When you saw the title of this blog post you probably thought here is another story of a woman in her thirties going off to some exotic place to find herself. Right? Well, not exactly. I can’t deny I have always wanted to go on one those of retreats but once I look into my bank account I realize desires and reality don’t always match up. Plus, I tend to feel I should be able to find peace and balance with where I am right now instead of running off to some island to find it (although I would not deny the opportunity if it presented itself 🙂 ).
When the local yoga studio in my community offered a “mini” meditation retreat this summer I was intrigued. I have always been interested in diving more into a mediation practice. I have tried it out here and there but nothing consistent. The yoga retreat involved seven days of one-hour meditation with a focus on the breath and a variety of meditation techniques. I thought, “Cool. Sign me up!” Then I realized it was seven days in a row at six in the morning! Did I really want to commit to getting up that early for seven days? What was I really going to learn? Why would I pay $55 to wake up that early? I decided to put it off and see how I felt on the first morning of the retreat to make my final decision.
Then low and behold, I actually got up the first morning of the retreat (not quite bright eye and bushy tail though 🙂 ) and made it to the first session. Call it luck or destiny that I made it on the first day but now I was committed.
Throughout the practice I learned various meditation techniques from a talented yoga teacher, Cheri Neal. The “mini” retreat provided me with an opportunity to jump-start my meditation practice while integrating it into my daily life. Although my meditation journey has just begun I want to share with you lessons I learned in the first week of practice. Number 5 is my personal favorite. Enjoy 🙂
Lesson #1- Mediation Does Not Make You A Better Person
I know this might come as a surprise to some (it sure was to me!). I was hopeful meditating every morning would make me a better person. But it doesn’t. Just how jogging every morning or eating healthy does not make you a better person. These are just strategies that may help improve your well-being but they do not necessarily translate into being a better person. When I began meditation I was hopeful my feelings such as fear, anger, jealousy, and frustration would disappear. But in all honesty, they didn’t. I experienced these feelings just as much, however, meditation provided me with a tool to work through these feelings throughout the day.
We are always hopeful that I new habit or routine will make us happier but I am not sure that is true. As human beings we put too much pressure on “I will feel better once I reach this goal” or “I will lose weight once I buy a treadmill.” Our happiness is always set in the future, but the future never comes. All you have is right now. Meditation is a great technique to help you ride the waves of life. Sometimes you are up and sometimes you are down. Meditation is your surfboard.
Lesson #2- Focus on the Breath
When I have read about meditation in the past I thought the goal was to “empty your mind.” I wondered, “How do people do that? I am always thinking!”
What do I need to get done today? I wonder how I sounded when I said that? What am I going eat tonight? I wonder if there are various dimensions out there (Stranger Things anyone?)? You know, the everyday stuff 🙂
Maybe Buddhist Monks are able to clear their mind completely, but for me it is not in the cards (at least not for right now). And that is okay. It is more important for me to recognize when my mind is wandering and then return to my breath.
No matter what rabbit hole I go down, I can always return to my breath to help release any tension or emotion I am feeling. My teacher encouraged me to label a thought for what it is such as “Planning. Worrying. Reminiscing. Or Sadness” and then watch the emotion float away.
A little esoteric, right? But it is useful. Most importantly, it has helped me when I am not meditating. It is easy to be calm and relaxed when you are sitting on a yoga mat in silence, but it is much harder when you are dealing with the daily commotions of life.
Although my emotions still arise, focusing on my breath has been a useful tool to help navigate these feelings.
Lesson #3- Meditation Takes Practice
We all like to perform well. I have found I tend to stick with hobbies or activities that I am naturally good at. Meditation is not one of those activities.
But guess what? Neither is running. When I first started running I could only run 5 minutes (if that!). I was embarrassed when I returned home from my run and my roommates asked, “You’re already back?” I felt defeated before I even got started. I gave up pretty quickly.
Then a year later, I decided to try running again. On a side note, it may have helped that my new roommate was a runner and encouraging. I gradually improved each week and pushed myself a little further. Did I ever run a marathon, or always set new personal records? No. But I continued to gradually improve the more time I dedicated to running. Plus, I felt better!
The same experience occurred with meditation. I tried meditating in the past but always felt like I was doing it wrong. “I am just not good at this,” I would tell myself.
Now my view of meditation has changed. I realize that meditation is just like anything else. It takes time, practice and commitment in order to improve. Meditation can be both physically and mentally uncomfortable (just like running 🙂 ). In time it will become easier and in the meantime I am at least improving my well-being (just like running).
Lesson #4- You Don’t Gain Psychic Powers
Have you ever seen Escape From Witch Mountain? It is an older movie from the 1990’s about a set of twins who exhibit psychic powers. I thought it was SO COOL and have always wanted psychic powers since then. I know it is childish, but I was secretly (now publicly) hoping to gain psychic powers with meditation. I figured I was getting in tune with my inner-self so maybe I would tap into my intuition powers and begin predicting the future. Why not, right?
Well that didn’t work.
On the last day of class, our teacher made us draw a number from her hands without looking. Based on the numbers we were given, we were paired up with another individual in the class to participate in a compassion ceremony referred to as a Baci Ceremony. In this practice, the teamed pair entered into the inner circle, surrounded by candles and other participants. We were encouraged to send signals of compassion and love to this person that we did not know. I have to admit I was pretty uncomfortable and nervous. Pretty hippy dippy, right? Gotta love it 🙂
While the other participants went ahead of me, I began channeling my inner-intuition and scanned the room for the person I felt a connection with. I narrowed it down to two women. I was convinced that one of these women was going to be my partner. I could feel it in my bones. When she called my number I got up and expected one of these women to join me in the inner circle. But they didn’t.
Instead a man with a handle-bar mustache and grey hair stood up and smiled. Boy, was I way off! I began to feel out of my comfort zone and a little awkward. All I could do was display a nervous smile. We sat down in the middle of the circle and looked into each other’s eyes. For as much as I wanted to continue keeping my eyes open I had to shut them because I felt too uncomfortable. Looking back I wish I kept them open to learn more from the experience. At the end of our meditation session he tied a simple friendship bracelet around my wrist and I returned the gesture. We bowed our heads and acknowledged our unique moment in time together, then returned to our seats.
My intuition failed me. I was disappointed in myself at first, but soon realized what would be the purpose of life if I always knew what was going to happen. What makes life beautiful is the mystery of it. Although it would be fun to move objects with my mind and read other people’s thoughts it is not the point of meditation or life. It is more important to understand yourself than it is others.
Lesson #5- Don’t Take Yourself So Seriously
It becomes easy to take the process and yourself too seriously when you are waking up at 5:30 in the morning and sitting in silence with strangers for an hour. I wanted to demonstrate my respect to the practice by remaining silent and make as little movement as possible, so I did not distract others.
Everyday we performed a walking meditation. In this exercise we walked in a circle V-E-R-Y S-L-O-W-L-Y around a lit candle. I focused on the sensations and the distribution of weight in my bare feet as I walked across the floor. It was a little awkward. I felt off-balance and concerned about running into the person in front of me. At first I was frustrated with my balance and uncomfortable being so close to my neighbors.
Then I looked up and saw people from all different backgrounds walking like sloths in a circle around a flickering candle, all looking for inner peace and enlightenment. We all looked so awkward! The sight brought a smile to my face and I had to hold back my chuckle of laughter. It was a beautiful sight.
After acknowledging it was okay to smile I realized the Dalai Lama himself could be seen smiling and laughing in most of his pictures. During meditation it can be easy to acknowledge dark memories or fears, but there is also lightness that can be seen if one is willing to look. Both are two sides of the same coin.
If this post interested you, or if you have always been curious about meditation I recommend checking out The Book of Awakening: Having the Life You Want By Being Present to the Life You Have by Mark Nepo and, also, The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment by Eckhart Tolle (these are not affiliate links). These books are great stepping stones into a meditative practice.