At the beginning of September, I decided to give myself an early birthday present. It would be a four-day silent meditation retreat. The retreat itself was actually 10 days long, but I could not take that much time off from work and be away from my family for that long. Luckily, the leader of the retreat encouraged me to come even though I could not stay the whole time.
I think philanthropy is primarily an outward-based practice, where givers’ efforts are all about donating their time and efforts to others. This could be nurturing friends or family, trying to make a difference in your career, or simply writing a check to support your favorite organization. And too often, I find myself in the position of neglecting myself and not offering the same kind of philanthropy to myself. I run on adrenaline, excited about my next project, worried about what I am going to make for dinner that night, hoping my homestay student is comfortable and not too cold in her room which is located in our finished basement, wondering if my parents are doing well, feeling love for my family– the list just goes on and on.
I forget, so often, to pay attention to what’s going on inside, to have self-compassion, and even just to pamper myself a little bit.
So when this lovely woman, Becky, the retreat leader, invited me to join if only for a few days, I jumped, no, sprang for the opportunity. I have practiced meditation before but I have never done a silent meditation for days on end. And those who know me well would say I like to talk and engage in stimulating conversation! I just knew this was the right thing to do at this time, the beginning of the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), where you reflect on the past year and what you want to do better in the coming year. It’s a time for introspection and renewal. And September is my birthday month, which always makes me reflective, as the season starts to change and I am consumed particularly with this thought: “What have I done thus far and what do I want to do next?”
And I am in the middle of my life (that is, if I should live to my 90’s) and that’s also a time of change: my body is getting older in very subtle ways, my parents are getting older, and my friends’ parents are starting to get older and die.
Ok, I’m not trying to make it all sound depressing. Really, this is the reality of what we know as life.
Have you seen the movie, “Logan’s Run”? It’s about this futuristic world where people don’t have to work and can indulge in any pleasure they wish. Here’s the catch: they only live to be 30. A light on their hand blinks and they must be sent to the “Carousel” where they will be reborn, but actually, they are executed.
And our life is sort of a countdown- we don’t know how long we have to live, but it’s a good reminder that we have the opportunity to live it to the fullest each day.
A silent meditation retreat is the perfect way to get grounded, to be able to deal with the “suffering” and curveballs that we as humans have to face. And as Becky so aptly put it, it’s a way to be mindful, to stay aware in the present moment, because that is really all we have right now- not the past, not the future, but right at this very moment.
It was such a gift, to reconnect with what it feels like in the present moment, rather than always thinking about what I did yesterday or the upcoming appointments I have. Everything slowed down — my thoughts and my actions (meals were not rushed and were eaten very slowly and mindfully). By the time the fourth day rolled around and it was time for me to leave, I was relaxed and my shoulders had dropped down a notch. It was just the tip of the iceberg- I was beginning to see how meditation or really, just being in a quiet space, can help one deal more effectively with the roller coaster that we call life.
Let me be clear: it was not easy. Sitting on a cushion throughout the day (this was interspersed with walking meditations, breaks, and meals) is physically painful. Guided by Becky’s amazing coaching and tapping into my meditation experience, I learned to put my focus on the location of the pain in my body, rather than dwell on the thought of “Oh, that hurts, let me shift.” or “Oh I wish this was over!” And I noticed something interesting: the pain would subside, but then it would shift to a new location. I just followed it wherever it went and it would dissipate pretty quickly. And then the 30-minute meditation session would be done before I knew it! Other times, the prominent thing wasn’t pain, but feelings. And these were all over the map. I experienced joy, sadness, contentment, anger…
Re-entry into my busy life wasn’t easy. I carried the effects of the meditation with me for the rest of the week and I still have yet to meditate regularly. I got a zafu cushion for my birthday and I intend to use it!