A Case for Spending $300 to Sit Silently in Room of Strangers
Every year, there seems to be some self-help strategy that refuses to be ignored, whether it’s the War on Gluten or the frenzy to throw out any clothes that don’t “spark joy.” Recently, in my own life, this phenomenon has taken the form of a single word: mindfulness. Though I’d heard references to the term for a long time, I knew the concept had broken new ground when Drake included a shoutout in his 2017 song “Lose You”:
You’re mindful of it all when your mind full of it all.
To understand mindfulness, one could consult the Time magazine book currently on sale at my local grocery or the myriad TED Talks and articles promising that it can reduce stress, promote weight loss, sharpen memory, and even lessen cold symptoms. Or you could do as I did: disregard your aversion to trendy self-improvement lore and sign up for a $300 eight-week course on mindfulness-based stress reduction.
I first heard of the course when I ran into a friend who had just come back from an all-day silent retreat. She was glowing. But what really sold me is that several months prior, my friend had been on the verge of an emotional breakdown. She was overcome with a wave of anxiety that had no clear source and that was, unfortunately, familiar to me. Like her, I was often stressed but felt that I “shouldn’t” be; life had never been more outwardly “together.” What’s more, I felt like I already had all of the big realizations about my dysfunctional childhood hang-ups. By now, I had thought, I’m surely over it all. Those epiphanies themselves should have freed me.
I was wrong.
I’d often come home strung out on some mundane drama at work. Every morning, I braced myself for potential failure, and simple hiccups like misplacing my keys could cause me to crumble with guilt. It was unhealthy for me and unfair to my partner, who was often on the receiving end of these mini-meltdowns. So, later that week, I signed up for the course, wincing as I charged my credit card.
The courses was through Cascadia Mindfulness Institute (CMI), which offers courses in Seattle, Washington, and throughout the Puget Sound region. I checked out the website and found that CMI provides the same services for my area’s physicians, county employees, and VA healthcare system. This immediately suggested credibility: I figured if this can help veterans overcome traumatic memories and manage chronic pain, it can help me deal with my comparatively far-less-intense issues.
CMI also provides many guided meditations on its website, using SoundCloud, including lying-down yoga, standing yoga, sitting meditation, and something called “body scan.” It gave me a sense of exactly what the instructors would be teaching.
Finally, CMI includes a thorough explanation of mindfulness benefits, with links to more than 10 peer-reviewed research articles, news stories, and videos on the subject.
Going to Class
I showed up the first day, as I would to every class, highly distracted from a frenetic day. When we introduced ourselves, going around in a circle like an AA meeting, two things immediately affected my outlook. The first was that many of the participants were middle-aged and clearly carried heavier emotional burdens than my own, including former military service and divorced or aging parents. The second was that we had a substitute instructor because the teacher’s son had abruptly passed away. Neither of these points were discussed at length, but they hung in the air, lending a weight and seriousness to the evening.
Despite the heavy atmosphere, I was relieved to learn that the aim of the course was not nirvana but was rather modest and specific: to focus our awareness on the present. All those health benefits I’d read about and all that magical stress relief could apparently come from merely spending a tiny bit more time each day not ruminating on the past or worrying about the future.
The curriculum centered on quiet meditation but also involved gentle yoga, the ancient Chinese practice qigong, mindful walking, and a few other exercises. The common thread was to focus on the breath and constantly reorient our attention to the here and now. Or, as the instructor put it, to “come back to the mountain.”
In an exercise on “mindful eating,” we were each given raisins and instructed to carefully consider them as though at a high-end wine tasting — to run our fingers over their deep ridges, to explain their subtle scent to those sitting to our right and left. Five minutes passed like this before we placed the morsels in our mouths, simultaneously, like communion.
And as in communion, I questioned the sanity of our actions. But when I finally crushed the first bite with a back molar, I felt as though I’d never tasted a raisin before: The natural sweetness seemed so much more intense than I’d ever experienced before.
I would remember this a few days later at work when carelessly grabbing one of the free store-bought cookies on the counter—the kind I usually stuffed into my mouth in a frenzy of shame and animal greed. In reminding myself to stop and taste the cookie, I found it to be so excessively sweet that I wanted to spit it out. I wondered: If I really paid attention to everything I ate and didn’t text/talk/watch TV while doing it, how would my diet change?
The originally scheduled teacher returned for the second class, just weeks after his son’s passing. He did not discuss his grief but shared that since he had been practicing mindfulness for so long, it would be easier for him to continue practicing it. Throughout the course, his loss remained unmentioned but unforgettable. Knowing what he carried with him quelled my skeptic impulse, because I could see how much strength and serenity he drew from these simple exercises.
One of the meditation exercises he led us through was the body scan, which began with us on our backs and focusing our attention on our left toes. We then moved our attention to the arch, then to the heel, becoming aware of any sensations of comfort or discomfort, warmth or cold, pressure or lack thereof. It blew my mind how long we spent on the left foot. We had not even reached the ankle before my mind had wandered to one of my preferred forms of personal torture — rehashing stressful conversations I had earlier in the day. This cropped up often during the body scan, but I did my best to refocus. As we moved our attention up the calf to the shin, the knee, the thigh, we were told to note our entire left leg, “alive with sensation.” I was surprised to find that it was.
Focusing so closely on usually ignored body parts made me appreciate how many physical functions I take for granted, or, as the instructor put it, “how much more is right with the body than is not.” We give so much credit to the brain, when it is frequently eluding our control, confusing our desires. Yet isn’t it our automatic functions — breathing, digesting, pumping blood through so many limbs — that are our most mysterious and incredible?
Perhaps the most educational exercise for me was “mindful listening.” In groups of two, we took turns describing a recent experience that brought up negative emotions. We were told to listen to the other person’s story in complete silence, without so much as injecting a “hmm.” Afterward, we told the person’s story back to them as accurately as we could. It was a moving lesson, and one I’ve thought of many times, since I have a tendency to interrupt people or space out when they’re talking.
The Silent Retreat
After eight weeks came the final test: the famed all-day silent retreat, the same one my friend had just returned from when I ran into her that day at the store. I looked forward to it all week but wondered if I could ever quiet my frenetic mind. Though I practiced meditating at home, I still seemed filled with distractions, worries, self-doubts.
The session began with a guided meditation in which we’d imagine ourselves “lying at the floor of a deep lake” or “as a giant mountain.” These I enjoyed, but when we moved to complete silence, I was astonished by how many thoughts my mind produced without a single source of outside stimulation. Thoughts flowed in rapidly, like someone flipping through channels that included snippets from a week ago, a month ago, 10 years ago. I heard partial song lyrics and replayed quotes from movies. I worried about the coming week and simmered in anger at something my boss had said.
Still, I kept trying to come back to the breath, allowing the thoughts to flow without judgement.
What I realized as I lay there, feeling alternatively crazy and tranquil, is how little I understood about my own brain and how little I could control it. But for once, I did not view that limitation with frustration. Rather, I understood that many aspects of myself, whether physical or mental (if there is even a difference), would always remain a flabbergasting mystery to me. Like all matters of life and death, I could approach that mystery with horror, or I could view it as I once did as a kid, with a sense of curiosity and wonder.
What It’s Like Now
While I tend to slip back into my ruminating tendencies, I know the tools of mindfulness will always be there. Any night is an opportunity to lie on the floor and let gravity take my attention away from the relentlessly updating inbox; any meal is a chance to appreciate my tangible reality; any panicked moment is a chance to come back to the simplicity of the present moment — the feeling of a pen in my hand, the automatic rhythm of my breath, the words of another human being.
Those interested in practicing mindfulness can dip their toes in by trying some of the free guided meditations provided by CMI online, or by exploring some simple meditation apps such as Calm, which has a beautifully designed interface and soothing nature sounds, like rain and a crackling fire.
There is something uniquely meaningful about taking a course with others. I would suggest first vetting any paid offerings by seeing if they can name any of their clients or partnerships with accredited healthcare providers. If you don’t find that, ask if they can provide their instructors’ professional credentials. Do they explain thoroughly how they interpret mindfulness on their website or other materials? The more info you can glean beforehand, the better chances the practice will be legitimate and have lasting, meaningful impact.
Now that it has been months since I finished the course, I have no doubts about the money I invested. I think of the other things I would’ve bought with $300: two pairs of boots, six fancyish dinners, a single weekend trip. They would’ve brought me happiness, I’m sure—but not the peace that my new skills in mindfulness can bring me. And peace is another thing entirely.