A Non-Meditator Goes On A Meditation Retreat
It ended up being one of the best decisions I could have made.
Being a millennial in the animal rights world, I often find myself surrounded by experts in mindfulness, meditation, and yoga. I have always admired these types, and the benefits of mental wellness are clear. For me, I’ve always struggled with finding the space to explore my inner self. If I wasn’t moving at 1,000 miles an hour, I might as well not be moving at all.
If I wasn’t taking on more than any one individual logically should handle, there was no point in getting out of bed in the morning. I understood the value of a positive and present headspace, yet I never made the space for myself to even try.
So, naturally, I did what any sane person would do and signed up for a meditation retreat that would take away all my electronics and force me into several days of silence.
To be transparent: this meditation retreat was something provided to me at no cost. Without question, this was the reason I was able to push myself to do it. What did I have to lose? And what could I potentially gain?
The experience took me by surprise, bringing wisdom and thought patterns that I have since incorporated into my everyday life.
I found a calm that has allowed me a stronger awareness of myself and my boundaries. It didn’t change much of my busy, over-committed life, but it gave me strategies to better cope with anxiety and made me a better activist.
On day one, we put our phones in a box and made a promise to noble silence. We were allowed to speak during specific group seminars, but mostly we remained silent. While the days were structured around meditations and lessons, there was also personal time. During these breaks, we could go for a walk or run (without music), nap, sit and ‘do nothing’ or read books related to our journeys.
Our connection was to remain with ourselves and our practice. As much as I wanted to finish the latest historical fiction novel I had started on the flight over, I obligingly tucked it into the bottom of my suitcase to save for my travel home.
All of this was very initially very uncomfortable. I talk to myself. A lot. I’ve always worked through things out loud. Apparently, I am now supposed to journal it instead? But my voice works so much faster! No social media? I could live without Facebook easily, but even a few hours without Twitter made me cringe. We can’t look at the news for four days in Donald Trump’s America? The world could end and we wouldn’t even know it!
During my stay, I didn’t make it through a single full meditation without losing my focus completely. I am told this is normal. Sometimes I honestly didn’t even try. I allowed myself to daydream (or nap), taking solstice in the fact that for once in my life, I had nothing else to do. Along the way, we were introduced to many different types and styles of meditation.
Our instructor left us with the lesson of ‘do what works.’ If meditating for 30 minutes is too much, do 20. If 20 minutes is too much, do 10. If every day is too much, do it every other day. I appreciated this; I never felt the pressure to force myself into a mental blockade of ‘I hate meditation.’ Because of this, I actually took some techniques and tips with me for the road.
The first technique is taking ten deep breaths. When life seems crazy and overwhelming, or when stress levels are high and you just need a reset, pause and take ten deep breaths. I don’t do this daily, but I do it enough that even a year later, I recognize when I need it and continue to notice a calmness and a soothing clarity wash over me when I complete number ten.
The second technique is not so much of a method as a mindset. Sometimes, you simply need to embrace the silence. I used to be someone who couldn’t leave the house without headphones or a person to chat with. Now, I often go for full runs without any noise or cook a meal in complete and total silence. It feels peaceful and undisturbed.
Because I have incorporated this into actions I would typically be scheduling into my day anyway, I can relish the quiet without the guilt or the worry. As it turns out, there are a lot of measurable benefits of incorporating small amounts of silence into life.
I also took away life lessons. No one tells you that a meditation retreat (or, at least this one) also includes discussions on dealing with some of life’s emotions. I embraced these talks. My full and well-loved notebook still receives regular visits. It was like short bursts of therapy and self-help and positive thinking training all mixed into one (disclaimer: meditation alone is not a substitute for therapy).
I left feeling more contentment in my relationship, embracing connections I did not recognize existed and re-focused on strategies to change the world. For me, this was the real benefit of retreat. I shifted my mindset and found solitude in the silence.
When I was given my phone back, I found that I didn’t actually want it. It was the night before we left, and I threw it in my backpack, not turning it on until I had to check my flight status the next morning. I didn’t go on Instagram for over a week after.
I still don’t check it as much as I once did. I unfollowed all my connections on Facebook so I no longer have a newsfeed. If I didn’t need to use the platform for work, I wouldn’t have it all. I still find myself on Twitter regularly, but sometimes I even go a full day or two without it, a significant shift from this compulsive Tweeter of early 2019.
I now recognize that talking can be exhausting, and some things just do not have to be said. I still work through a lot of things out loud, but there are also times when I journal instead. I reflect on my learnings in trying situations, and I take deep breaths when I need to.
I still don’t meditate regularly. I didn’t become a yogi, and I don’t know the first thing about crystals, herbs, or horoscopes. Simply put: I am not the person I pictured when I thought of someone who went on meditation retreats. I wasn’t that person before, and I am not that person now. However, the value provided by the experience was life-changing and unparalleled.
There is no one type of self-reflection, care, and coping. I was wrong to put people who embody holistic perfection into a category. By beginning to explore the tools that surround us, we can all find value in what suits us personally. There is no ‘right’ type of meditator; each one of us is capable of reflecting upon ourselves and opening up our minds.
I am forever indebted to this experience. The best way to grow is by getting up and trying. Given a chance, I would return without question (and even pay for it!). After all, I think we could also use a bit more connectedness these days.