I’m a believer in the power of daily meditation. While I’m not a believer in “shoulds,” you should meditate every day, because mindfulness — calmness, clarity, the ability to pay attention — mostly fades away during sleep.
If that sounds like work, like one more task on a never-ending to-do list, here’s a shortcut: try a meditation retreat.
I didn’t start meditating daily until I went on a three-day retreat. I had spent years reading about meditation but only trying it every few months or so, thinking each time: this is amazing, I should do this more. (There’s that should again.) Finally, with the encouragement of a girlfriend, I signed up for a long weekend of doing nothing but meditating, eating, and sleeping, alongside 30 other people.
Retreats offer the time and space to withdrawal from the speed, conflict, and work of daily life. They usually take place in rural areas, but sometimes in cities, and are led by teachers and organized by secular meditation groups and Buddhist organizations. While they are often quite expensive, many organizations offer discounts and full scholarships to low-income and otherwise marginalized folks. (To find an organization, try searching for “insight meditation,” “zen,” or simply “meditation” and the name of your city/town/state. Email me for advice.)
My first retreat was organized by the Insight Meditation Community of Washington and held at a farm house outside of Washington, D.C., in Beallsville, Maryland. Led by two teachers, I spent each day alternating between sitting, walking, and eating food, much of which had been grown in the property’s garden. No checking Facebook, no reading, no journaling —which offered a rare commodity for most of us in capitalist society, time with nothing to do.
Even if we have nothing to do, say after work and making dinner, many of us still feel as though there’s more to do. To escape this feeling, we turn to Netflix or Facebook to “veg out.”
The unstructured time of a retreat allows this feeling and whatever emotions we’re avoiding in our lives to eventually come up. Especially during silence, it helps us see all the little ways we sidestep being present in order to escape feeling emotions.
In Beallsville, I quickly noticed how much I judged my treat companions — their shoes, their walk, their food choices. I hadn’t spoken a word, but I had plenty of stories about everyone else by the end of the first day. One older man fidgeted often and fumbled loudly into the room wherever he went. I figured he was shallow and scatterbrained, whom no amount of meditation could help, and I avoided him as much as I could. I even imagined what his life was like, that he was a privileged resident of nearby Montgomery County, known for its wealthy residents, and therefore felt like he could do whatever he wanted.
But because we were meditating so much, and because there was no Netflix or Facebook — or even a book! — I was able to simply notice my judging, and then notice how I quickly turned it into a judgement about myself — I’m so critical. In other words, I’m bad.
This was the beginning of long journey that won’t end until I die, which is all about accepting myself — even becoming friends with myself.
Many of us spend much of our time being the opposite, being critical, questioning if what we’re doing is right. We rehash choices and conversations, not always to figure out what to do next time, but usually to judge ourselves — I’m a weak person because I didn’t say what I really felt to my boss yesterday.
Another way many of us escape feeling emotions is obsessively planning the future. I’ve learned that a certain part of me is usually in the driver’s seat — I call it “striver.” On a recent retreat, this time seven days, sure enough there he was, taking the steering wheel on the first day, pushing me to get it right, to be a good meditator, to have an “enlightened” experience. As I sat in meditation that first day, I noticed myself leaning into the future, thinking about how I was going to use the little free time we had and what I was going to accomplish after the retreat. I planned an entire book, chapter titles and all, instead of following my breath, noticing the sounds of the farm, etc.
But I was eventually able to notice that when “striver” is in charge, I feel a low-grade anxiety, as if there’s a pot boiling in a kitchen I can’t quite locate. On retreat, with nothing to do, it was obvious that there was no pot. There was a kitchen, but all I had to do was show up to it three times a day for a meal that someone else prepared. All that planning and anxiety did was taking me away from enjoying the present moment, the farm, the food, the birds, the silence.
Eventually, I let go and saw “striver” as simply the way I often try to manage situations where I have little or no control, which allowed that part of me to just be, without any judgement attached. This was a huge step for me in accepting myself like I would a close friend, warts and all.
While there are rough moments at retreats, there’s the opportunity to find what everyone needs to take up a daily practice: trust in yourself. Trust that, like every single human being, you have the ability to be open, loving, and, ultimately, good, as loaded as that word is.
If you want a daily practice, try to create an experience deep enough to become an anchor you can return to every day. In order to do that, you need time and space away from commitments and distractions, time and space to just be yourself, as messy, broken, and beautiful as you are.