I have shared the story of my five-day mindfulness retreat in Petaluma with multiple people, and I’m still trying to figure out what happened. First of all, who gets to go on a five-day retreat, leaving family behind, spending a chunk of cash, and being that selfish? Me, that’s who. Wow, am I grateful. In fact, I spent a lot of time being grateful while I was there. But we’ll get to that in a moment.
My intentions in going were to take the next step in my MBSR training (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) and to get some tools to cope with stress better. I’m often ‘stressed out’, and it affects how I treat people, especially my children. I may or may not become a certified MBSR teacher, but as Arianna Huffington said, “Meditation and mindfulness are no longer reserved for people who live in Berkeley. It’s mainstream now.” So I’m just following the trend. But unlike most trends, this one gives me hope.
For those who don’t know, No, seriously. Meditation too often seems like something reserved for “other people” or something we should do but never have the time for. Mindfulness gives those of us who suck at meditating a way to lower the water level of current and historic stressors in order to make better decisions in this now moment. Having a semi-regular practice of mindfully noticing, breathing, pausing, paying close attention, and being still, results in a state of mind that is more relaxed, focused, and adaptable. And all change, big or small, starts with noticing and acknowledging what is before you can ever hope to change it.
Trust me when I say that I am no paragon of virtue in this endeavor. Case in point was the retreat experience itself. The two facilitators, renowned experts in the field and trained by the Mindfulness Master himself, Jon Kabat-Zinn, irritated me from the get-go. There was no way they could be that mellow, grounded and centered no matter what anyone did or said. It was like Bob Ross was leading us with two heads, always mellow, sometimes hypnotic, and completely unflappable. (Ah, happy trees…) And they threw us in the deep end. Without remorse. I tried desperately to “trust the process”, but I went to bed Sunday night thinking, “I better feel more mindful soon.”
That first night was a warning. I didn’t know it then, but they were telling us that we were about to embark on a journey that would seriously mess with our heads, challenging the stories we have always held dear about ourselves, our histories and the world around us. How? By leaving us alone with our minds. I would be stuck in my own head, trying again and again to not attach to the thoughts that barge in. This isn’t the meditation style of “clear your mind completely”. Can anyone even do that? Like the guy on the top of the mountain after spending 7 years in Tibet. Can he do that? Or does even he suddenly think, “Did I leave the iron on? What am I going to say at the meeting? Am I happy?” My mind is never blank. Often the best I can do is force some of the thoughts into separate corners so I can just finish something. Like this post I started 3 weeks ago…
The first full day was sitting. And standing. And sitting. And walking. And then we learned how to sit better so our knees would forgive us later. (They could have said that earlier. Oh, hey, look! Judgement! sigh) More sitting. And we weren’t getting some guided imagery like walking through the woods into a cave, no. That would give us something to think about. We were focusing on our breath. Not changing it, just noticing it. (Who knew I was such a shallow breather? I’m sure I need more oxygen than that…) In and out. In and out. (Is anyone else having trouble with this? Be quiet!) In and out. In through the nose. Out through the mouth. (Is it better to breathe out through the nose? I thought that’s what they said in that yoga class I took with Mandypants. I wonder what she’s…Stop it!) In and out. (Wait, how much time did I lose in that last thought process? Did I…Knock it off!) In and out. Breathing. Breathing is good. (Oh, hell. It’s just now breakfast? I’m never going to survive 5 days of this…) And on and on.
We did everything mindfully, with a huge focus on transitions. Normally I just stop doing one thing and start another. Or start another while I’m still doing the first thing. (I can multitask, you damn researchers, you!) And it was weird. It was like a really small ritual of saying goodbye to what I was just doing so I could go do something else. “And before we go to lunch, let’s take 3 breaths together.” Then I would walk mindfully to the lunch area, go through the buffet line, (I think I put more weight on my second tarsal bone. The air in the lobby feels different than the air in the ballroom.) and eat mindfully. Looking at, smelling, and thoroughly tasting everything I ate. I will forever be in love with roasted nuts. So amazing! And I ate a lot less, going slow and really getting into my food. Weird.
Then came Wednesday. The Silent Day. No taking, social media, or even eye contact. We heard only ambient noises and the facilitators gently telling us to transition to something else. I didn’t even make it to lunchtime. Something just swelled up inside of me. Not something. Anger. Pure, unbridled anger. Rage. I was so amazingly pissed off. I hated. I hated everyone and everything. That woman two yoga mats over doing advanced yoga moves when we were supposed to all be doing the same basic stuff. The facilitators and their smarmy calmness. The hotel and their stupid carpet pattern. All the people who have ever wronged or slighted me. All the people in power who were too dumb and/or selfish to be leaders. All the everything and everyone. Especially myself. All the things I woulda/coulda/shoulda done, my mistakes, my inaction, my fear. Ooooohhh, it sucked. Every time I tried to let go of a thought, it came back with a vengeance.
Being someone who would rather lose a finger than make a scene, (Can we say therapy?) I felt trapped. I had a wild urge to run out of the door. (They can’t keep me here!) I restrained myself only because I didn’t want to ruin everyone else’s experience — and because I had paid for this, dammit! So I did the only thing I could think of. I thought. I thought and thought and told myself stories and imagined myself starting a pie fight at lunch and running through the hotel screaming, “I am a fish!” I rebelled. I rebelled in my head, where I was in total control. I thought mean, absurd and naughty things. Because I could. So there. And then I walked to lunch, completely ignoring how I walked. I scarfed my food mindlessly. That will show them! But the anger didn’t dissipate. It seemed to get worse, and I still had almost two hours to kill before the next session. I was pacing in the hotel room. I had to do something. So I left.
The hotel is next to a wildlife preservation marsh with walking trails. I started running before I hit the trailhead. I ran like the Hounds of Hell were after me. I am so not a runner, but I didn’t stop. I kept running until my chest hurt and I was gasping for air. As I stopped to gasp for oxygen, I saw I was next to a pedestrian bridge. I decided to hide under the bridge. Like a troll. I’m sitting under the bridge, and an image of me jumping out in front of innocent passersby booming, “I am the troll under the bridge! You cannot pass until you answer me a question!” just cracked me up. I sat there with a hand over my mouth trying not to stifle the laughter. I was being ridiculous. The whole thing was ridiculous. I crack me up. I went back.
After lunch we did a walking meditation with guided imagery, for the first time. It was called the Open Heart meditation. We were supposed to imagine our hearts opening up as we walked. Feeling like mine was already wide open and raw, I began to forgive. I forgave the yoga woman who was probably frustrated she couldn’t do her normal routine, all the people who may or may not have known they hurt me, and myself. I walked up and down a yoga mat naming every mistake, bad thing, and missed opportunity I could think of, and forgiving myself for them and being grateful. And I felt lighter, somehow. Like the anger was a stack of weights inside and I got rid of a few during my run. By the end I was smiling and crying. When they finally brought us out of the silence with a whispering activity, then talking, and finally sharing, I told everyone how hard it was and that I almost left. But that I had forgiven myself. The facilitators looked at each other, then at me, with those knowing smiles that told me they had heard this story before. Well, maybe they aren’t all that smarmy. Maybe my story just isn’t as original as I had thought.
But it is my story, and it continues. I unpack a bit more of what I uncovered at the retreat every day. I am definitely more committed to being mindful when I’m eating, walking, driving, and working. I have noticed hundreds of things in the past month that I didn’t before, mostly my own word choice, internal and external. (You know, I really am a decent cook.) I’ve started going to yoga classes, and I love it. I’m starting a new MBSR series next month. I’ve even managed to sit and meditate a few times. But most importantly, I’ve noticed a pause. Not a big one, but just a second or two has been added between when the kids do something that angers me and when I respond. I don’t feel like an amazing parent or anything, but I do feel like I have a bit more perspective and control over how I respond to things. Maybe that’s not much. But maybe it’s just the beginning.