level of compassion and patience with other people that I never thought possible. I was not a horrible person before I started to meditate, but I am kinder now.
We all experience the same thoughts, emotions, feelings, and whatever else. We have our personal pet peeves, and personal story, our predispositions, but in general, we experience the same thing. When I realized that, I looked at everyone differently. I started to really feel that mostly people are not doing anything “against” me, but just dealing with their reality in the best way they know how.
This gives me a sense of people that is bigger than just their opinions and political beliefs that I might not agree with, or their haircut I might not like. It makes everyone human, rather than different, the enemy, or whatever other label we put on one another to justify our behaviour toward each other. I dream that we all could feel this, and I believe meditation is one way to get there.
- I judge you, you judge me.
Related to the above, when I sit in a silent retreat with 60 other people, my judging mind has a field day. Without having spoken to any of them, I judge: their clothes, the way they eat, drink, meditate, walk—whatever. With that judgment comes an automatic feeling of I like you or I do not like you, and surprisingly after three days, I notice someone who I had not seen before.
And I am not alone in this judgement—everyone does it. It is our nature and not something we need to demonize, but like everything, we can be aware of it. The teacher at the retreat said early on, “It is interesting to note that we do not need a lot of data to have strong opinions about others.” It felt true, and with that phrase I was able to see the ridiculousness of my judgments, and not act on them. In “normal” life, I will try to use the same technique. We judge, there are many reasons why we do this, but we do not have to believe or act out of our judgments.
I also felt the pressure of the judgement of others. I mean, if I was judging left, right, and centre, so were others. No doubt there were people liking me, disliking me, and not seeing me until the end of the retreat. That actually felt quite oppressing, literally in my body. This is also just like real life; I know people judge me based on limited data all the time too. This feels unpleasant, and seeing that we humans do not like things that feel unpleasant, we have a tendency to react.
In a silent retreat, there are only limited ways we can react, but I definitely have a look that can kill and when I felt judged (or I was judging) I pulled it out—it’s a defense. When I started to notice how that actually made me feel, I stopped. It was not making me feel protected, it was pulling me in to negativity and contraction. After a while, and also thanks to a meditation instruction we got, I was able to let this all be.
The heaviness of the unknown of other people’s judgement lifted, and my own judgments became quiet. What was the meditation instruction? Just to appreciate the effort of others. Just like me, they were here for a reason, they were sitting with difficulties, with ease, with a painful body, with everything. I really felt that and want to try to carry that over into my daily life. Everyone we meet is just trying their best.
Taking these observations into my daily life will be interesting. Forcibly, I will have much less time to sit and observe, and the demands of the day are great. However, I will try to catch my judgments, see the humanness in all people (even the ones I disagree with) and act, not out of impulse, but from a space of awareness.
Get back to me in a month to see how that is going!