I could barely believe that just a year ago I embarked on my first silent meditation retreat. It honestly feels like at least 5 years ago – so much has transpired, I’ve changed so much! But it was only a year ago in a beautiful retreat home on a lake somewhere green in Jersey. This one was only 4 days long over Memorial Day weekend – I liked to joke with people who asked about my plans for the long weekend that I was going to rage (like in the spiritual party sense) in meditative silence with a bunch of my best buds. Chris Crotty was the instructor and we had an amazing yoga teacher for some classes here and there too. I was aware that the retreat required noble silence as well as refrain from eye contact and physical contact too to allow for a total immersion into meditation practice.
In this case, meditation wasn’t only happening while we were seated on our cushions but also while we were walking outside, eating together and milling about the house throughout the day. It was challenging to not engage with so many of my friends – I noticed how badly I wanted to make my presence be known and validated with gestures acknowledging my existence and hopefully getting my fellow participants to react in some way. I learned that even in silence without eye contact and physical touch I still yearned for a way to be seen – knowing that other people recognize me felt so crucial, like I needed to know they saw me so I could in turn see myself.
Just over a week ago I took part in a retreat double the length, further upstate in the Hudson Valley with a group of about 25, including many of my close friends. I had known about the retreat for many months and finally signed up in February – I knew it was going to be just the reset I needed but I had no idea just how perfect the timing would shape up to be! In February I didn’t have clear plans to leave my dream job just yet although I was getting excited about the prospect of working more on the startups that had found their way to me in weeks prior. But suddenly at the end of April it became crystal clear that my time to go solo was up – I put my notice in for the end of May with my last day falling just before the start of the retreat! I was so excited to undertake this huge challenge – and knew it would be incredible not having to go through reintegrating into a work environment. Instead I got to reintegrate into my new reality I had intentionally created – one in which I set my own schedule and work for myself (and sometimes with friends).
So what happened anyway? Well, a few friends and I drove up to the retreat center on Friday May 27th to a beautiful farm tucked away in the Valley surrounded by water and green rolling hills. The Watershed Center is a social justice organization that hosts non profits and other organizations for retreats and trainings. We were so lucky to host our silent retreat here as it was the first ever for The Watershed. Upon arrival we were shown our rooms – guys in a big fancy tent outside behind the meditation hall (aka swagged out yurt) and gals inside the beautiful house. I was in a flower power wallpaper room with two ladies from LA I had never met before – at one roommate’s request, we all agreed we would keep silent in the room even after formal meditation periods were over. Love it! Our first evening sit introduced the teachers and loose schedule for the week – and eventually set us all into formal silence. We learned that the retreat was going to be co-led by a visiting Burmese monk named Sayadaw – cool! The previously planned curriculum was to focus on “A Meaningful Life” which I think addresses things Iike attachment theory, relationships and connection strategies in all the dharma talks. Good thing I didn’t quite know what to expect because the retreat ended up being a whole lot of Metta and only a bit of Vipassana.
What is Metta? I had experience using the technique before but never in the simplicity that was instructed on this retreat, by the monk no less. I had a hard time trusting that following such a simple direction would yield any results – I wanted to have breakthroughs and levitate and get all magical, you know! The instruction was simply to radiate Metta by reciting the phrases “May I be peaceful” and “May they be peaceful” and “May all beings be peaceful” over and over, visualizing all the people and beings at each level of awareness during recitation. I surely thought my complicated mind needed more than just this. But ultimately I thought – if this guy is here all the way from Burma, having dedicated his whole life to teaching meditation, and he’s recommending this technique, I better try it.
And somewhere along the second day I started feeling a noticeable shift in my mind state – like I was occupying this new, lighter, airy space. Put simply I felt like I was simply radiating love and calmness. It was hard at times sticking to noble silence even though I was sharing meals at a communal table with friends and walking along beautiful grounds with people I adore – but I knew I had to stick with it. I didn’t end up on the retreat by mistake and I was committed to staying with my practice to see what more might unfold. I tried to not have too many expectations other than knowing that at the end of the 8 days when we all broke silence and finally started connecting, talking and making eye contact again (and hugs! Oh my!) that it would be truly magical.
Other highlights? Getting epic bug bites (did you know apparently eating tons of vitamin B can protect you from the pesky suckers?), solo walking meditation treks around the bend to the most beautiful quarry lake (complete with a giant log raft and paddle surf board, sweet), lots of tea time solo parties, kicking back in the most magical hammock, realizing how simple it all really is, and feeling so much love by the end of it I felt like I could explode.
Even before leaving for the experience I describe it as luxurious, because it is. I’m almost never in a space in my NYC life in which I am able to enjoy total silence and meditative solitude while having all my immediate needs taken care of without having to do anything. And I absolutely don’t have fresh farm to table meals three times a day but that sure sounds like a solid life goal to add to my growing list. I could certainly afford to build more mini retreats into my daily life. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect really. I was excited to exit the retreat having wide open space to embark on my new life as a solo entrepreneur – with lots of fun opportunities and projects to return to, all with people I adore, doing work I love.
I suppose I’ve already written a lot without getting much into the day to day of the retreat experience. It’s hard to put it into words, however ironic that may seem. It was unlike anything I’ve ever encountered. I wasn’t as surprised by myself as I might have thought – I was grateful to witness how much I’ve grown, mostly in the way that I genuinely enjoyed my own company and treasured the leisurely time for self cafe and doing exactly what I felt like doing in the moment. I felt totally supported to follow my curiosities and deeply connect with my moment to moment experiences and just honor whatever came up. With limited options for checking out or escaping uncomfortable feelings, I really had to surrender to whatever came up and bask in it. As funny as I can make it sound sometimes, I would often just ask to myself “what am I learning from this?”, whether it be discomfort, sadness or confusion. I had all sorts of weird emotional reactions along the way but ultimately I worked my radical acceptance muscles (and Metta response mode) out super intensely, which all catalyzes a shift which I sense will continue to manifest, especially in my relationships as well as my professional and interpersonal exchanges.
Are more silent retreats on the horizon? Yes, definitely. I think this is one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself and I can certainly see the value in committing to making a few retreats a year, to strengthen my practice and really #treatyoself to the millionth degree. I feel so cleansed – spiritually, emotionally and physically really. I think I’ll do another one, maybe 2 weeks this time, in a few months. And there’s a 3 day one in New Hampshire right near by birthday in October, oh hayyy!
Until next time. May all beings be peaceful // alternately (after you’ve gotten in the zone with repeating this phrase a ton): may all beans be people.