I’d always wanted to go on a meditation retreat, but the notion of spending all that time with just my thoughts terrified me. My previous efforts at maintaining a regular meditation practice had resulted in utter frustration. For a Type-A personality like me, meditation became just another thing to get “good” at. And when that approach failed, which it inevitably does (what does it even mean to succeed at meditation anyway?) I pushed harder, and then, of course, berated myself for my contemplative ineptitude. Needless to say, this approach was not working for me. Who knows? Maybe a few days immersed in mindfulness would give me a taste of the stillness I’ve been seeking with such ardor.
Fast forward several weeks and I’ve arrived in Vermont at the most breathtaking location. Skymeadow Retreat Center, perched atop a hill amidst bountiful forest trees, is surrounded by rows and rows of gardens, around which you can find a hive of honeybees, as well as sheep, chickens, swimming ponds, cabins, and even a few llamas. I knew I was in for a remarkable weekend.
It was remarkable, all right. The next three days produced a roller coaster of emotions. During some meditation sits I squirmed on my cushion, cursing my inability to find stillness while everyone around me had clearly settled into an almost trance-like silence. Perhaps I was just not cut out for mindfulness.
But then moments of complete acceptance and total surrender arose within me, and I experienced the most exquisite sense of inner peace. These flashes of stillness may have been few and far between, but they gave me a glimpse of what meditation felt like, leaving me wanting more. After the weekend was over and the dust settled, a few realizations—or rediscoveries—emerged.
1. Awareness is something like a muscle we’ve forgotten how to use. I learned that I couldn’t simply scurry through my entire life in a mindless daze and then sit down and instantly find stillness. That’s like being a couch potato all your life and suddenly deciding to lift heavy weights at the gym. It’s both painful and frustrating. Instead, I needed to build my “awareness muscle” gradually. I learned that I needed to start small, paying attention to the breath or to the physical sensations in my body. No need to force anything. Just like any other muscle in the body, the more we use the awareness muscle the stronger it’ll be, until one day we find that we’re able to return to our calm center even during a very challenging time. Eventually it becomes a tool not only to regulate the breath, but also to create space around our habit energies, our emotional triggers, and our unconscious and reactionary behavior in everyday life.
2. I also learned more about how the mind works when we demand it to be still. In the beginning, it’s normal for the mind to try to devise inceasingly clever or willful ways to resist thinking. When this happens, we must remember not to fight it or condemn it. Just recognize that this voice is your mind. Bringing awareness to the mind’s habits by observing what’s going on is all you need to separate your self from your thoughts. Seeing the mind for what it is without fighting it is the essence of Vipassana, or insight, meditation.
3. Finally, I learned to hold my thoughts loosely, to allow them in. Instead of being swayed by these fluctuations, we observe them neutrally, maintaining a distance between the thoughts and ourselves. Instead of resisting, we embrace and allow. The only way to release thinking is to surrender to it, to soften and yield completely.
In retrospect, as “unsuccessful” as many of my meditation sits were during those three days, each helped to burn away my mental karma, lightening my load of unconsciousness baggage. My first retreat was an unforgettable experience, a way of giving myself the gift of deep peace and rejuvenation. It was a courageous shortcut to unveiling a great deal about myself, paving the way for deeper stillness.