I was very fortunate to be able to attend a 7-day, teacher lead, silent mindfulness retreat at Shambhala Mountain Center in Colorado last week partly to “check a box” for MBSR teacher certification. (More about that teacher pathway HERE. I’m in certification level 3.) But there’s also a very deep personal connection to this type of training, because integrating mindfulness is not performed in a vacuum or can be compartmentalized, it’s impossible to practice mindfulness only with friends, family, or only at work. It’s an emanant, all-pervasive way of living, on purpose, authentically, as if it really mattered, because it does. I had the most spiritual experience I’ve probably ever had, so it will hold a special place in my heart.
As I reflect, I experientially learned a few things that I’ll summarize below. One of my teachers, Sandy Eimers, of Balance Yoga Lounge, explained during a training that experiential learning is like this, “There is shallow and wide types of learning in this way, then there is deep and narrow learning.” I go DEEP in silent retreats, deep into my psyche, troubled emotions, pain, habitual patterns of thought. The first time (My 10-day retreat, journaled about HERE.) it scared me, a lot. I didn’t know what to do with all of it. This retreat was my 4th long one in the last 5 years, so I nervously knew a bit what to expect…I cry very easily, some of the time I’m not sure why, and I get very sensitive, honest and raw when I stop the incessant chatter of words and recycled thoughts. Which makes me wonder, by the way, what if this is what my true nature should be in daily life, when I take down the armor that I keep up in my “normal” living, and only take down when I know the company I’m in is safe?
We lived the Four Foundations of Mindfulness last week: (1. Mindfulness of the Body, 2. Mindfulness of Emotions and feeling tones, 3. Mindfulness of Mind and Thoughts, and 4. Mindfulness of Sense Perceptions (the five senses.) The teachers called this practice a “decending” into the body, a “waking down” into the body instead of up into the mind; we’re always living ahead of where we actually are living, up inside our thoughts and emotions mostly.
I learned to “be with” myself even more fully, keep myself in my own good company, no abandoning. Being patient with my suffering as if I would hold space for a dear friend. I learned even more expansively, that I (and all beings) are innately good, deserving and whole…”original worthiness” Jon Kabat Zinn says. This practice is a falling back in love with our whole selves, even the ugly parts that we don’t want seen.
One of the leaders described meditation and taking care of yourself is like a “gentle discipline, it requires full involvement, like caring for a child.” Sometimes we are like infants when it comes to skillfully and compassionately working with and through emotions. She urged to get more familiar with the texture of feeling tones, similar to how we feel a flower petal, or a leaf….this doesn’t require the cognitive mind, we sense and simply know it. Intentionally dropping the “story of me” and all the “why’s” – Why am I crying? Why do I feel joy that’s laced with sadness?…That’s the rabbit hole, I probably will never know, so gently touching the texture of it, then creating space to allow it to move through.
Fear of Loving Too Much
What stuck a nerve and very tender spot was when the teacher mentioned fear; specifically fear of loving someone “too much”, with your whole being, pure, unconditional (as opposed to conditional, thinking “I’ll only love you if ____.” ). It reminded me how vulnerable I am with how much I love my own kids. There’s a deep rooted vulnerability and fear that it could be taken away, so how much am I protecting myself from pure love? We practiced Loving Kindness meditation toward the end of the week, and my heart just about exploded when I brought to mind my kiddos. <3 Literally, I physically felt like love punched me in the gut. It was awesomely bizarre.
“Just enjoy yourself.”
There was plenty of reinforcement to not take things so seriously and simply enjoy yourself; have a good time! I have a tendency to bring a lot of striving and seriousness to my meditation practice, and most of it is really just not trying so hard. That’s a piece of why this is so special to me, I already have it in me, there’s nothing to manage, get or achieve. The best way to this is gentleness and friendliness. So many times, I found myself smiling or laughing at myself or how our group might look from an outside person, people’s funny walks during walking meditation, how deer, rabbits, chipmonks, had no fear of us. The land there felt sacred, wild, and safe. I crunched puddles with my boots in the morning that turned to ice, like when I was a kid. I smelled fir trees – vanilla, pipe tobacco scent. We were at 8,000 feet altitude in the middle of nowhere, so the stars were breathtaking at night, I’d stare up at the clear night sky in absolute awe, I could see the Milky Way (which I can never see at home because of light pollution.) It made me feel both insignificant and precious all at once. My first silent lunch (food was AMAZING) I sat down at my seat, admired my food and enjoyed an IMMENSE sense of gratitude for the people that made that meal possible, food seems to be part of my spirituality, it felt like a warm hug…then looked up and there was a gorgeous mountain outside the window. It immediately moved me to tears. So many moments, I would be blown away and overwhelmed by feelings of awe, joy, gratitude, love, interconnectedness, totally blindsided by the beauty that is right in front of me…so much deeper than at home. There’s so much to learn….
“Let Peace Be Your Compass”
I met a beautiful soul on the shuttle to the retreat center. She’s my age and wise beyond her years. We have much in common and connected immediately. (So interesting how total strangers can become so attuned during silent retreats, we do get to know one another through non-doing and the non-verbal.) She told me a story about how she went up to the Stupa (a sacred Buddhist temple) and asked the Buddha how she can be of service or what does she have to heal from. Immediately, “Let peace be your compass.” came into her awareness. Later, she was reading a spiritual text, and plain as day, the words jumped out at her…”Let peace be the way.” After hearing her story, I immediately got goosebumps. She talked about learning how to “shift into neutral” when life gets hard, so she has a space to respond more wisely and peacefully. If peace is really what I want most in life, I can and will choose peace in responding to anything in life, even when people or situations are aggressive, triggering, angry, annoyed. There is a space to be cultivated and honored before responding to let peace be the way. Another truth nugget: One of the teachers explained, “Every moment of your life, you’re either telling the world you’re OK or not OK.” Simple and yet so true.
A new-to-me-poem I heard last week, titled, “Bluebird“. I love the last two lines…”but I don’t weep, do you?”
For me, most importantly, retreats are teaching me how to live more peacefully and kindly with myself and others. Going on retreat is one of the most radically kind and sane things I do for myself and others around me. The other beings with me on retreat are also on their own journeys full of joy and heartache, fear and loss, bliss and longing; we’re all on this journey together and will experience terrifying highs and lows; why not choose kindness? What you practice, you become.
Allison Peet, RYT200 is a qualified MBSR™ (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) Instructor trained at UMass Center for Mindfulness, founded by Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, and the Mindfulness Center at Brown University. She is trained through Mindful Schools and teaches mindfulness to youth, K-12 and is also a certified yoga instructor. She’s completed multiple week-long silent meditation retreats and has a daily practice. Allison has a personal path of living and working with chronic stress and anxiety which is why she started her own business in 2015, From Within Wellness, LLC, to benefit others. She is committed to creating a more mindful community by helping people develop pragmatic life skills in attentional strength, present moment awareness, self-compassion, and stress resiliency.
To read more journal entries, click HERE