Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth yoga, fitness, & nutrition courses, when you sign up for Outside+.
Cautiously relinquishing her reservations about meditation, a Vermont writer signs up for a nine-day silent retreat.
About four years ago, the publisher of the newspaper where I workeda brilliant man without a “woo-woo” bone in his bodyshocked the staff by suddenly going on a nine-day silent meditation retreat in New Mexico. He returned soft-eyed, sweet-voiced, and utterly convincing.
“This was the first moral education I’ve ever had,” he said, “that didn’t make me want to throw up.”
Before the retreat, the sound of his phone ringing would make him sigh sadly and stiffen his chest. Afterwards, it took on celestial qualities inaudible to the rest of us. He would look beatifically into space for a moment. “Mindfulness practice,” he explained before gently lifting the receiver.
He was so moved by his experience he wanted to share with other staff members. So a few months later, a co-worker and I drove six hours to the Land of Enchantment. I had never meditated a minute before in my life and had no idea what to expect.
For nine days we sat, walked, listened to talks on Buddhism, and ate our lunch on the porch of a big old lodge, avoiding each other’s gaze and staring at the ponderosa forests below. My brain spent much of each day in a state of rebellion. This was ridiculous, wasn’t it? Just sitting, then doing walking meditationmoving at caterpillar speed, up and back. I could just walk to my car, start it, and drive home, couldn’t I? But while my brain was judging and plotting, my heart was falling in love. It began feeling full and muscular, like it wanted to go on a long journey.
And it did. When I returned, my house of cardsthe one built with perfectionism, overwork, and the pursuit of the American Dreamcollapsed practically overnight. I quit the newspaper. (Talk about gratitude.) A friend and I hitchhiked around the Southwest for two months with $20 in our pockets. Then I left my home of eight years and moved in with my mother and later lived in a meditation center, working as a cook.
Four years after that first retreat, I have finally returned to my home and to writing for a living, but I don’t work nearly as hard. And I meditate a lot. I’ve done six nine-day retreats and one two-month retreat. I’m no longer a beginner, but I always feel like one. Every silent retreat begins the same cycle of doubt and rebellion I experienced my first time in New Mexico. And then somehow I let go, open up, and emerge happier and looser.
I have also come upon this precious, practical realizationas robust and permanent as my feelings seem, none of them last: neither the jealousy that arises about my friend’s book contract nor the gripping urgency I suddenly feel about getting my lawn mower fixed. But, as they say in meditation circles, self-realization is never pretty. My emotions are varied and often painful, but now the sadness, fear, joy, bitterness, regret, exaltation, hope, jealousy, despair, and gratitude float past me like clouds.
It’s physically painful to sit cross-legged for long periods of time (chairs are provided for those who want them). It is often boring and certainly not for everybody. But by the end of the retreats, the fruits of my labor are palpable. I’ve watched physical and psychic pain come and go. My difficulties seem lighter and less frightening. Now when I’m sad, I’m quicker to realize it won’t last, and when I’m exuberant, I’m not as prone to claim that mood as my everlasting identity, only to be disappointed when it dissolves. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not enlightened or anything. I still have fear and aversion. I just don’t worry about them as much.
Lisa Jones is a staff writer at the Burlington Free Press in Vermont.