It’s always strange being asked where I’ll be going for my two week Christmas holiday, because these past few years it’s always been, “On a meditation retreat.”
This response can invoke an inquisitive look, although these days most people I meet know someone who has done something similar. Still, they often have trouble imagining doing such a thing themselves. For many, two weeks of silence would seem torturous. (See our recent blog, “Why You Shouldn’t Be Scared to Do A Personal Retreat“). Yet, time in silence brings a level of peace you can’t imagine if you haven’t done it.
Expect to Rest for the First Few Days
During my most recent December retreat I decided to turn up the comfort a notch and stay alone in one of Clear Sky’s personal meditation cabins, instead of sharing a room. Overlooking the Kootenay River valley, the cabins are heated by a small stove and a propane heater. Being winter, I brought three extra quilts to keep me warm when the fire went out at night.
All in all, the experience of the first few nights was what one would expect; a welcome change from the busy work routine, a chance to unwind in a tranquil setting, and a way to break strong habitual patterns for a while. There was plenty of opportunity to go for walks through the winter scenery, review notes from class, and enjoy a tea or coffee in the lodge. It feels wonderfully refreshing to have few worries and yet it takes time to wean ourselves away from our usual distractions, such as the urge to Google or check for new messages.
Patterns Emerge From the Silence
Several days into the retreat, however, things started to change for me. My busy mind had slowed down, and I felt more rested.
Yet, free from some of the exhaustion that usually surrounds my ‘to-do’ lists, I started to think about some of the things I wanted to do out in the world. Here’s where the willpower comes in to stick to the task at hand, meditating.
You know, it turns out meditation can be difficult! It takes practice, and for many of us who haven’t grown up in a culture where meditation is commonplace, it’s often easier to use our energy to go do chores. With chores you can actually tell how much progress you are making. When you look at that log pile, for example, you know that it will keep residents warm for several weeks in the winter. Yet, my job was to keep bringing my mind back to the exercises and the breath.
I started to think this retreat was actually rather advanced. Was it beyond me? It was hard to wrap my mind around some of the techniques, typically done by more experienced practitioners. I would start sessions with good intentions, then get a bit discouraged. By later in the day, I couldn’t tell if I’d tried too hard and reached a point of burnout or if the novelty of the meditation retreat had just worn off, so I was seeking distraction. Self-doubt was creeping in and I was feeling a bit disoriented.
Ask and You Shall Receive
In the next class, Doug Sensei, one of our two founding teachers leading the retreat, stated, “This is the point of the retreat where you meet your monster.”
Aha! Maybe my difficulty was a normal part of the process, and other people were struggling with similar issues. It hadn’t occurred to me that what was stopping me could be my ‘monster,’ a surfacing fear or unconscious issue. In fact, it was a potential insight or breakthrough.
In that class, we were also invited to name our monster. I named mine with the phrase, “I can’t do this (no matter how hard I try)”, and a similar one, “This is a waste of time”. Some retreatants shared theirs, and in many cases their phrases were variations on the same theme.
Now at peace with the knowledge that I was not as incompetent as I had assumed, I went back to my cabin. There, it dawned on me how much of my life was actually driven by that tone of, “I can’t do this”. I haven’t always been the type to persist with a task, for example, at times giving up when faced with my own perceived lack of ability. An old wound. I went to bed with a certainty and peace of mind that whenever this thought arose from now on, I could simply name it. The monster now stood less in the shadows, and it was actually something I could face.
I remember that the remaining days seemed to flow well after this, armed with renewed confidence. I just had to do the exercises, and I didn’t even have to do them well. I just had to try, and with practice my skills would improve. Most importantly, I didn’t have to waste time self-evaluating anymore. I didn’t worry about being good or bad, or better or worse than anyone else. Those were thoughts I could choose not to entertain myself with.
As often happens a couple of days before a retreat ends, there was a pull to think about what happens next, yet I didn’t concern myself much with the passage of time. I could have continued for another three weeks and it wouldn’t have been something to ‘get through,’ or even ‘look forward to’.
This time, I’d say good states from the retreat stayed with me for six weeks. Inevitably, the “retreat feeling” subsided, yet I know I’m continuing to integrate and benefit from the insights I gained – including recognizing my self-critical monster. Yes, I see you more clearly now, my monster friend. I hear you still whispering in my ear. And now I know I can choose not to listen.
By Geoff Haynes
Edited by Andrew Rogers
More reading: Two reviews of a weekend stay in our cabins
Karen and Monica, the owner and editor of local magazine Go Kimberley each offer a description of their summer 2018 mini-retreat in this issue of the magazine. See pages 40-46.