Retreating from America
How a mediation and yoga retreat helped me cope with the election
Less than 24 hours into my weekend yoga retreat, the caffeine withdrawal headaches began. I’d come to an ashram in the Catskill Mountains to center myself and take a break from what was becoming a hectic and unhealthy lifestyle and, quite frankly, because due to a change in my company’s vacation policy, I suddenly had a few extra days off to use up but not a lot of money to spend or energy to spare. I picked a modest weekend retreat a few hours outside of New York City, packed my bags and made my way upstate earlier this month, expecting to experience some peace and quiet. As it turned out, I got much more than I bargained for.
A retreat was something I’d been thinking about for a few years, but somehow never seemed able to find the time until now. The thought of having an entire day (or four!) free of emails, work, media and distraction was attractive, especially given the promise of twice-daily yoga classes and a chance to try meditation in a structured way. Part of my hesitation was perhaps that the structure began with a wake up call at 5:30 am via the huge bell beneath our windows before a morning satsang — silent meditation followed by a reading, discussion, and prayer. Those of you who know me are familiar with my grouchy morning behavior; until I’ve had a hot shower and coffee, it’s best not to attempt anything too difficult like conversation or thinking. So on the first day as I stood in the 28 degree weather in the dark on the first morning waiting for a 6 am silent meditation hike to start, I wondered if I’d made a huge mistake. There was not only no coffee here, but no alcohol, meat, fish, eggs, dairy or sugar either.
I knew about the schedule and most of the restrictions going in, which were meant to prime our bodies to be receptive to meditation, relaxation and introspection. (The no-caffeine and no-sugar rules were a rude surprise. I’m not ashamed to say I ducked out one day to get tea and granola bars.) And while I doubted how enjoyable any experience that started at 5:30 am could be, I thought it wouldn’t be so tough since I’d been getting up early most days to work out. This workout would just be half an hour earlier, and quieter. I envisioned something like a convent full of women silently going about their duties praying, meditating and becoming closer to nature and themselves at the same time.
It wasn’t far from the truth: a woman in her sixties was the only other guest for most of the time I was there, and the other dozen or so seemed to have come to work and stay long term at the ashram, from as nearby as upstate New York and as far away as Israel. The main building housed a temple, yoga studio, kitchen, office and small store, and was perched at the top of nearly 80 acres of land with ponds, hiking trails, gardens and two other temples. Guests stayed in a dormitory nearby, with the wake-up bell conveniently located beneath our windows. (Thanks for that.) Other buildings contained staff housing, greenhouses, a sauna and space for larger gatherings, and this was all located on top of one of the highest mountains in the Catskills, with incredible views of the fall foliage and the purple mountain ranges beyond.
The location and timing couldn’t have been better: the retreat began just before a momentous week, the Presidential election that pitted Hillary Clinton against an orange Cheeto. I’d arrived on Sunday, taking a yoga class and participating in the first evening satsang. I must have been feeling particularly anxious about political unrest and a future led by Donald Trump, because as they asked us to choose a mantra for the week I immediately thought: “I breathe in calm, I breathe out peace.” Those words, along with twice-daily meditation and ten hours of yoga over four days, kept me centered and grounded for the next few days of turmoil. It was quite a strange experience to know about the anxiety and anger coursing through the country around us, given that we were in a digital detox as well — cell phones and internet use were strictly forbidden in public areas. We lived in an oasis of calm, our news coming verbally and sporadically from the few of us who had cell phone service and even then, only in furtive glances at our phones back in the dorms. It wasn’t that we weren’t interested in the news and the election, but that we didn’t let it rule our entire existence. Those first few days were a lesson in fortitude and balance that I won’t soon forget.
One morning as dawn broke over the mountains, we took a long meditation hike together while thinking about our mantras and crunching over frozen grass and leaves. The experience of silently walking and really paying attention to nature while fending off intrusive thoughts and attempting to free ourselves from attachment and emotion was liberating, and something I wish I could do daily. I’m sure it’s not quite the same in New York City, where even our parks are crowded and noisy. But the idea of “forest bathing” is something that’s been practiced in Asia for centuries, enabling the power of communing with nature to offset the stress and worry of our busy lives. And it’s something I’m going to do more whenever we’re in the country again or I can find a little pocket of greenery and quiet.
The satsang was powerful as well. I can’t say that I could comfortably sit cross-legged on the floor for half an hour at a time (still working on that hip flexibility), but morning and evening meditation helped calm my anxiety in a way that exercise and self-medication never could. It really was as simple as dedicating the time, sitting quietly in a comfortable position, and breathing in and out while repeating your mantra in your head. Thoughts would come, and worry would beckon, but I tried to envision them as passing clouds in the sky rather than heavy blankets weighing me down. All of my previous reading about Zen Buddhism came back to coalesce with my new mentors, and we talked at length about how attachment to this world — to emotion, pain, desire, things, experiences — ultimately was the root of our sorrow. We talked about energy and chi, we learned breathing techniques to clear the channels of our nervous systems and better connect our right brain with our left brain. We read books and wrote in journals, and we napped when we were tired. We helped out in service of karma, and we attended one (or both) of the daily 2-hour yoga classes in addition to a daily workshop to learn more about yogic beliefs and principles: proper exercise, proper breathing, proper relaxation, proper diet, and positive thinking and meditation.
At the end of three days, my heart felt open and calm in a way it hadn’t in years. My shoulders had dropped down to a normal height rather than being scrunched up around my ears from stress, and I’d taken real time to unwind from stress and anxiety, and to reflect on life’s purpose. I was feeling really calm and positive, and only a little bit anxious, as I checked the election night returns on my phone and called my husband before going to bed early; I’d considered staying up to find out the results, but figured my anxiety would keep me awake all night if I kept up in real time. We wished each other good night and I turned in thinking that whatever happened, I would approach it with calm and peace. It wasn’t easy, and as I lay awake for the next hour or so, I began to calmly list the countries to which we could move if Hillary lost.
And then, I woke up on November 9th to this shit show. It was still 5:30 am. I was in an ashram filled with calm and lovely people. I looked at the headline on the New York Times app, shut off my phone and went to the morning satsang. I tried to meditate and couldn’t, not without continually returning to what a fucked-up world we live in. The problem with being compassionate and loving toward humanity is just that — my heart was so open it was breaking with sorrow. I thought about our sisters and daughters, who would be stunned to learn today that the country would rather elect a racist misogynist cartoon of a man than an immensely capable, certainly flawed yet incredible woman. I thought about our friends and neighbors in a country filled with racism and hate, and what their lives might become in the weeks and months and years to pass. And I began to cry.
It was another few hours before I would leave the retreat, open up my social feeds, read the coverage of the returns, and begin to digest what had happened and how people were feeling. One colleague in New York told of being spat on as she went to work, and being told “I could deny you service if I wanted to.” Others told stories of depression and sorrow, and being afraid to leave their dorms and houses for fear of the backlash against minorities. As I drove home, I thought about how far we had come, and all those who fought for our equality before us. I marveled at how the screwed-up politics of America led us here, and struggled to understand why these were indeed the best candidates our country had to offer. And I thought about how differently we each interpreted the situation and the solution, how media and social shaped our opinions, and what a spiral it all had become.
The truth is, no matter what our political affiliation or what we think of the results and the road ahead, we are all suffering.
We are all attached to an idea, and ideology, an experience or simply a story. We are all living in our own bubbles, more so now than at any point in my generation’s lifetime. While we grew up with access to television, newspapers, radio and magazines, we still relied on our human networks to interpret the world and shape our opinions. Yes, we were insulated from global problems and alternative viewpoints, but we also knew that the media we consumed and the people we knew defined what we knew about the world. Now we have the luxury of connecting to anyone, anywhere and anything in the world, and it gives us a false sense of understanding: just because I can find out what’s going on in the Philippines doesn’t mean I actually do — and even if I do, my understanding is affected by the source. That source is determined in large part by social and digital algorithms based on my past and present behavior and connections. In other words: the more the system tries to help us find what we want, the more we find what we expect. It’s incumbent upon all of us to strive for more balanced information and to seek differing opinions proactively in order to holistically understand the world.
In the days since the election, we’ve all done a lot of soul-searching about how we got to where we are, and whether this is the kind of world we want to live in. If it isn’t, I would encourage you to take action for what you truly believe in — personally, publicly and professionally. And if it is, I would encourage you to think about why you feel so and how we are each shaped by those around us.
Personally, I’m still trying to hang onto a sliver of the peace and calm I felt when I was at the retreat, make sense of life in this new context, and think hard about some big decisions ahead. I don’t think I’ll be able to practice yoga for four hours a day and meditate for hours on end — not until we retire and move to the country, anyway. But I’m glad I had the time to do it now, and I hope to be able to nourish my soul again in much the same way, someday.
If there’s one benefit I could pass along from this experience, it’s this: Take a few minutes each day to find your center. Make time for thoughtfulness and introspection, so that you can face the world with compassion in your heart, energy in your mind, and wisdom in your soul. It will help us be open-minded, learn from our differences, and embrace one another as we all strive for peace.