This past week I took five days away from work, away from my family and friends, away from social media to sit in silence and do… nothing. Seriously.
If you’ve ever heard about those weirdos who sit in silence for days at a time meditating somewhere in the forest, well – I became one of those weirdos.
I attended a Jewish Meditation retreat with Or Ha Lev, co-sponsored by Pardes and NYU Center for Spirituality. It was five days of silence, meditation, chanting, and contemplating life. I drove out to Waynesboro, Pennsylvania (which in case you haven’t heard of Waynesboro, PA -there’s next to nothing there), with my yoga mat in tow and embarked on one of the most transformative experiences in my entire life.
Now, I know that last sentence seems like a lot, a bit Eat, Pray, Love of me – but truly, it was. That’s not to say it didn’t come with road bumps, because there were. Plenty of them. Which is why I wanted to take some time to write out the various expectations I had vs. the reality of what happened.
Day One: Utter and Complete Boredom
The first day honestly felt like the longest day of my entire life. May I remind you that I’ve lived in remote villages in Nepal, and I’ve also spent several weeks living in an ashram in the south of India. But no, the first day of silence felt so painstakingly long and BORING, I immediately thought about escaping into the woods.
Every sitting meditation was excruciatingly long and painful, my back ached, I felt really alone and bored, and pretty much just started judging everyone around me.
I thought that if every day was going to be like this, I might as well pack it home, because there would be no way I could survive this particularly cruel type of torture.
My expectations going into this retreat were:
- I would be totally blissed out the entire time floating on a cloud
- I would transcend time and space and just meditate without any distractions
- I would feel soooo good about the fact that I was there
- I would be nourishing my body with the most delicious organic vegan foods
The reality on day one:
- I was super uncomfortable despite having several blankets and cushions and couldn’t sit still
- I was bored and tired, and actually dozed off several times during meditation
- The food was less than stellar, and I had to mindfully endure each bite
- I was so over the teachers, and them telling me to just breathe (I am breathing! I’m alive aren’t I?!)
Days Two and Three: Things Start to Shift
Something happened on day two: I began to settle in to my surroundings. When the morning bells rung at 5:45am I felt energized, and ready to dive into my first 45 minute sitting meditation at 6:15am.
I started to really focus on my breath, and even begin to feel in my body where thoughts and feelings were coming up. I began to see everyone around me as individuals who were all going through something of their own. When they cried, I cried. When they laughed, I laughed. We were all connected.
I still dozed off during one of my meditations, and I did question why I was there sometimes when I could have been hanging out with my family, and enjoying myself rather than being in my own thoughts and reflecting on every life decision. But hey, I was getting deeper into my meditations and actually started to look forward to them rather than dreading them.
Days Four and Five: Complete Transformation
There were several things that led to a transformation in me and I want to list them out here:
1. We had small group meetings where we were allowed to talk, and share with the teacher what we were struggling with. Being able to hear others around me express their own fears, frustrations, emotions, family drama, relationship hardships, etc. really put me at ease and made me feel like I was not alone in my struggles and thoughts. It was an excellent lesson that we ALL deal with things in our lives, and NO ONE has it all together. And if they tell you they do, they’re lying.
2. They call it a meditation practice for a reason. Just like a sport, or musical instrument – the more you practice, the “better” you get. Now, I’m not going to measure one meditation “better” than another, but I will say that it became easier for me to sit still and focus on my breath and awareness of the present moment. Before coming to this retreat, I was meditating every day – but I was meditating for five minutes. For me, that was what I felt I could reasonably do on a daily basis. On retreat, we would sit for 45 minutes to an hour, several times throughout the day. The more I sat down to meditate, the easier it became to go for longer periods. And with longer meditations, came more insight.
3. Being away from my phone, and being in nature completely healed me. It’s funny, but we don’t tend to notice how much technology impacts our lives. But when you work on a computer all day long, check your phone constantly, and then go home and watch TV – it’s easy to forget what shutting down actually feels like. Not only did I not have cell service, but my entertainment became the trees, sky, and little insects on tree barks. One afternoon I just watched the rain fall for 20 minutes – twenty! I began to notice droplets of water on leaves, small ripples in a lake, mushrooms growing on the side of a log, and the sounds of rushing water. One day, I was walking so slowly (this was part of our meditation practice) that I noticed a tiny ant. And I stopped. I watched it crawl around for a bit and then continued on. The point I’m trying to make is that I was able to truly slow down. And that was incredible.
4. I had the time and space to examine my life deeply. This may be the most scary. For many of us, we continue on our daily habits and routines and don’t question much. I unearthed many things during this retreat, things that I had swept underneath the rug and didn’t want to deal with. On retreat, I was forced to confront these things, and also accept them, and myself, as they are with loving-kindness and self-compassion.
Lessons Learned and Top Meditation Tips
There were so many things I learned on this retreat, but the number one thing I want to share is that everyone needs to start meditating. Whether you do it for five minutes per day, or 45 minutes per day – cultivating a practice of awareness will truly shift your life for the positive.
So if you’re looking to start meditating, I’ll recommend a few things to help you on your own meditation journey:
- Start with a small actionable step: like meditating for five minutes per day. If you need an app to help with this, here are my favorites.
- Join community – there are many mindfulness communities, just Google one in your area, and start practicing with others. This is something I’m definitely going to be incorporating more of in 2019 and beyond.
- If you forget one day, or life gets busy, that’s okay! Just get back on to the horse. As one of my meditation teachers taught: if you forget to brush your teeth one day, will you stop brushing your teeth altogether? No! You’ll just brush the next day.
- Go on retreat! If you’re able to take a few days off, I highly recommend attending a meditation retreat to deepen your practice.
Have you ever meditated? Would you ever attend a meditation retreat?