10 days, no access to the outside world, in complete silence, 100 hours of meditation, just you and your mind, sounds like torture right? I totally get it, but hear me out.
I had been researching this type of retreat for the better part of 6 years. Partly, as a way to travel to an exotic country on the cheap (remember Eat, Pray, Love?) and another because I secretly wanted to quit drinking alcohol. My life had come to the point where it revolved around alcohol and it was seemingly intertwined into every aspect of my life.
Get together with the girls? Happy hour, of course.
Hang out on the lake? Let’s be sure to stop at the gas station to stock the cooler.
See a movie? Lets definitely go to The Moviehouse or Alamo DraftHouse where they have a full bar.
Good day? Bad day? Need to unwind? Why not.
Football? Perfect excuse to drink because I don’t even like watching sports.
Spending several days a week hungover was no way to live. I knew I needed a change. I am happy to say I quit drinking alcohol 3 years ago and am grateful that I was able to layer this type of “mind” training onto to the tools I have learned in recovery which has a lot of emphasis on meditation. With that said, I would definitely not use this retreat as a substitute for recovery.
Honestly, I was thinking this retreat would be the perfect way to “deepen” my meditation practice. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I ended up carpooling to the retreat center located outside of Houston with another gal from Austin. It was her second time attending and she had nothing but wonderful things to say about her first experience. She seems normal. So far so good. We had some of the most amazing conversations to and from retreat center. She was fabulous. Ok, if she can do it, then so can I.
Day 0. We arrived at the center, ate a quick dinner and had a few minutes to settle in our rooms before the first group meditation sitting where we would formally enter into “Noble Silence”. I was put into a dorm like room with 5 other women, 2 of which were in their early 20’s. I might be too old for this. The conversation with the younger gals centered around collectivism, ayurvedic healing and community organizing – seriously? From women in their early 20’s? I would also like to note that one these gals was from Texas and the other was from Oklahoma and attending OSU. I am officially optimistic about the future of humanity now. The other roommates where equality delightful. They were from Panama, Thailand and Houston. These women will always hold a special place in my heart.
The gong rang, it was time for our first group meditation sitting. 30 minutes into it my upper back and neck started throbbing with pain and the thought of leaving crossed my mind. But I didn’t. Minutes turned into hours but the evening’s lectures by the teacher always brought the days training into deeper context. It was the discourses, describing the benefits of Vispasanna meditation that kept me going. Keep in mind this type of meditation is completely secular and is not aligned with any religious teachings of any kind. Come to find out the purpose of Vispasanna meditation is to purify your mind by eradicating the root causes of suffering: attachment and craving. Who knew? I want to be eradicated from suffering. I want those benefits.
Days 1-3 were really tough. A mental battle of … I can always just leave, oh wait I carpooled here with someone, maybe Ryan would come pick me up? Stop staring at the clock, is that a real Monk sitting in the back of the meditation hall? I wonder if he’s experienced enlightenment yet? What is enlightenment anyway? (this retreat just so happened to held at a Buddhist center) Back in the room, thank god my one of my roommates brought a bottle of ibuprofen. I should have brought a foam roller for my back …
Days 4 & 5 is when the fog lifted and I started noticing some shifts. It was like a big weight had been lifted from my mind. My body literally started to feel lighter. For the first time in my life I felt 100% present and ok with it.
My mind was no longer fixated on some arbitrary point in the future. Default me is always living in the When, Thens.
When I get through my to-do list, Then I can relax.
When we move to tropical climate near the ocean where I can surf, Then I will be happy.
When we make more money, Then we can finally do the things we dream about doing.
Always chasing some arbitrary point in the time when at last happiness will finally be bestowed upon me. Or as the great meditation teacher Tara Brach likes to call it, Hungry Ghost syndrome which she defines as the torment of intense desire that can never really be satisfied. Click here to listen to her amazing talk on it.
Days 6 & 7 is when I felt like I was able to do some of my deepest meditating. I felt clarity in my life and career for the first time in a long time. Priorities started to become crystal clear. When I get home I want a simpler life, a life way more connected with nature with way less technological distractions. In the back of my head I kept thinking, I hope all of this is going to stick.
Days 8 & 9 were the hardest. I was ready to go home.
On Day 10 we were taught the final type of meditation called Metta which focused solely on sending love and compassion out into the world. I don’t think this world can ever have enough of that. After the first 3 hours of meditation, we were finally allowed to break Nobel silence and talk with one another. Hearing everyone’s stories and reasons for attending were deeply moving. People had traveled from all over the world to attend this retreat. Switzerland, Peru. In awe.
The drive home was surreal. It took me a few days to integrate back into the world. I was guarded for sure.
Then life started to “lifey.” An irate customer called, a family emergency was front and center, a colleague called to let me know she was leaving and so on.
And just like that, no emotional reaction only loving detachment. Normally, each one of those circumstances would have sent me over the edge and into obsessive thinking mode, you know the kind that keeps you up at night. Replaying conversations and interactions over and over again in my head, ad nauseam I might add. This was no longer the case. Freedom at last!
Then came the feelings around the impermanence of life which was a big focus of the retreat. Specifically the duality of life and death. Default me used to go into a tailspin thinking about the possibility of losing a family member (my dogs included). Now, I am in a constant sense of gratitude that I have the opportunity to share this life with them here and now. Again, much needed freedom from the bondage of my obsessive thinking.
The shifts from days 4-5 stuck. I am no longer living in the anxiety of the past or future and have deep gratitude for my current life and everyone in it. I am also part of a gratitude text group where everyday we share 3 things we are grateful for as well as any random acts of kindness we are able to do throughout the day. Keeping gratitude front and center helps tremendously.
Another strange thing that happened is that I came back from the retreat not wanting to do any strenuous physical exercise. This is a complete 180 for me. Growing up, I trained for 4 hours a day as a gymnast all the way through intermediate school. After quitting gymnastics I started teaching group fitness classes at the age of 16 and taught 15-20 classes a week all through college. I ran a marathon without training. I did Crossfit for 2 years followed by Orange Theory Fitness for another 2. I have always been obsessed with strenuous workouts. Not anymore. Phrases like “No Pain No Gain”, “Crush It” and “All or Nothing” now make me cringe. I have since joined a yoga studio and only do the strength training workouts at my new gym – Burn Bootcamp Lakeway – sorry Coach Sam (she is awesome btw), love the strength days but not feeling the cardio anymore.
I forgot to mention that during the retreat we only ate 2 small vegetarian meals a day with fruit and tea in evenings. Oddly enough I was never hungry. I lost a few pounds and never fully gained my appetite back. Bonus!
Since returning I have kept up my meditation (somewhat). I plan to return in April for a shorter stint with some of my roommates. I can’t wait.
I will say that I have experienced more positive changes from this retreat than I ever have reading self help books or attending leadership seminars. I have zero desire to do either one of things ever again. Why? Because I am finally happy in my own skin. The life is enough. I am enough.
Lastly, we finally pulled the trigger on the RV we’ve talked about getting for the past 6 years. If not now, when? Life is not a spectator sport. Its meant to be lived NOW. We are looking forward to traveling around North America with our dogs, volunteering with organizations doing epic things to positively impact the world and immersing ourselves in the planets natural wonders along the way.
MAY ALL BEINGS BE HAPPY
To learn more about Vispasanna retreats held here in the U.S. and around the world click here.