Beating A Retreat

What a week last week, am I right? Fess up, how much time did you steal from your work or your art or your family, instead glued to a screen watching the spectacle unfold in Washington D.C.? For all my big talk about minimizing my dosage of TV news, I was riveted. Thursday was gut-wrenching; by Friday afternoon, it was as though the whole country had been involuntarily strapped into a demonic roller coaster. No matter how you interpret the sturm und drang issuing from the floor of the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, I feel safe in assuming it has given you no pleasure, and darn little rest.

No wonder I woke up on Saturday morning with a wrenching, thudding headache. But I’d signed up for a day-long mindfulness meditation retreat, so I gritted my teeth and went. I’d envisioned a sort of mental spa day, a subsidence into blissful, thoughtless oblivion.

Turned out, not so much.

You think I’d have known better. Since early summer I’ve established a modest daily meditation practice, so I know darn well that there is no hocus-pocus involved, no effortless ascendance into some ethereal realm. Meditation, at least the type I’m familiar with, is very basic indeed, and not particularly mystical. You sit. you breathe, you focus on your body and your breath, and that’s about it.

My mind, and I suspect yours as well, would rather do almost anything than shut up and sit still, so meditation is hardly a passive process. It’s gentle, but it’s work. Directing one’s attention to one’s breathing or to the weight of one’s body on the cushion, over any length of time, is like training a hyperactive puppy after it’s gotten into a bag of ground espresso.

If you’re feeling any level of resistance to the process, as I certainly was on Saturday, it’s the same thing except now you and the puppy are on one of those playground merry-go-rounds, whirling around and around and trying not to get spun off.

What was I thinking, I tried not to think as I gutted out the second or third seated practice of the day. This is taking up half my weekend! I could be home writing, or dealing with the dead dishwasher, or out getting groceries, and there’s the wedding we’re going to next weekend and I don’t even know what I’m wearing yet, and how’s that FBI investigation going? Meanwhile, the painful constriction in my temples, jaw and neck seeped like venom beneath my right shoulder-blade and into my low back.

Nevertheless, I persisted. In between the sitting and walking meditations, the retreat teacher spoke at some length about the process and what we might discover, and answered questions from the attendants. What I discovered surprised me: I was sitting there, listening. Not fidgeting, not taking notes as I compulsively do in meetings just to keep myself from either falling asleep or bolting out of the room, and not spacing out. Actually listening. Paying attention. Without ten other things going on in my brain.

Toward the end of the day, we undertook a partner exercise which involved taking turns answering a repeated question, and listening to the other person do the same, without interrupting or reacting. Sounds simple, a little self-consciously earnest, even tedious, right? But after six minutes — just six minutes! — of connecting with another human being without judgement or the need to formulate an answer, I was effervescing with energy, calm and happy, the pain in my neck and shoulders melting away, at least for a while.

I left the retreat with my inner puppy able to sit at attention and not chew on everything in sight. Which was a good thing, because I had to go to Home Depot to look at dishwashers and then buy groceries and pick up dinner, and go home and take some ibuprofen.

On Sunday morning, I was tempted to skip my regular seated practice. Couldn’t I average out all the time I’d spent meditating the day before? But it doesn’t work that way; the puppy requires consistency for the training to take hold. There’s a reason they call it  practice.

Do you have a practice, or a ritual or an observance that helps keep you in balance in this dizzying world? As always, I am mindful of your comments.


  1. Meditation is not for the faint of heart. My mind is like your puppy – it would rather look for shiny rocks or bolt after tantalizing squirrels than sit still and FOCUS. I think the whole fidgeting/taking notes thing at a meeting is endemic to teachers. We are the worst audience, ever. Probably because we are required at all times to keep it interesting. I regularly used to feel sorry for presenters at our in-service days.

  2. I have done yoga for years and that has trained me to be in the moment. It’s all about that. Don’t think of the past and don’t think of the future. Another helper is Thich Nhat Hanh and his book, Your True Home, teaches you to remember to breathe and be mindful, EVERY DAY. I read in it every day. I have read the whole thing, and now I leaf through it and land somewhere, that is my mantra of the day.
    Another thing: we don’t need to be in a hurry and we don’t need to constantly perform. We can just BE and it’s allright.
    Jan, I’ve moved back to calistoga, so if you want to meet over coffee, let me know:)

    • Elizabeth, I am DELIGHTED to hear you’re back in Calistoga! It would be great to get together for coffee and catch up and just . . . be 🙂

  3. I have had a meditation “practice” for about 12 years now. There is a reason it’s called a “practice”! It was only when I made the decision that practice meant daily not just when I felt like it that I began to get the sense of it. Along the way I learned to let go of expectations, judgments, self-criticism. I also learned that meditation is not about feeling good or getting it right or -one of my personal favorites- being a better person. It’s just about showing up and getting yourself out of the way for 20 minutes a day, or as one of your readers put it “just being present”. After 12 years I am still working on it. But I do know that in some almost alchemistic way it does make a difference.

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