My First Meditation Retreat

Buddha Statue at IMS Retreat Center

My first meditation retreat was far less glamorous than Elizabeth Gilbert’s turn as a yogi in “Eat, Pray, Love”.  For starters, there were fewer self-revelations and spiritual epiphanies. There was no swooning over lost loves and no friendships with wise, rough-around-the-edges guys from Texas. There were no visions and alas, no enlightenment.

All of this might sound like a let down, but the week I spent at the Insight Meditation Society’s (IMS) retreat for Young Adults was fruitful, challenging, and (appropriately) insightful.

The retreat I attended was a silent retreat. This means talking, eye contact, books, journals, cell phones, IPods, laptops and all other forms of amusement or distraction were forbidden. Yogis were even asked to take the plunge and deposit their cell-phones into a large wicker basket at the start of the retreat. (Confession: I kept mine and may have sent a text message or two).

When I signed up for the retreat I had been practicing Vipassana style meditation for almost two years. Although I spent fifteen minutes dutifully meditating each day, I often worried I wasn’t “doing it right”. I felt I needed instruction and I was ready to deepen my practice. Signing up for a meditation retreat seemed like a logical way to go about it.

Although I was initially excited for the retreat, as the date approached I started to experience doubt, regret, and eventually terror. I even dreamt that I arrived at the retreat only to discover it was actually a prison.

Somehow, (perhaps because I’m too embarrassed to quit something once I publicly tell people I going to do it), I forced myself to go. When I first arrived at the retreat center, I was enamored by the stately brick building and the charm of the 50-something bohemians who worked there. The place was a kind of eco-hippie utopia: there were no locks on any of the doors, all of the food in the cafeteria came from local farmers, and every scrap of left over food was composted.

However it didn’t take long for my fears to be confirmed. When I saw the week’s schedule I felt like someone had dropped an anvil on my chest. Between walking and sitting meditation session it included about 10 hours of meditation a day. I could barely meditate for 30 minutes let alone 10 hours! Briefly I was reminded of the previous longest week of my life—a Christian summer camp my parents shipped me off to at age ten. I have a very vivid memory of wanting to stick my head into the campfire while the other kids sang Bible hymns for the 3rd night in a row.  I wondered if this week would feel even longer.

During the first day I struggled with a mix of sleepiness and boredom. At the 6:30 am meditation session, I learned I could drift off to sleep sitting down, standing up, and even with my eyes opened. No matter how hard I tried to focus on my breath I began to fall back asleep within a few moments. During the afternoon sessions I found myself constantly peeking at my watch, waiting impatiently for the time to go by.  Each hour felt like an eternity. There was simply nothing to do except to follow my breath. I contemplated packing my things in the middle of the night and jailbreaking out of the place unnoticed.

For some reason, I stayed.  I kept meditating from dawn until dusk and when I felt I couldn’t meditate anymore I drank a cup of tea and watched the wind move through the trees. There were times I felt bored and times I simply longed for pizza, beer and loud music. However, those low points were more and more frequently punctuated by subtle revelations. I noticed just how much I missed “doing stuff”—even mindless activities like running errands or cleaning my apartment. I reasoned that perhaps in a society where we are constantly moving and keeping busy, we identify much more with “doing” or “achieving” than with “being”. Removed from my normally active life, I noticed I felt lost without my daily to-do list and the satisfaction of completing the tasks lined out ahead of me. During a dharma talk, one of my teachers commented, “movement disguises pain”. After hearing this remark, I reflected that perhaps all the constant busyness in American society makes it easy for us to avoid contemplating deeper questions about what it means to be a human being. I reasoned that the retreat experience may not be pleasurable, but it was certainly forcing me to terms with the “real me”—that is, the real experience of having a human mind and body that are normally hidden by the distractions of my day to day life.

With the guidance of my teachers, I practiced being mindful of my thoughts and emotions. When I felt sleepy or bored, I explored the physical sensations those mind states produced, and the thoughts that came with them. As I paid closer attention, I noticed that my mind moved through familiar, well-worn paths. I began labeling and observing each state of mind. There was my “desire mind” where I often fantasized about future vacations in elaborate detail, or thought about the clothes I wanted to buy for the fall. Then there was also the “planning mind” where I unnecessarily planned out details for the near future—such as deciding when to go get a cup of tea, or where I would go do my walking meditation. In addition there was the “judging mind” (where I alarmed myself by making all kinds of nasty judgments about other yogis as they sauntered by) and the “catastrophic mind” (where I worried incessantly about loved ones ending up in car accidents or plane crashes).

My thoughts seemed to amble randomly between these states mind, traveling the same familiar paths over and over again. Before long, I realized that most of these paths were not very interesting places to go, nor did they have very much do with real life. I began to understand that many of thoughts were only seductive illusions and that they were mostly a waste of my time. After a while, when I found myself slipping into a familiar mind state—perhaps planning a trip across Africa in my desire mind—I began to ask myself, “do I really want to follow this thought?  Is it better to be with this thought than be with the present moment?”  If I was honest with myself, the answer to that questions was usually “no”.

I’ll be honest I didn’t leave the meditation retreat a transformed person. Some days I watch TV for an extra half hour instead of meditating. Sometimes I forget to listen to others and I often end up lost in thoughts. However, there are also times when I remember to stop daydreaming and to reconnect with the present moment. In some cases, I wake up just in time to see something beautiful—like a string of preschoolers walking while holding hands or a bone-white plane cutting through a cloudless blue sky. For me, that’s enough to make the whole experience worth it.

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