I attended my first week-long silent retreat at the end of January. It was powerful and scary and instructive and illuminating and difficult and heart-opening and confusing and insight-provoking and wonderful and sad and mindless and mindful.
A lot happened but here are some observations that I feel are relevant to our attempts to integrate this practice into our daily lives and hearts.
First, the level of mindfulness that entered my body as a result of that much slowing down was profound and welcome. I have not managed to retain the same level of attention and presence here in daily, busy, distracting “life”, but certainly some amount and understanding of it remains. I feel generally slower, and I’m working on being ok with that — no simple task here in our culture that pushes action, productivity, accomplishment, competition, speed, and more, more, more of everything, all the time!
The other big shift was having the time and space to open up to some very difficult emotions I don’t normally allow full expression of in my busy life, even with a consistent daily meditation practice for support. By repeatedly witnessing the feelings as they arose, and my desperate and methodical attempts to stuff them or push them away or obsessively problem-solve in order to fix (ha!) the external circumstances I associated with them, I learned so much about the particular habits, patterns and types of thinking I use (yes, use) to escape from these feelings and fears. So I’m watching all of that with keener vision and more compassion now that I’m “back”.
Finally, here is one of my favorite quotes from the retreat:
“There is suffering that leads to the end of suffering, and suffering that leads to more suffering. The less willing we are to experience the former, the more of the latter we will receive.”
I find this fascinating, profound, true, scary, and helpful. It’s a reminder that sometimes the way to freedom isn’t all easy, simple, clear, joyful and light. There is usually work, and effort, and murk, and pain and heaviness along the way. Typically when we “give up” or “let go” of something we know is not in the service of our highest good, we do suffer — we are faced with uncertainty, loss, fear, emptiness, loneliness, and all sorts of discomfort. And this suffering is not necessarily a signal that we are on the wrong track! Rather, it is potentially leading us to a release of some clinging or attachment that has had us hooked and miserable (the suffering that leads to more suffering!) and therefore, ultimately, to a lightening of our load. It is helping rather than harming. It is part of the end of our suffering, and, consequently, our healing.
As amazing as it was to dedicate a solid week to this work in a retreat context — and I am so grateful for the opportunity — this is not always an option. Fortunately, just as valid and important is the work we have the opportunity to do every day, every hour, every moment, here, in daily “real” life, within the containers of our jobs, our families, our communities, our hopes and dreams, our selves.
It’s the work of slowing down, paying attention, honoring what’s really happening, and gaining a deeper understanding of our relationship to our own suffering and that of the world. In a nutshell, it’s the work of mindfulness. And, thankfully, there are no barriers to entry.