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I didn’t want to write about my seven-day silent meditation retreat. It’s too soon. I am still trying to unpack what happened last week.

But I have nothing else to publish. No jazzy posts about travel, adventure, or cats who wear hats. I do have people who are curious about what happened and perhaps this will help me figure out what happened too.

Keep Calm & Drive On

For the love of all things bright and shiny, don’t drive across Wyoming in winter.

I live in Montana and the retreat is in Colorado. I thought about flying briefly, but the site is far from the airport. Along with a plane ticket, I would need a rental car too which would have cost more than the retreat itself.

Instead, I decided to drive.

The day I left, the roads were fine until I got to Wyoming which is when the road turned a bit icy. I spent the night in Buffalo but had to continue through a new landscape dominated by ice, snow, and wind.

I felt the pull of nervous nauseousness as my mind raced to show me all the things that could go wrong….

End up in a ditch! It said. 

Get upset and wrecked! It murmured. 

You’ll meet crazies who want to feed you their newest version of a goat cheese smoothie! It suggested.

When given the opportunity, my mind will happily belch images of doom and gloom. Darius Foroux calls it, “The idiot that lives inside everyone’s head.”

Throughout the years, I realized that if I do something with that energy, I can quiet down the mental snowstorm of doubt, fear, and extreme unhelpfulness.

I can turn angst into action.

So, before my frozen fortitude could get swept away in another goat smoothie saga, I got in my car and drove.

Orientate & Meditate

The six-hour jaunt turned into an eight-hour gauntlet of personal fortitude.

My hands would go numb from gripping the steering wheel, but I made it in time for dinner which was all that mattered. After dinner, we were introduced to the routine and guidelines of the silent meditation retreat.

Twenty participants decided to commit to the retreat with a wide age range (20-60 years young) and experience from those who never experienced a retreat and have little experience with mediating (yours truly!) to people who have gone to multiple retreats.

Initially, we shared what brought us to the retreat and it varied widely from high aspirations to meager expectations. It was surprising, fascinating, and humbling to hear what brings 20 people to the boonies of Colorado for a silent meditation retreat during a pandemic.

After we shared our tentative hopes, our instructor told us the suggested guidelines and said, abandon all hope.

Yep.

Along with not speaking for seven days, everything else was cut. Cell phone service was already nonexistent, but we were encouraged to avoid the internet. Along with no reading, journaling, and eye contact.

Yep.

At first, I was surprised at the sheer breadth that was stripped away. Having no service or internet is fine. I go backcountry camping with Mr. BuLL, so that is expected if not embraced. But no reading or journaling?

Can I even claim my humanity anymore?

I felt the sour taste of anger spew up as I thought about rejecting the guidelines, but it quickly simmered. Why push against their suggestions? I’m here for seven days. In the span of a lifetime, what is that?

Winter storms in Windyoming last longer than that.

Routine Fiend

After the initial shock of the new normal, I settled into a routine.

Wake up. Meditate. Eat. Meditated. Eat. Nap. Meditate. Eat. Mediate. Sleep.

Per day, I was meditating for eight hours. Before this silent meditation retreat, my longest stint was 45 minutes.

But meditation came in different forms. Meditation happened in 30-45-minute sessions, which varied between sitting, walking, and stretching. Even with food, we were encouraged to eat mindfully.

Normally, I finish a meal in 15 minutes. In mindful mode, I was clocking in at 30. 

There was no point in rushing. Where was I to go? Back to sleep? More sitting meditation? My movements began to slow down like someone pressed the slow button. Each moment began to be distinct and pronounced instead of blurring together in a series of haphazard events. 

Insight & Delight

All distractions were stripped away. No social media, emails, or bank accounts to get lost in. No people to converse with and no books to explore.

When everything is stripped away, what do you do?

I walked, slept, and washed dishes.

The property was at 8,000 feet with 8,000 glorious views in every direction. Walking the trails felt mandatory, especially after so much sitting. As a ranger, who is used to consistent movement, my body rejected the long sitting sessions, and my hips and legs would ache in protest.

I took naps during our long lunch break and it was glorious to have space for naps. My emotions and thoughts weren’t so extreme when cushioned with nap time.

We were offered a volunteer opportunity to wash dishes.

I didn’t want to wash dishes. I do plenty at home.

But, my reluctance is why I put my name on the list twice and why I ended up washing dishes for an hour instead of the suggested half hour.

I do have a greater appreciation for washing a few dishes for a party of two versus hundreds for thirty.

Piercing Pain

On the second full day, the world upended and I had a migraine.

I haven’t had a migraine in years and I didn’t realize what was happening.

I thought I was coming down with Covid and I fumed at the thought of having to leave the mountain. Two people had already dropped out for sickness and death of a family member.

I refused to let that be my story.

Instead, I writhed in agony. Every movement caused my heart to send extra blood to my brain. The pounding felt like it was trying to tear my skull apart. Then nauseousness started as a small wave but soon built into a consuming typhoon and I mentally searched for the nearest trash can.

Everyone would have understood if I walked away.

Instead, I stayed.

Leaving felt worse than staying. With everyone breathing and moving through yoga poses, I thought if I could survive this moment, I would be okay.

Once the yoga was over and we braked for lunch, I approached the instructor. We went to a quiet room where I told her what was happening. At that point, I felt exhausted. Trying to contain that much pain is draining. I desperately wanted to lie down in darkness and let sleep soothe my pain-riddled mind.

Instead, my instructor said someone would bring aspirin during lunch.

I almost cried.

Food? I almost threw up a few minutes ago.

Instead, I nodded and walked to the dining hall.

Luckily, the food was fabulous. The menu varied daily, but each dish was delish and easy to relish, especially when I wasn’t cooking it.

By the time I finished, still no pills. I went back to my room and planned to sleep before the next round of pain or meditation. But pills were sitting on my bed. The best that could be found at 8,000 feet was low-dose aspirin.

I cried.

My roommate came in. She broke her silence to ask if I was okay and if she could help with anything.

I thanked her and said I had what I needed.

Then, I cried again.

Sobbing is probably what triggered the migraine with the extra heaping of stressful Windyoming, 8,000 feet of elevation, and dehydration.

I swallowed my pills and slipped off to dreamland, where I was tucked in by the love of so many strangers who worked so hard to alleviate my pain. I couldn’t help but feel gratitude for the outpouring of kindness during my darkness.

Naps Make Everything Better

Somewhere between scrolling Twitter and reading self-help books, I forgot how healing sleep is.

After my nap and pills, I woke up pain-free and it felt magical.

Whenever I felt the small beginnings of pain, I used my tiny pills of low-dose love to silence any workings of revolt. I didn’t want it to build into another excruciating rebellion.

If I was leaving the mountain, it would be because I was ready or if they asked politely but firmly.

Silent Meditation Retreat Conclusion

For the rest of the week, my mind drifted from euphoric highs to spiraling lows. Emotions and thoughts change depending on the moment. Instead of trying to change its course, I learned to watch it instead of ride it.

Pitching thoughts and feelings don’t have to be my thoughts and feelings. I have a choice.

It felt better to watch the gut-wrenching emotions from the sidelines like a thoughtful parent than spew a cotton-candy-corndog after one too many spins and swirls.

Am I glad I did it?

Yes.

I learned more about myself than I anticipated. I experienced a simplicity that is only rivaled by monks and their fancy outfits.

Life is simple at the top of the mountain at a silent meditation retreat.

But, that is not my life. With all the crests and crashes, I had to go home.

There were more tears, but it wasn’t just me crying. Even in silence, everyone felt the strong support of a community that sat and breathed together through pain and pleasure.

A silent community is still a community.

Now, I’m left with trying to fuse these experiences and skills into a noisier, busier life. I don’t know how I’m going to do it or even if I can, but I’m going to try, one slow breath at a time.

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