I went to a meditation retreat over the weekend before New Years Eve. I can’t say it was relaxing and it certainly wasn’t as fun as a party. Quite the contrary, it was tough, both physically and emotionally, though rewarding on several levels. You probably aren’t interested in the deeply personal reasons why this is true, but there are some generally applicable things I learned from the retreat that might apply to your life as well. Here they are:
1. Take Care of Your Body First
This was my second retreat. On my first retreat, I was very hard core and wanted to make sure I was doing a “good” job. As such, I showed up to every sitting meditation on time, participated steadfastly in all the walking meditation, and by day 2 felt terrible and hated my existence. I didn’t consider the toll that sitting for 7 hours a day (when I was accustomed to only 20-30 minutes of daily practice) would have on my body. It wasn’t until very late in the day that I took some time to stretch and I barely made it through. This time, however, I made a point of doing a few minutes of yoga after every meal when we had longer breaks and felt so much better. In short, it is easy to forget your body because life has so many distractions but taking care of your body is often the first step to improving your mindset.
2. Slow Down, Then Slow Down Some More
Meditation is presented sometimes like magic, but the more you do it you realize it isn’t magic. It’s just practical. One of the reasons meditation can do so much for you is that it forces you to slow down. You may not think you are rushing, but try a calming practice such as mediation for a while and you’ll see the many ways in which you rush through your daily activities. This matters, not just because it can be stressful, but also because you miss things when you rush and you notice things when you slow down. My early practice helped me see that in my life in several ways, so I was under the impression at the retreat I had already slowed down. In sitting practice, however, I started to see that I was rushing even in my meditation. When I was distracted by a thought, I rushed myself to get back to the breath (my object of focus) and so didn’t fully note or understand the thought that was the distraction. As such, I was missing much of the insight that was the purpose of the practice. This showed me something: if you think you slowed down already, consider slowing down just a little bit more.
3. Sometimes It Is Good to Be Kind of Stupid
Our culture encourages us to present ourselves as intelligent people who know things, so it’s generally regarded as a bad thing when you don’t get something. But the truth is that is no fun at all. What is the fun of knowing everything? Of having, at a (relatively) young age, a firm grasp on what life is about? I would posit that it’s not nearly as fun as some would present. I’ve been meditating for 5 years now and during the retreat I realized I’ve sort of been doing it wrong for a long time. I could have been devastated by this but, maybe because I was substantially calmer than I otherwise would be in my regular life due to the retreat, I was amused and energized by it. It felt good to see what I hadn’t seen. It felt like a new challenge, a new game, a new way of seeing something. And besides, it wasn’t like the mistakes I’d made meant all the practice before that was for not. Those experiences gave me other learnings and tools. It was just time to pick up some other ones. In other words, maybe we shouldn’t fear what we don’t know so much. If we embrace it, it may help us learn what we really need to know.
4. Small Things in the Right Context Can Be Everything
The third day of the retreat was rainy—extremely rainy—all day long. This was significant because walking outside is one of the only ways that you can get much sensory stimulation during a retreat. Yes, this offers a new challenge for practice, but it makes the practice tougher. That day for lunch they had tacos. Tacos! Vegetarian tacos, of course, but tacos of any kind in my opinion are not just delicious but also fun and relaxing. You know those chapters in fantasy novels where the group travels on a long hard road and stop for a meal around a fire and things seem okay for a while? These tacos were it. They saved my life, improved my outlook, and helped me get through the day. In short, don’t underestimate the small thing because, in the right context, they can make a world of difference.
These are my great learnings: take care of your body first, slow down, don’t be afraid to be stupid (sometimes), and appreciate the power of small things. I hope they help because they meant a lot to me.