This is an older essay that I wrote. If you read the Pivotal Moments Series then you will recognize some of it from the chapter Please pass the chisel. I want to share some of the more intimate details of the experience. It’s a little longer than most posts. I hope you enjoy it.
I have had my dream--like others-- And it has come to nothing, so that I remain now carelessly With feet planted on the ground, And look up at the sky-- Feeling my clothes about me, The weight of my body in my shoes, The rim of my hat, air passing in and out At my nose--and decide to dream no more. -Thursday, William Carlos Williams
I had been meditating for five years and was ready to elevate with a retreat. As I explored options, I struggled to find something that suited me; shared rooms – no; vegetarian cuisine – no. Offers appeared in my email and excuses appeared in my mind – until one night. I was lying in bed, sobbing over the pressure cooker of my life, which extended to my inability to get away. Somewhere within the cyclone of self pity came a moment of clarity – the only thing impeding my path was me. A week later my trip was booked.
I pulled into the retreat center on a misty Wednesday in June. I exchanged my urban commotion for the stillness of glistening, manicured acres. On the path ahead was a quaint, white house with a rocking chair on the porch, just as described in the directions. To the right of the house was a bountiful vegetable garden from which our meals would be harvested. No one was there to greet me, the only signs of life came from the wild. Entering the house I found a hand drawn map that pointed me in the direction of my assigned cabin.
Pausing on the threshold, I instantly craved my apartment back in Brooklyn. The dorm consisted of a naked, twin bed next to a night table with a lamp and a paper cup on it, and a chair in the corner. At the foot of the bed was a narrow chest of drawers and the open window above it was covered with dated floral curtains. After covering the bed with sheets and a coarse blanket I sat down to ease my tension. Yearning for familiar contact, I reached for my phone naively thinking I would be special enough to have service. Replacing it, I took a deep breath and ventured out.
Thirteen of us gathered in the meditation center. The octogonal space was enclosed with glass windows and doors affording us an extensive view of the lush environment and the ambient notes of birds and a nearby waterfall. Black mats were placed on the polished wood floor and topped with multicolored meditation cushions. A small altar held crystals in various colors and shapes and in front of that altar was James, our instructor for the next five days.
I first learned about James on a podcast. Following college, he had traveled to Burma where he spent six months living as a Buddhist monk, studying under a strict teacher and meditating for fourteen hours a day. Upon returning to the States he continued his development by acquiring multiple meditation based certifications and an advanced degree in Positive Psychology. He welcomed us with a youthful, radiant expression and prepared us for a journey with an open ended destination. Our intention for the week, “deep presence … this is not about transcendence, but embodiment.” I found this peculiar as many schools of meditation discuss enlightenment, I had yet to hear anyone reference embodiment.
As introductions were made, the disclosure that followed left me wondering, Did I sign up for five days of group therapy? Infertility; drug and alcohol abuse; domestic violence; veiled homosexuality; and trauma, so much trauma. Despite my concern, something curious stirred inside of me.
Our daily practice began at 7:30am and continued until 9:30pm with meal breaks, announced with an old-fashioned dinner bell, ranging from one to two hours. The early days were gentle, yet revealing in unexpected ways. With a steady rain falling on our glass house, we indulged in long meditations that prepared us to be open before entering into journal exercises designed to unravel our unconscious inclinations and reveal our wounds. What do I like and dislike about myself? What would it say about me if I didn’t have it altogether? I was no stranger to journaling. Five years earlier I had learned to put all my bitching onto the page so while these exercises were pleasant, they were unremarkable for me. However, as we discussed our findings we recognized that despite our differences, we all desired the same things from life; this established mutual trust. As the self imposed blinders fell away, tears often followed. My heart extended to my comrades and they enjoyed watching my resolve weaken, spoke openly about my impending break through, but I wasn’t convinced it was coming.
While the birds indulged in morning chatter, we were confined to the inner voice. Under the canopy of an outdoor swing, I confided in my journal, I can’t share my feelings and allow vulnerability, but the itinerary for the week opposed my plan. That afternoon’s exercise consisted of maintaining eye contact with someone while James reminded us of our shared humanity. I was partnered with Abby, a fun loving, blue eyed blonde who I had much in common. For ninety seconds I struggled under the blindness of anxiety before ending the exercise with a barrage of sounds signaling my relief. The reason for my difficulty was puzzling, but no less real.
After two days, the rain finally gave way to sunshine. While the sunlight helped to lift the mood, it seemed like our practice was taking its lead from the temperature. We were introduced to the “Birthday Circle” in which someone volunteered to be the object of meditation for the rest of the group. HELL NO! I thought, just as Suzie volunteered to go first. Suzie was unsure about what she was seeking from retreat. She was the quintessential American girl who had it all; young, beautiful, successful career, loving marriage, but she spent hours in meditation trying to find contentment. She sat in the middle of the room with James opposite her and the rest of us seated in a half moon behind him. After a brief moment of centering, all eyes were on Suzie. We voiced what we noticed about her; warm brown eyes; ponytail; white tank top. We moved into what we were feeling in our bodies; tingling in my belly; warmth in my chest; and finally what we imagined Suzie to be experiencing, I imagine it must be awkward to be the center of attention; I wonder how you are feeling right now. The goal of the exercise is to see and be seen beyond the superficial. Occasionally James would pause the exchange to work with the person more intimately, gently teasing out personal realizations while the rest of us looked on. I marveled as each participant volunteered to be cracked open and tended to, eventually shedding their camouflage to reveal their purest, unblemished radiance.
Only my journal was privy to my envy: I’m disappointed in my fear. What’s the use of exploring if you refuse to see, feel or touch the treasures?
The following morning I sat down to breakfast in a spot that overlooked the Taconic stream while the others were gathered at a table behind me. Tara motioned for me to join them, but I refused, I wanted to watch the water. She silently placed her tray beside mine. As I sat there trying to eat I was shaken by the abrupt awareness that by choosing this spot, I had literally turned my back on my new friends. Is this who I am? Do I unconsciously reject connection? Pushing my plate away I folded in upon myself attempting to contain the turmoil caused by this realization. Control was futile so I opted for something new and unleashed a deluge of regret on Tara’s shoulder. Several others joined the embrace in what would be the first of many group hugs.
Later that afternoon, I went for a walk. Basking in the sunshine, I felt so much gratitude for the natural beauty of my surroundings. I paused on the footbridge to watch the continuous caress of water on rocks, listened to its melody while feeling the sun on my face. Moving deeper into the woods, I came upon a small vacant cabin on a hillside. From inside I watched the sun and wind dance among the trees and giggled as the insects pranced along the window trying to get to me. I thought of my friends back home and experienced a glow that rippled throughout my body. I found the physical sensation surprising, but not unpleasant so I let the tears flow freely, luxuriating in emotion.
In the middle of the retreat we each had a private meeting with James to check in. He wasn’t aware of what had happened at the breakfast table, but was happy that my edges were softening. “Your wall and the part of you that wants to be free from it are in conflict, but the wall has served an important purpose so should be shown some gratitude. So often we push away what we don’t want, but it is only by opening to it that we start to heal. Bring the wall into your practice.”
The welcomed sunshine from the day prior intensified the temperature to blistering. We were advised on how to survive an expected heat index of 106 degrees without the typical devices. Some cooled off in the swimming hole and a few escaped to their cars for some sorely missed air conditioning. I sat on the screened porch and contemplated James’ advice and the shackles of isolation that I imposed upon my life. What he said was true. The strength of my wall had provided support during traumatic events, but now it was impeding my ability to connect with others. Aware that time on retreat was running out, I decided that the only way I would evolve was through discomfort.
The others cheered when I volunteered for a Birthday Circle. Their exuberance was as palpable as my fear.
How can I put into words the most intimate experience of my life?
I notice you pulled your bangs back that were giving you so much trouble yesterday.
Confronting twelve pairs of eyes who were looking at me with the intention of seeing through my veneer.
I admire your strength.
Apparently it is also my weakness
I am so ready to receive you.
Squirming in discomfort from the unwavering focus.
The one thing I’ll ask is that we stay in connection and notice the ways that we want to turn away.
Navigating uncharted territory in a spotlight.
I wonder if you’ve considered that there is nothing wrong with how you are?
I wonder if you’ve considered making yourself a priority to yourself?
Trying to verbalize my physical feelings while meeting James’ persistent gaze.
Do you feel the wall? What does it feel like?
I can’t feel and talk with my eyes open.
That’s okay, say what you can, take your time.
It feels like a giant twisted knot.
No escaping the vulnerability, any effort at deflection, is deflected.
Don’t you blink man!
Stay with me and stay with the feeling of what is there. See if you can feel that you are my only priority right now.
That makes me twitch.
Until the only option is surrender.
I feel like the muscles in your face are softening. How does it feel to let go?
The only way to describe it is effervescent.
To embrace the discomfort.
As you’re looking at me, can you say in your own mind, I deserve to be seen? It’s easier than you thought it would be, isn’t it?
To embrace growth.
I feel like I’m seeing more of you, are you letting more of me in?
I feel like the physical sensations that I’m feeling in my head right now are mind blowing. I think my mind is blown.
And make space for the bliss that follows.
I’m not sure I’ve ever felt joy before this week. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt love either, before this week.
My only priority is your joy. What do you feel in your body?
So euphoric that it seems an apparition.
It’s really good to see you.
I feel otherworldly like you and I are all spirit and less human.
Sitting in a ring of sunshine I had never felt so alive.
I understand why they call it a birthday circle.
What I facetiously refer to as the exorcism, lasted more than an hour. As the others went for a break, I opted for the nearest mat, laid down with my hands on my belly, and breathed.
I pulled out of the retreat center with bittersweet emotion. I was nervous to leave this place, these people who had shown me more love and support than I had ever experienced, but I was excited to reinvest in my life. As I drove along, appreciating the lush beauty of upstate New York, I couldn’t help feeling connected to the greenery on the side of the road, blooming in the sunshine. I smiled, got choked up, and giggled as significant moments from the week were flashing by:
It’s like a weight has been lifted off your shoulders.
I am honored to be part of your community.
I rode a bike today!
You’re like a teenager!
The song on the radio mirrored my emotions so I sang with more passion than ever as tears streamed down my face.
The five days I spent on retreat changed me. Countless hours of meditation, fresh, organic (vegetarian!) food and plenty of restful sleep nurtured my body into vitality. The time and space to withdraw from perpetual distractions so prominent in modern society, enabled me to settle out of a mind in flux and explore the vibrance of physical life. Twelve people who patiently encouraged me while I gingerly removed bricks from my wall and learned to return their gaze and accept their love, truly awakened me. Some day in the future I will receive a letter from a self that was drunk on this radiance; I can’t wait to be reunited.
*All names have been changed for privacy