It’s Easter Sunday and I’m sitting at a bar table at my brother-in-law’s house shoveling homemade guacamole into my mouth using a combination of bite-sized Tostitos and gluten-free almond flour crackers. My brother-in-law sits down next to me and asks, “So…you just got back from your silent retreat. What was your key takeaway?” I struggle to find the right words to express the depth of my experience during the donothing Leadership Retreat, a 4-day meditation retreat for business leaders and entrepreneurs at the Shambhala Mountain Center (SMC). I clumsily reply, “I’m not sure? I think I just learned a little more about myself?” Obviously a gross understatement, but how could I talk about death, fear, my own mortality, and the need to let go against the backdrop of egg hunts and chocolate bunny rabbits? Then again, if there was ever a perfect time to reflect upon death, Easter Sunday might have been it.
With content currently spewing out of every orifice of the internet (which, ironically, I am contributing to this very minute), it’s not surprising that we often seek out small trinkets of knowledge to consume so that we can quickly move on to the next shiny object in our feed. But instead of trying to boil my experience down to a neat sound bite, I’d like to just share a few moments that stuck with me after the retreat and hope you’ll find value or comfort in my story.
Listening to a Friend
When I get to my room at SMC, I unpack and say goodbye to my phone for the next four days. I turn it off and store it in my empty suitcase along with other books and journals that won’t be needed until the end of the retreat. I’ll be practicing noble silence while I’m here. So not only will I not be talking, but I also won’t be reading, writing, signing, gesturing, making eye contact, or engaging with anyone. This may qualify as cruel and unusual punishment for some, but I’m told it’s actually supposed to deepen our meditation practice.
I walk over to the meditation hall to meet some participants before the retreat begins. The room is a beautiful and calming space, with bamboo flooring and windows that go from floor to ceiling. Within the group of new and familiar faces, I notice a friend that I didn’t expect to see. I walk over to say hi, gesturing for a bro-hug. You know, the kind of hug only men do, half handshake, half hug, usually ending with several firm pats on the back. But instead, he denies my bro-hug and went full-on hug. As we embrace in what felt like an unusually long time, I say, “So good to see you, how are you doing?” He responds quietly, “I’m doing ok…my mom passed away last Wednesday.” Stunned, I didn’t know what to say. The only words I could muster up was to say, “I’m sorry to hear that,” while intentionally looking into his eyes, hoping to express something more than what my words would allow.
Later that night, we hike up to the Great Stupa, our path lit by nothing more than the moonlight. We catch up on what’s been going on in each other’s lives, but really, my friend did most of the talking, and I was content just to listen. When we get to the stupa, we notice that it’s beautifully lit and surrounded by a circular gravel path with a sign instructing visitors to walk the path in a clockwise direction. We comply and my friend opens up about the difficulty he’s having with his mom’s death and how attending this retreat might actually be helpful. I felt moved by the vulnerability he showed, and the trust and safety he saw in me. I wanted to say something to ease his grief but remembered how much comfort I drew just from someone else’s presence when I lost my parents. I guess there are moments in life when listening and being present is enough, and words aren’t really needed.
I’m sitting on my meditation cushion with my legs crossed and eyes closed, constantly fidgeting, trying to find the magic spot that would make my body not hurt. It’s been a long day of sitting meditation, walking meditation, stretching, yoga, not talking, silent breakfast, silent lunch, silent tea, silent dinner, and my body is “crying uncle.” I find myself always having to refocus on my breath as my mind hopscotches from one achy body part to the next. Then suddenly, Tom Hanks enters my brain to rescue me. I catch myself dreaming of gathering vine to make rope, chopping down trees, and building a raft so that I can escape this island and have a volleyball to talk to. As I’m floating away on my makeshift raft with Tom and Wilson, I hear the meditation bell ring. I’m saved.
My Imaginary Checklist
On the last night of the retreat, I thought it would be nice to hike up to the Great Stupa again, this time in silence by myself. Several other participants are already inside meditating when I reach the stupa. I find an untaken cushion, sit down, and marvel at how we independently made our way to this spot, without talking and without coordination. After sitting and meditating for several minutes, I get up to leave the stupa. When I reach the bottom of the steps outside the main entrance, without thinking, I make a turn and start to walk along the circular gravel path instead of heading back to my room. I complete the circle several times and remember how I walked this same path a few days earlier with my friend. My thoughts go to him and his family along with some other people in my life that have recently lost a loved one. I start to send all of them my love and kindness, wishing them comfort and grace in their grief.
I think of my parents who have also passed away and remember a question someone asked me just a month earlier during lunch. He asked, “Are you afraid of death?” When he asked me this question, I wanted to answer “no,” but heard the word “yes” came out instead. I haven’t given that question much thought until now and I wonder, “That’s strange. Why do I know I shouldn’t be afraid to die, but when I look deep inside myself, I see fear?” I picture an imaginary list of experiences and accomplishments I’ve yet to cross off in my life, probably created long ago by a kid that’s still inside me. The crazy thing is, I don’t even know what’s explicitly on this imaginary list that lives purely in my head. Still, I can’t shake the feeling that crossing items off this list may make me feel proud, loved, whole, or complete.
I know these future moments that I’m afraid of not being able to live are totally made up in my head and don’t actually exist. I understand the only real moment that exists is the present moment. It’s the only moment that I can experience, see, smell, and touch. And, I know it’s totally crazy to fear something that only exists in my head. And yet, there it was, fear, lurking beneath my thoughts, a nagging reminder that I’m not yet complete. I guess knowing to let go is one thing, but for it to actually happen is quite another.
I took comfort in two things I learned from the meditation teacher at the retreat. The first is the idea we are all already complete and I didn’t have to do anything more to be complete. I don’t think that means there isn’t room for growth though. Suzuki Roshi said, “Each of you is perfect the way you are … and you can use a little improvement.” The second is a poem by Safire Rose titled “She Let Go.” It’s a tribute to letting go and has given me trust that I’ll be able to let go, and that it’ll happen without effort and without fanfare.
I leave you with a note I wrote to myself on the last day of the retreat about letting go.