Hi friends! I hope you're all well and having a fabulous year so far. I just got back from my second silent meditation retreat and thought I'd share some stories with you all. If you've ever felt called to do this kind of thing, I highly recommend it! Being on retreat is like nothing else. You laugh, you cry, you sit in silence with 100 strangers and somehow feel like you've know them for years. You step into a deeper knowing of yourself and the world around you. This retreat that I went on was called The Buddha's Way to Happiness and it was lead by Lila Wheeler and Howard Cohen at the Insight Meditation Society. They run this retreat annually, and after attending last year, I decided to keep coming back.
The front door to the Insight Meditation Society.
One of the things that really came up for me on this retreat was how to be in community. Upon arriving I felt totally oversensitive and overwhelmed by the amount of people there, which led to lots of anxiety for the first day and a half. This was basically a concentration of something I deal with every day as a sensitive person in the world. How to remain centered and open in my heart, while still maintaining healthy boundaries and not enmeshing too much in other people's energy. Honestly, I am usually just a little bit anxious whenever I leave the house, but I have lots of tools for dealing with that, and it doesn't tend to slow me down.
So, the first part of the retreat brought up some challenging stuff for me, but I relied on the teachings and the practice and just remained present with whatever came up. I listened to the messages that my body was sending my mind and remembered to be gentle. Things began to shift as I started allowing myself to act on my authentic wisdom, rather than following the schedule and going to every single session of meditation. For some of them I would do walking meditation instead of sitting, or I would go outside and play in the woods. If the dining hall felt too overwhelming during meals, I would find a quieter place to eat. I realized that in allowing myself to act from my own wisdom, I was building a relationship of trust with myself.
On the second night of the retreat, Lila gave a beautifully inspiring dharma talk. One of the things she spoke about was the concept of friendship, and treating yourself with kindness. As she spoke, the realization sunk in that I was making friends with myself! Then the wisdom deepened, and I thought, "What if I just think of everyone I meet as my friend?!" At that moment, every single bit of anxiety that I had been holding melted away. I felt it all leave my body, felt my muscles relax, and my heart open. All of a sudden I felt engaged and aware of the whole room and everyone in it, and my own being fitting comfortably within that. I looked around at all the people and instead of feeling overwhelmed and claustrophobic, I felt connected and safe. My breathing came easily and my energy field expanded around me. Was this what it felt like to live without that constant anxiety? Possibly.
A beautiful vintage Quan Yin statue.
For the rest of the retreat I experimented with that concept of friendship and relationship. I found that the more I deepened my relationship to myself, the more I felt comfortable in community. This is not a new idea, its one I've been thinking about for years, but at the retreat I was actually living and embodying this concept, which helped me to learn it in a whole new way. My cells were learning trust and safety. The physical muscle that is my heart was learning to relax and open into compassion because my mind simply gave it space and permission.
So, now when I leave the house sometimes I do still feel that anxiety, but I don't react. I don't panic. I respond with gentleness and kindness, the way I would if I was with an anxious friend. And somehow, that response allows the anxiety to have the space it needs to voice its concern about whatever is happening, which tends to diffuse it. I've even started sending it gratitude, because the anxious parts of me are still me. In order to treat others with love and respect and hold space for their healing, I've got to be able to treat my whole self with that same love and respect.
What it all comes down to is being in right relationship with ourselves, so that we can be in right relationship with each other and the world. That is how we make change. Our self-care and healthy practices plant seeds wherever we go. We become mirrors for the reality that we wish to see. So, it's really all about waking up every morning and deciding to give yourself an amazing day! Even if you've got obligations, or tough things to work through. If you are your own best friend you can move through anything with ease and grace, and also ask for support when you need it.
Once I made friends with my initial anxiety, I was able to relax into the present moment and actually have some fun! Here's one of the really awesome experiences I had:
The room that I stayed in at the retreat had a window that looked out onto this yard. On the third day, I was sitting in front of it looking out and I realized that the tiny thing poking out of the snow was the head of a buddha! You can see it in the picture, its in the little alcove by where the forest starts. So, I realized that there was probably a buddha under the snow and decided to go dig him out. I went out and dug out a little area around him. He was a very nice stone buddha with some pretty mala beads and a crystal in his hands. It only took a minute to uncover him and I still wanted to play in the snow, so I got the idea to make a big spiral around one of the trees. I started right where I was at the buddha and walked spiraling in to the tree. When I got to the center I hugged the tree and walked back out all along the spiral. I got back to the buddha and decided to widen the spiral a few times. Then it felt done, so I went back inside.
I watched it for a little while from my window to see if anyone would notice it and how people would interact with it. There was definitely a bit of ego involved there, which was fun to observe lightly. I wondered if anyone had seen me make it, and how their view of me would change. I wondered if I would ever have a chance to tell anyone that I made it, if people would talk about it at the end of the retreat. But more than the ego trip of having created something very public where there nothing before, there was a feeling of wanting to give beauty to the world that went deeper than my attachment to the work and my want for recognition. There was a selfless quality to the giving of this creation to the world. I watched someone walk out of the woods and see the spiral, and the look of joy and surprise on her face was apparent all the way from my window. It was so deeply fulfilling to me to be able to witness her in that moment and to know, in a deeper way than ego knowing, that I had given her an opportunity to experience that moment and she had responded simply by looking up and noticing. It was the gratitude and joy of giving.
So, that was all pretty wonderful, but then I saw someone actually walking the spiral!! Again, I could feel her joy and focused presence from my window. She was totally absorbed and aware in every step that she took along the spiral. I watched her bow to the buddha, spiral into the tree, hug the tree, and spiral out again. And this is where my heart really opened, because I had this amazing realization as I watched her do this same thing that I had just done. I realized that she, too, was now a creator of the path! Yes, I had been the first one to lay it down, but as she added her footsteps to mine in the snow, the spiral took on her energy as well. So now it was created by both of us.
At that point ego fell away. I was no longer thinking of the spiral as mine, but as a shared sacred space for anyone who chose to have it. This form that I had walked for half an hour in the snow to create, continued to be created and recreated by the community around me. It was the most beautiful gift I could think of as an artist and it really made me think about my art and my life path in a different way. My artistic intention has always been to add beauty and sacredness to the world and to bring people together to share that. This experience brought me back to that pure intention, crystalizing and solidifying it, and bursting my heart wide open in the process.