One downside of social distancing during a pandemic is not being able to do in-person meditation retreats.
This year, I’d planned to visit the Insight Meditation Society, or “IMS,” the Massachusetts retreat center founded by the first Americans to translate Buddhist meditation from Southeast Asia. I’d also hoped to get back to Colorado’s Crestone Mountain Zen Center, one of my favorite places on Earth.
But 2020 is the year of letting go—of plans, of expectations, of “normal.” And so I’ve made do with meditation classes on Zoom and solo retreats in the nearby Shenandoah National Park.
Nonetheless, meditation retreats will always be in my life—they’re where I turn for refuge from our speedy, cold, and violent society. When I’m burned out from my work taking on billionaires and private prison executives, I relax into a long weekend or whole week of meditation and silence to recharge.
Like in 2014 when I attended my first retreat, a long weekend hosted by the Insight Meditation Community of Washington and taught by Hugh Byrne. I was working at a job I hated, in a relationship that was falling apart, and completely lost emotionally. But two and half days of no talking, no internet, no social media, no books—nothing but eating, sleeping, and meditating—gave me clarity I hadn’t experienced in years.
As I write about in “How to Get Out of Your Head” (which is free) I drove away from the center five miles under the speed limit—but it felt like I was in a race car. I was 15 again, new to driving, but this time confident instead of anxious. There was nowhere else to be but driving down an unfamiliar road. My mind wasn’t somewhere else—it was focused on the pavement’s grit shaking the steering wheel, the open fields around me, the big sky, the present moment.
I’d felt that way on occasion before—like when I took LSD before it spiraled into a nightmarish trip. But this was much deeper, much calmer, much fresher, and without any of the side effects. And it’s come back every time I’ve done a retreat since.
There are definitely dark times on retreats. There pangs of sadness, grief, anger, loneliness. But the overall feeling I get during retreat is refuge—which comes from the Latin refugium, a “place to flee back to.”
We likely won’t be meditating together in person for a while. But one of the silver linings to the pandemic is that we now have access to more teachers and retreat centers online. Go sign up for a retreat—like, now. If you don’t have time, there are day-long and weekend retreats. If you’re worried about cost, many offer discounts for students and low-income folks. Email me if you need help: firstname.lastname@example.org
Here are four lessons I’ve learned on meditation retreats over the years:
At that first retreat, we had the opportunity to speak during a question-and-answer session with Hugh. A woman with tears in her eyes went first.
“I thought I’d dealt with this,” she said. “My husband died when I was pregnant ten years ago, and I’ve done so much therapy and I’m still grieving. I couldn’t shake it all morning.”
Next, a man shared that he came to the retreat to contemplate a divorce. What held him back was the thought of his toddler, who was starting preschool soon. Right then and there any judgments I had about the other meditators (which I had many) dropped away.
Sure, they appeared to be rich people from the D.C. suburbs. Sure, no one talked about racism, patriarchy, or any other oppression. But they were humans dealing with human problems, and meditation was helping them turn toward those problems instead of letting them fester beneath the surface.
“The only way I can sit here and not be absolutely furious, livid with every man, every white body, every straight body, is because of my path,” writes the Zen Buddhist teacher angel Kyodo williams about her meditation practice. “One day I woke up and much to my chagrin, I loved the very same people who would rather see my body lying in the street. I loved the very same people who would ignore me in my dharma center. I loved the very same people who would make me invisible. I didn’t say I liked them! But I do love them.”
Retreats get intimate. And intimacy is all it takes to see that everybody is suffering to one degree or another.
Most of what we think about other people is projection
Once, at the end of a retreat, the writer and Zen Buddhist teacher Natalie Goldberg told us, “Watch out. You might think you know each other, but you’re projecting so many things.”
She was right. I’d spent the week crushing on one of the retreat center staff members. Everything about Molly was perfect. Her sunbaked skin and snow-white teeth. Her playful glances in the kitchen—which meant we both were breaking the retreat rule of not looking at each other.
During meditation periods, I’d imagine running off with Molly to buy a cabin in the nearby Sante Fe mountains. But when we finally talked on the last day, I realized I knew nothing about her. Her voice was completely different than I’d imagined. She was from suburban Los Angeles, not the New Mexican desert. She was normal, just like me.
Here’s how projection works: “Your brain fill[s] in the gaps in an otherwise incomplete story and the way it does that is through use of your own past history—positive or negative,” writes the psychiatrist Paul Dobransky.
Key words: your own past history. We know ourselves more than anyone else. So, when we meet someone new our brain fills in the gaps based on this self-knowledge. Molly was more than just an attractive face—she represented the wild, earthy free spirit that I’d wished I could be.
Because they’re often silent, retreats offer the time and space to notice how we react to other people, how we make up stories about them, how we judge them. Which becomes a learning experience—because what we think about other people is a reflection of how we think about ourselves.
Rituals are important
When all you’re doing is meditating, things that are subtle in everyday life become especially consequential and vibrant. On retreat, meals take on particular significance.
The first breakfast on that first retreat had me thinking I was going crazy. The clink of the forks. The sound of mouths chewing. No one talking or looking at each other. This must be what prison is like, I thought. No, that’s dumb. Prisoners don’t get warm oatmeal, hardboiled eggs, fresh fruit, and unlimited coffee.
Retreat meals are like rituals—something to look forward to when my back starts hurting after two hours of meditation.
What’s cool is that this has rubbed off in my everyday, non-retreat life. I learned on retreat that slowing down and savoring food can bring me into direct contact with my experience.
To this day, every breakfast at home is an attempt to recreate the feeling I had eating oatmeal on a retreat near Boulder, Colorado, last October. Watching the steam rise in the light. Adding nuts, yogurt, and fresh berries. Smelling the fresh morning air. Listening to the birds outside.
We have to eat—why not slow down and enjoy it?
We can’t do it alone
Four days into one retreat, even with people all around me, I felt a depth of loneliness like never before. Loneliness has always been my deepest fear—so this scared the hell out of me.
My mind churned: You’re going to end up 70-years-old alone in an apartment somewhere watching football. No one is going to love you. You’re going be irrelevant.
Luckily, that afternoon I had the chance to meet with the teacher, a well-known psychologist named Tara Brach. A little embarrassed, I told her I felt lonely. She smiled as though she’d felt the same way before and asked whether I could feel the loneliness in the body: “Where is it showing up?”
“My hands—they’re so heavy. It feels like I can’t move them.”
“It’s okay,” Brach said. “Just let the heaviness be there. Get curious about it.”
Normally, that my hands felt like 1,000-pound boulders would’ve triggered shame. I’m a 33-year-old man who’s afraid of being alone. I would’ve acted out to get away from the fear and shame. Like the one time I was solo camping in one of the most beautiful parts of the country, Oak Creek Canyon in Arizona, and drove an hour to a bookstore in the closest town just to be around somebody, anybody.
But this time I laughed. Happy tears welled up in my eyes. This time, the loneliness was just another phenomenon. I didn’t have to make it go away or wrong or a sign that I’m not a “man” or anything at all. I didn’t have to resist it—I could let it just be.
This is why meditation retreats and classes are so important. As much as our journey towards getting to know ourselves is up to us, we also need help. We need to be reminded that we don’t have to be so hard on ourselves, that it’s okay to be just as we are—especially in tough times like these.
I’m a writer, meditation teacher, and host of the Meditation for the 99% podcast. If you’d like to work with me on your meditation practice or being more mindful in your life, reach out.
Download my free ebook on starting and sticking with a meditation practice here.