Having just returned from a two-week retreat I feel the effects of slowing down. “Why would you do that?” asked a friend at our weekly meditation practice group. Its a great question. This is the only time I leave my young child. Its not because its relaxing in any conventional sense.
What is retreat like?
We live in community with 100 other people and spend 9 hours a days doing sitting meditation practice. Waking up before 6 am and winding down around 9 pm each night is our schedule. So in many ways its like motherhood. There are no breaks. Nights can be disturbed by dreams, altitude or the unwanted felt emotions that come. On day 5 this year, a smoke alarm went off at 2am. We evacuated into the snow coughing out the smoke of a forgotten pot left on the stove.
Retreat is different from motherhood in that meals are made for us so no need to shop or cook. Often there is an hour in the afternoon to go for a walk uninterrupted. The silence creates space and there’s no need to engage with people who may also be out walking. Sometimes a smile is shared but often noble silence is honoured.
Its true that as a single parent, I don’t remember what its like to do nothing. Why would I spend precious time doing something that is often painful emotionally and physically? The answer is simple. What I find on retreat is rare in this world. The level of integrity, generousity and spontaneous joy that is rare. These emerge full force. The friendships I have found are unlike others in my life. These connections along with the teachings, insight and exponential growth that follows are unique. Coming home isn’t usually easy.
Meditation Changes People
Retreat quickens the unfolding of life. It shows me where I’m stuck. As a meditation instructor, I witness the journey of a small group of students. Their questions inform and deepen my understanding of what it means to be human. The challenges that emerge during retreat often reflect conflicts at home. The opportunity to be seen at my worst with the support and wisdom of meditation practitioners is unique.
“Why would you do that?”
Going back to this initial question brings me to the mysterious quality of retreat. I don’t really know why I do it. After ten years of working with this particular community there is a part of me that understands my life is at stake. This is where I find out what is essential. It connects me with a deeper thread. I’m more alive and can engage with the world in ways I wouldn’t otherwise.
Meditation allows me to see others with more clarity. It sheds light on my work including the very important and unnoticed work of motherhood. It intensifies situations and helps me relax into this intensity. One young man on this retreat lives with a degenerative, genetic disorder. Meditation liberated him from a downward spiral. The health that comes through by just sitting is remarkable. After years of trauma, surgery and addiction he is so bright. He still has a medical condition but his devotion and what emerged over the 2 weeks is absolute stunning.
The vibrancy and speed with which it emerges is unlike anything I witness in my practice of medicine. There is an ease with life, even when things happen that we never thought we could handle. This comes by simply being with what is and seeing what happens when we do. It’s always surprising and not ever what one expects.