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Who needs Burning Man? Experiences from a first time silent retreater

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Who needs Burning Man? Experiences from a first time silent retreater

I'm recently back from my very first meditation retreat, the one I've been "training for" by sitting (almost) daily each morning for the past few months. The 6-night silent insight meditation retreat was at Spirit Rock (just north of SF), and the theme was "Mindfulness and the Spirit of Creativity." It totally rocked my world.

Before diving into a day in the life, I should note that everyone I've spoken with about the retreat asks if I was really in complete silence for the whole week. I wasn't. On this retreat, we were allowed to speak in our writers' breakout group as well as after the dharma talks if we wanted to ask a question. I also confess I engaged in some chatting during my work meditation. So go ahead and sue me :P


5:50am

Gonggggggg

Gonggggggg

Gonggggggg

Gonggggggg

One of my fellow retreatants hits the bell outside the meditation hall as part of his assigned work meditation for the week, waking me out of a light sleep in my twin bed in Karuna. I remember that I woke up belly-laughing in the middle of the night from something in a dream and this causes me to laugh again, though I can no longer remember specifically what was so funny. My roommate (who I can't talk to, of course) must think I'm completely bonkers. I'm too full of joy to mind.

In the dark I collect my toiletries and head to the bathroom down the hall to quickly wash my face and brush my teeth before shuffling through the pre-sunrise cold, misty morning to the first sit of the day.

Insight: I'm excited to meditate(?!)

6:30am

What I think about (or rather, what thoughts arise, some of which I pursue) as I sit in silence, trying to keep my attention focused on the sensations of breath at the tip of my nose: Broad City, whether or not my out-of-office message successfully turned on, the hard-boiled egg (with salt, pepper, and hot sauce) I plan to eat at breakfast, the fact that I should bring more socks, a blow dryer, and my own ground coffee next time, and what I might write a memoir about. 

Insight: Things I do NOT think about: alcohol, meat, social media, my cell phone, or my upcoming yoga retreat. (Okay, maybe I think about the retreat for a second.)

7:45am

After breakfast I wander up the path into the hills above our dorms. My first intention is to give traditional walking meditation a go, moving ever-so-slowly and focusing on the feeling of my feet rolling over the earth with each step. But after about six steps it's clear this isn't going to work. I could have forced it to, but it would have been a travesty to subdue the pure bliss bubbling up from the core of my being at the opportunity to go on the first solo nature hike of my life and EXPLORE. After all, my element is there in the beautiful, vibrating surroundings of the trail and it's calling me to come be one with it. I take the Tantric approach and embrace all of my senses. I don't regret it.

I climb into an ocean of fog and inhale eucalyptus. I'm buzzing as I take in all the life and sights around me. The energy in the land is palpable. Whenever I feel the urge to stop before a tree or lizard, I stop. I wonder. I bask. When I emerge from the fog I look around to see a breathtaking kingdom of nature below me, above me, and around me. I continue ascending to the peak and directly into the sun in outright ecstasy, laughing and crying at once, alone but also not alone at all.

At the top of a mountain I close my eyes and breathe, allowing the sun to soak into my skin. I've got nowhere else to be and nothing to do. But soon I feel a presence, so I lift my lids. A giant hawk has landed five feet away from me. We watch each other for a while. I recall Walt Witman's words. "Don't be afraid of the merge." 

"Did someone spike my coffee this morning?" I wonder. Or is this kind of bliss always available inside?

Insight: My hiking experience reinforces that nondual Tantra is the path for me. I don't want to renounce my senses, for THROUGH my senses (just as well as through withdrawing them), I experience the Divine. It's everywhere. All we have to do is pay attention.

8:45am

The second sit of the day is an hour long. After about 20-25 minutes every time I sit, without exception, my right outer hip area starts to scream a song of hot, hot heat. I try to tough it out for a few minutes, but eventually it's so distracting I stop reaping the benefits of meditation. So I transition to a hero's pose (kneeling), still seated on my two zafus. No big deal. 

This week I've introduced so much more compassion for myself in my meditation. When I want to check if it's a spider or a hair tickling my neck, I go ahead and check. It finally dawns on me that a little movement during my sits won't prevent my Awakening.

Insight: I've been too rigid with my practice for too long. Especially for a recovering uber Type A, an unforgiving, rule-obsessed approach to practice doesn't serve as much as a tender, merciful one does.

3:00pm

I practice yoga in my room. This isn't my usual home practice flow. This is 5X slower, with way fewer warriors and way more hip openers. I don't do a single chaturanga. I practice with my next sit in mind.

Insight: I'm practicing yoga the way it was originally meant to be practiced: as a preparation for lots of sitting. It feels amazing.

4:30pm

We reconvene in the meditation hall to listen to the daily dharma talk, which is led by a different teacher each day of the retreat. Today's theme is how mindfulness and creativity are connected.

At the end of the wise, wonderful teaching, an old man from the painting group asks about why creativity seems to come in bursts, even for great artists. "How can we sustain creativity?" he asks.

One of the teachers responds beautifully, likening creativity to a peach tree. We want to make a peach pie, so we're always waiting for ripe peaches, she says. But peaches ripen according to a process. And every aspect of the growth of the tree is just as important to the peach pie as the moment the peaches are ripe for picking. Creativity is a practice, just like yoga, just like meditation, just like enlightenment itself.

Insight: Awakening is an accident, and meditation makes us more accident-prone. Similarly, a creative bust is an accident, and mindfulness makes us more accident-prone.

5:50pm

"The difference between a flower and a weed is a judgement."

I smile at this quote on my teabag tag as I nurse a mug of echinacea. I've just finished eating a bowl of warm potato leek soup one sip at a time, eyes closed between spoonfuls in order to better savor all the flavors and textures and in gratitude for the food itself and those who prepared it. This is how we eat here, and I love it.

I glance up at the clock and realize it's time to gulp down the rest of my tea. Because I ate dinner at such a leisurely pace I don't have much time left before I need to go back into the kitchen to start my daily work meditation shift as a dishwasher. All day, I've secretly been looking forward to this moment.

There's something so satisfying about getting my hands dirty after all this time "just being." I enjoy my role of soaking and spraying down dishes, then passing them into the powerful speed dish washer. Also, this is my time to bond with my fellow shift-worker, Carolyn. It's the first time she's ever lived alone, she tells me today. I wonder if her partner has recently died, but I don't ask.

Insight: There is bliss in simplicity. And if I may go one step further, simplicity is bliss.

7:00pm

The second creativity breakout session of the day begins. (The first was before the dharma talk.) I'm in the writer's group. The other option was painting (which I might try next time). Thus far on the retreat I've written an ode to Shakti, several haikus, and many stream-of-consciousness recollected memories from youth. I've also free-written on many themes, including:

  • "The Song of Myself is the song of _____." (I filled in the blank with "the color orange.")
  • "A time I was lost" (inspired my an excerpt from Cheryl Stayed's Wild)
  • "That autumn night..."

Tonight our teacher kicks us off on a free write with the prompt "What will I miss when I die?" The only rule is to keep the pen moving. After about five minutes his duck alarm quacks. Time's up. He opens the floor for sharing, and it quickly becomes clear that the prompt was a triggering one for our group comprised mostly of Buddhists.

"I won't miss anything when I die," someone says. "I'll be dead." Five more people agree. 

Then one woman who has been grieving the death of her mother raises her hand. In tears she talks about how difficult the prompt was for her because of her fresh loss. But then she notes that recalling details about her mother as she wrote almost brought her mother back to life for a moment. "I realize that's both the pain and the pleasure of memory," she says, smiling through the tears. "And that's the pain and pleasure of writing."

Insight: When we write from a place of truth we write with one foot in samsara and one in the stream of the Divine. Details make the writing powerful. We should notice the images, thoughts, and emotions they evoke, but we don't need to get attached to these.

10:00pm

I get ready for bed after the 9pm evening group sit, the last sit of the day. Before I turn off the light on my nightstand and do my pre-sleep dream yoga, I jot down a few more insights: 

  • Anyone who cultivates mindfulness and openness can tap into mind-blowing divine creativity. 
  • Meditation isn't boring and practicing it doesn't make one boring. Quite the opposite, it seems.
  • Life makes sense, even if we'll never see or understand all its ruling principles. 
  • Who needs Burning Man when such deep connection, ecstasy, and transformation can be found in a week of renunciation and simplicity? Yes, I think I foresee a three-month silent retreat in my future.

When I think back to my very first meditation retreat, I'll think of tissues, knobby hands, yellow gloves, mugs, vinegar spray, socks, shawls, fog, bees, and wild mindful turkeys like aging pharaohs. I'll think with tenderness of my dishwashing partner and the many times I saw her sitting on a bench alone, baking in the sun and basking in the moonlight. I'll think of the beautiful humans I danced with in silence on the last night of the retreat and the hug I shared with a friend whose voice I'd yet to hear and name yet to know. I'll think of Anna's words: "Things come to you as a child, and there's no way to say 'No thank you.'" I'll see bubbles of disappearance and laugh at the memory of waking up to my own laughter. But mostly I'll think of the boundless love that I felt and that I intend to make it my practice to offer more of, more often.

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Steadiness and Ease (a short story)

After The Incident going out to brunch proved too big an ordeal for Gita. The bottomless mimosas and chicken-stuffed waffles at Benny’s, our old Sunday “church” of choice, weren’t worth the accompanied stares. We couldn’t focus on gossip, especially Gita, with every pair of trendy eyeballs in the place shooting curious (and slightly repulsed) laser beams our way. So I came over to her house last Sunday morning and we cooked our own brunch. I cooked. Gita just laid there. (Obviously.) But in exchange for the blueberry French toast I whipped up for her, she finally revealed how it was that she had reached nirvana so early on in life. Ready to let her feel like a guru, I fed her while she talked.

Gita had been experimenting with yoga for about a year when it happened, she said. The teacher responsible for putting her into this state wasn’t a regular at Gita’s studio – he was only visiting to put on a workshop he called “The Bliss of Letting Go.” This teacher was world famous for transforming people from Type As to Type Bs within ninety minutes for only $35, and Gita wanted to see for herself what all the hype was about. The workshop was just around the corner from her house and all participants received a free T-Shirt that said “Let.” on the front and “Go.” on the back. Needless to say, she signed up.

The rest of her body soggy and immobile, Gita widened her eyes in the direction of her French Toast. So engrossed was I in the story that I hadn’t realized I had been neglecting my feeding duties. I wiped her drooping mouth of syrup and fed her another bite.

From the beginning of his class, Gita resumed, after a burp, she found that she was able to connect to her breath, to some deep and happy emptiness inside her Self, like she never had before. It was as if she was blossoming into her own aura for the first time. It was as if her job, her relationships, her accomplishments could all dissolve and she’d still be Gita.

There was just something about his voice as he guided her prana, she said, and every cue he used was right on point. His adjustments were heavenly too, and after the third round of Sun Salutations, Gita began to feel her body detaching from itself. As the physical sensations fell away, she said, her spirit soared. Pose after pose, vinyasa after vinyasa, something was unravelling within Gita. “It was as if I was finally ‘getting’ yoga, you know?” she said. I didn’t know, but I nodded. I was more into TRX-type workouts than stretching.

At this point in the story Gita paused to let me know the rollers were coming soon. She asked if I wanted to stay and watch them work for a while. I still had an hour before I was supposed to meet my brother in the park for some beers, so I said sure, why not. 

“But wait,” I said, eager to get back to the events in question. “It’s still unclear to me when you actually melted. Like at what specific point in the flow did it happen?”

Gita looked at me as if she could have judged me for the question but chose not to. 

It was during savasana, when the workshop participants were lying in pools of their own sweat, exhausted, that it happened. Gita’s body felt electric, she said, energy pulsing in her palms and at the soles of her feet. For a few minutes everything was quiet exceptfor the sound of breath. Then her teacher suggested, “Imagine your body is made of ice. A mass of ice the hardest that exists. Ice that’s been frozen over multiple times.” 

As her teacher spoke these words, Gita said she found her body quickly becoming a block of white ice. She found herself unable to move her neck or her fingers, or even her eyes. All she could do was shiver in the slab of her body and emit an icy steam from her still-smooth breath.


Rapt, and suddenly cold, without taking my eyes off Gita I picked up my mug and took a sip of my coffee. (It was lukewarm, but hazelnutty.) Gita’s tongue sloshed around in her mouth like a freshly caught fish. I tipped my mug to her mouth so she could try it too.

But just when Gita though she was about to shatter into infinite chunks of ice, she said, the teacher changed gears. “Now feel your body melting,” he said. “And with it, all the karmic ties you have to this world. Let yourself melt back into the earth from whence you came.” These words pushed Gita over the edge of solidity and Gita began to melt. She imagined herself melting in her mind and she melted in her skin, like candle wax. “This,” the workshop teacher said, just as the newly-creamy Gita merged with her mat, “is the bliss of letting go.”

Gita’s phone began to ring directly after this climax, and I answered it. “Hello?” I said. “It’s probably the rollers,” Gita said. It was. They said they were just outside. I opened the door to three long-haired white men in “Let” on the front “Go.” on the back T-Shirts. Their faces were gaunt but their eyes were bright and smiling. “We’re here to roll out!” one of them joked as he bowed to me, hands in prayer at his heart. I let them in.

In Gita’s sunny bedroom the three men - boys really - put their palms on Gita and worked them in gentle circular motions to mold her body back into human form, breasts and all. Gita explained that they came over and did this for her every day at the same time. It was part of their practice. They would work for ten minutes, break for two, work for ten more, break again. Each time they stopped rolling Gita, though, she would melt back into a blob. “You’re entitled to the labor, but not to the fruits of that labor,” one of them explained. The other two nodded. 

I watched for as long as I could before I had to go meet my brother. On my way out, after the five of us chanted “Om” together and embraced in a group hug, I discretely swept up a drop of Gita that had fallen onto the floor during rolling. Outside, I closed my eyes and licked my finger. It was sweet and salty, bold and subtle, smooth and sharp -- the perfect balance of sthira and sukha. And the perfect post-brunch dessert.

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Manifest Destiny

Back in Florida, my dad belongs to a New Age circle that meets every other Sunday to discuss energy healing and metaphysics and paranormal phenomenon and other dimensional worlds and so forth. I once tagged along to a special event of theirs, at which a visiting medium channeled deceased friends and relatives of the audience members. Out of nowhere, as the event was wrapping up I was approached by a New Ager, a (presumably psychically-endowed) member of my father's circle. This man took my hands and bent his head low to look into my face. "Now you! You get what you want," he told me, with great sincerity. "Just remember: be careful what you want."

I carried those words with me for a long time after the encounter, cherishing them as personal prophesy. Now I realize my father's New Age buddy probably wasn't implying I'm unique when he told me I get what I want. We all get what we want in life, if we want it badly enough. It's the Law of Attraction. And it's very real. As the old king tells Santiago in The Alchemist, "When you really want something to happen, the whole universe conspires to make that wish come true." He was talking about dharma.

Living out of sync with our individual dharmas (with "dharma" defined here as "destiny") is no doubt largely at fault for the chronic anxiety that plagues much of our society today. As an obvious example, most of us choose to spend forty hours or more a week doing something that makes us completely miserable. We choose this misery out of ego and fear.

So how can you cut through ego to discover your dharma and find lasting happiness in your life's work? 

It's simple. Meditate. Meditation will (over time) attune your awareness to your own vibrations and to those of the Universe at large. Meditate to attune to small soul and to Big Soul. Then ask yourself two questions: "What would I choose to do with my time if I had to do it for free?" and "What would I do if nobody could know I was the one behind the work?" The answers should point you in the direction of your dharma.

I've been meditating more often these days and, through meditation, I've day-by-day, sit-by-sit come closer to what it is I want to Do with a capital "D." I've said it a few times, but now it is undeniably clear and I am no longer afraid of it. As proof, I'll state my manifestation here in plain words. Not because I need to make it public, but because I want to share the joy of choosing to follow my dream (even if only part time for now) and perhaps inspire you to choose to follow yours. 

First, I want to write. I've been an avid reader all my life. I love words and I love being surprised by a unique voice or unusual story. My room is a temple of fiction - my closet full of novels and my desk stacked with short story collections. But around my room you'll also find piles of writing reference books and writing memoirs (including Stephen King's and Natalie Goldberg's). Particularly over the past few years, as strongly as I've been drawn to read I have felt the pull to produce words of my own. Yet up until very recently I've largely suppressed this calling. No more.

My other dream is to teach yoga. I love working with people - something writing doesn't cater as well to - and I love the idea of helping others remember who it is they really are. Also, I love to think about energy, talk about energy and work with energy. With yoga, I can make that a career! A career that marries empowerment, spirituality and creativity - what else could my soul ask for?

So writing + teaching yoga: that's the two-pronged dream I'm officially manifesting for myself, starting with teaching yoga at work once a week and self-publishing a KidLit book with illustrations by my childhood friend. Soon will come the day that I'll have my own yoga studio and lead retreats several times a year, perhaps with a focus on dream yoga. And soon I'll be writing outside of this blog. Kids books, short stories, travel articles, maybe even a novel or two. It's happening. It's happening because we are pure energy and we get what we want. All we have to do is choose.

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