In case you missed my love letter to meditation retreat that I published in youshare, I'm reposting it here:
For almost eight years, I used nearly all my vacation days from my job at National Geographic to go on silent meditation retreats throughout the U.S., a very different approach to travel than my intrepid colleagues. Friends from the Geographic would return from their travels with great stories, but when they told people they were going to Costa Rica or Southern Italy there was an intuitive understanding of why they would go to such places. Most people have no idea why I go on retreat, and I’d been wisely cautioned away from saying too much about my retreat experiences. One of my teachers, Winnie Nazarko, offered the sage advice during the closing talk of one retreat, “When you go home, people are going to ask: ‘How was it?’ Keep in mind,” she said, “It’s a social question.” A colleague casually asking about my time away before the start of a meeting might be left without a response if I said, On the fourth day I forgave myself for a terrible thing I’d done when I was eleven years old, and I could feel the bodily release of a pain I didn’t know that I’d been holding for decades. Instead, I’ve always said, “The retreat was great.”
Yet a little more than a year ago, I left my job at National Geographic, and in doing so, leaving the company of wonderful colleagues, the pride of working for an organization that’s explored more of our world than any other, and the security of a pension. I also moved four hundred miles away from Washington, D.C., and a community that’s so dear to me. Yet I made the transition with no doubts, because it was to take a position supporting retreatants at the Insight Meditation Society (IMS), an internationally revered retreat center in the woods of Central Massachusetts, and I trust there’s no better work I can be doing right now—which is why I feel the time is right to share why I devote so much time to quietly exploring internal frontiers.
I Don’t Have to Believe My Thoughts
That I was writing this story was a topic of conversation in the staff dining room of IMS, prompting a discussion about why we go on retreat. Leigh Brasington, a well-respected Buddhist teacher said, “We go on retreat to see things as they are.” I can’t put it better than that, but I recognize the statement might not make sense to everyone. You might think that your vision is 20/20 or glasses adequately correct any seeing deficiencies. Yet I’ve found that regardless of the strength of my eyesight, my vision can be very clouded by the state of my mind.
It was on my second retreat with the teacher who has influenced my path more than any other, Tara Brach, when I arrived at an insight that would illuminate the benefit of retreat: I don’t have to believe my thoughts. On that retreat, every waking moment we turned our attention inward toward our immediate experience, and given the rare opportunity to see what’s happening without any impetus to act upon it, I saw clearly that my mind often spouts out a lot of nonsense. As many teachers have said, “The mind is shameless—it’ll think anything.” For an example, on that second retreat I became aware of a belief that I held for as long as I can remember: I’m the most worthless person in the world and the most important person in the room.
I’d never consciously noticed that belief before, even as I instantly recognized it as a filter through which I’d seen years of my life. That’s a pretty murky, small filter. Seeing the beliefs did not immediately eradicate them, but it was the beginning of being able to acknowledge what beliefs are present without buying into them, and over time I’ve found the beliefs can shift. One of Gandhi’s most famous quotations speaks to the immeasurable impact of shifting beliefs, “Your beliefs become your thoughts, your thoughts become your words, your words become your actions, your actions become your habits, your habits become your values, your values become your destiny.” I know of nothing more valuable than a practice that trains the capacity to shift my beliefs, because the result is transforming how I see the world and changing the course my life, and I’ve seen those benefits ripple forth to affect others innumerable times.
Eating Like I’ve Never Eaten Before
This is the most frequent question I’m asked when I get home from retreat: How was the food? In the context of the lofty reflections in the preceding paragraph, the question might seem superficial, but I don’t see it that way. The food is amazing. While it’s true that the cooks at IMS put love and skill into the meals, the secret is the attention we’re all paying to the experience of eating. Like many, I come from a long family lineage that eats to our feelings, and as such it’s easy for me to finish a pizza before appreciating a single bite. Yet on a retreat morning, I’m appreciative of my breakfast before my spoon touches the oatmeal. I reflect upon the 52 labors that brought this food to me: bees pollinating the orange trees, cooks waking up at 4:30am to prepare the meal, farmers harvesting the sunflower seeds, and so on. And then I’m mindful of each bite, the intention to pick up the spoon and lift the food to my mouth, recognition of taste, the sensation of the teeth grinding the food, and the tongue sliding the mashed paste of nutrients from side to side. Eating is as much a part of my practice of being present and realizing the interconnectedness with our world as the sitting and walking meditation practice. Yet if my mom asks me about the food after the retreat, I just say it was great, and truthfully so.
Silence: The Secret to Harmonious Relationships
Here’s the most common thing people tell me when they hear that I spent a few days, a week, a month, or longer not talking: “I could never do that.” As John Peacock, a great Buddhist scholar and teacher, pointed out during the opening talk of a recent silent retreat at IMS, “Have you noticed that you don’t stop talking, even if you’re not audibly saying things, you’re always talking.” Internal speech continues on retreat, but my relationship to my speech changes. Before I started meditating, my mouth functioned as an exhaust pipe for whatever thoughts passed through my mind. I frequently caused harm with my speech and didn’t understand why, because there was limited consciousness of what I was saying. I view the silence of retreat to be a gift everyone is giving each other. We’re all free to investigate our own experience without the onus of needing to explain it. Through meditation the capacity grows to be aware of thoughts without compulsively acting upon them, and thus we can discern: Is this true? Relevant? Useful? Timely? Kind? Needless to say, this discernment has improved relationships with just about everyone in my life. I remember at the end of a retreat I did a couple years ago with Steve Armstrong he talked about what a harmonious and supportive community we’d formed over the nine days of retreat, and one retreatant raised his hand to ask earnestly, “Do you think we’ve been so harmonious because we’re not talking with each other?”
All of Me Is Welcome
When people hear the word “meditation,” the image that often comes to mind is paying attention to the breath, and there’s often confusion about how that leads to the myriad of benefits described in the paragraphs above. We do pay much attention to the breath on retreat, but it’s not to become the world’s best breath-watchers, it’s a collecting of attention to what’s happening in the present moment, so that we can see all that arises and passes with a greater spaciousness. When I sit in the halls of IMS and Spirit Rock, I take refuge being in a space where people have opened to all manner of human experience: the loss of loved ones, dissolution of careers, the end of romantic relationships, healing of childhood traumas, lovingkindness for all the beings, pure feeling of gratitude, joy, and all the rest of the human messiness of our lives. Recently, one retreatant at IMS asked her teacher Anushka Fernandopulle if it’s okay to cry in the hall, and with yet another Massachusetts snowstorm blizzarding outside, Anushka said, “The amount of snow out there is equal to the number of tears shed in this hall.” In the space of retreat and the moment-to-moment attention to my immediate experience, I’m able to see that it’s all emotions, sensations, mental states passing through me, as it is with my fellow retreatants. We let go of that which we thought we’d hold onto forever, not from doing anything, but from simply seeing experientially that it all arises and passes on its own. The physical effect of spending extended time in such rarified conditions is extraordinary—when I returned home from six weeks of retreat some years ago, one of the first things dear friends said was “You look so much younger.” From time-to-time I’ll think it curious that people have convened here from all over the world to sit with their eyes closed and pace back-and-forth, when we’re not silently eating meals or meditatively listening to talks and instructions offered by the teachers. Yet I cannot imagine any better use of my time and resources.
Rewards of Traveling the Real Wild Country
Recently, I had the opportunity to talk with Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, one of the world’s best authorities on the power of retreat. The second Westerner ordained as a Tibetan nun, Jetsunma went on to spend twelve years on retreat in a cave in the Himalayas, and afterwards started a nunnery, Donyu Gatsal Ling, where some nuns are on retreat for years. When I asked Jetsunma about the beliefs that have shifted for her on retreat she would not indulge the question. As she put it, “Meditation should be inquiring into ‘Who am I? Who is thinking these thoughts?’” She likens the meditative process to peeling an onion, “We don’t get down to a solid core at the end, but in the meantime we take off layer after layer and we see really I am not this.” She wouldn’t share any of her own layers that she’s peeled off, because that would just be something to grasp onto. I appreciated her restraint in not creating expectations for meditators, it reminded me of a painting atop the stairs at IMS, which reads, “Try not to expect anything, in this way everything opens up to you.” In that spirit, should you ever go on retreat I invite you to put aside anything you heard about it from me or anyone else.
During my conversation with Jetsunma, she shared a glimpse of the possibilities in making the journey inward through retreat, “[People are] usually so fascinated with external travel but the real wild country, the unexplored territory, the last remaining blank on our planet is our own mind and our own psyche and consciousness. It’s the one place we never travel.” For myself and those willing to make this unusual journey, the reward is nothing less than seeing our lives, ourselves, our world, and all those we share it with exactly as it is.