Thoughts on retreat

It’s a sunny warm day in early May, and I’m on the Long Island Railroad headed east, all the way east, to Montauk, where I’ve rented an Airbnb to participate in a week long virtual silent retreat, as part of my Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Certification Program. 

It’s the first time in years - in how many years? - that I’ve held nothing in my hands to do.  That I haven’t had an easy escape hatch for the present moment within arms reach. 

No book. No magazine. No social media. No texts to respond to, no emails to write. No airpods, no podcasts, no music. My phone on airplane mode, stowed away deep inside a duffel bag. 

Just my body on a train, hurdling away from my family and my life, my work and my routines,  the trance of busyness I’m addicted to. 

I had heard about “retreat regression,” how detaching yourself from all of the things you DO detaches you from all the things you think you ARE, and how that allows you to go back to who you were before you inhabited those identities. 

If I’m not emailing, leading calls, responding to Slack messages, sending proposals -  if I’m not working right now, who am I? 

If I’m not packing lunches, washing bottles, matching socks, tending to my child’s eczema, monitoring screen time, pushing a swing - if I’m not consumed with the endlessness of mothering, who am I? 

If I’m not next to my husband’s body in bed, if I’m not responding to friend’s texts, if I’m not scrolling, consuming or posting - am I still here? 

I am here, on the train, looking out the window as Babylon Station passes me by. 

And I’m also 12 years old, by myself on an overnight Greyhound bus going to Mobile, Alabama to stay with my grandmother because my mom had to go on a work trip, and there’s no one else to watch me.  The driver says to sit in the seat right behind her so I’m never out of her sight. 

Bay Shore, Islip. 

I’m 14. in the back of the Airport Express van that goes between the Birmingham and Atlanta airports, between where my mom drops me off and where my dad picks me up. I’m the only one in the van at dusk, sitting in the way back, listening to the Indigo Girls on a walkman, my forehead against the window, daydreaming about the older boy I’m in love with. 

Patchogue, Bellport.

I’m 7 years old, being dropped off at the YMCA on a summer day at dawn because my mom has to get to Montgomery for a 9am presentation. Kathy, the Executive Director, is a friend of my mom’s and lets me sit in her crowded office all day instead of playing dodge ball, because dodge ball makes me cry, and the teenage counselors get exasperated with me. 

The retreat hasn’t even begun, and my mask is soaked with tears.  

This person I am underneath all the things I do is already here with me. She was waiting for just one minute, just one hour, to remind me of her. 

I take a cab to my Airbnb, a condo in a motel on Old Montauk Highway. I can see the ocean from my little balcony. I walk in and think, I have this place all to myself.  A week won’t be enough. 

The walls are thin and I hear a family next door, bickering and laughing. I think how funny it is that I’ve come so far to be silent, to be away from my family, and now here I am, surrounded by the sounds of a family so similar to mine. 

I log on to the first gathering of my retreat, made up of 95 women around the world.  In a small group we check in and share our intention for the retreat and I think, “I’ll just make something up, just to have something to say.”

“My intention is to just be for a few days. To feel what it feels like to stop doing.”

The other women on the screen bring their palms together and put their hands to their face and close their eyes and bow. 

One woman says her intention is to heal from the fact that she was not able to bear children. 

I put my hands to my face, and I bow. 

Later I think, “I don’t need another women’s retreat. My life has been one long women’s retreat. How many times have I shared an intention with a group of women? Why did I pick this one, yet again?”

I go to the grocery store to buy the food my friend laid out in the meal plan she created for me. I see couples buying six packs of beer, already tipsy. I feel exposed, wonder if they are making fun of me. 

I unpack, I lay out my pajamas on the bed. I have nothing to do. I make dinner - a greek style stuffed sweet potato.  There is no oven so I have to cook the sweet potato in a toaster oven and it takes over an hour. I sit at the table and look at the wall. I sit on the balcony and look at the sky. 

I eat dinner and log into my first silent sit. Fifteenish women around the world, meditating together on Zoom for half an hour, multiple times throughout the day.  Someone rings a bell and we bow to each other. I put the computer off to the side so I’m not facing them. We meditate for 30 minutes and I notice, notice, notice. I get lost in thought. I notice that.  I hear the family. I’m so tired my eye sockets ache. 

I meditate again, I crawl into bed and fall asleep instantly. I dream of a guy I barely know, a good friend of a good friend, who I haven’t seen in 20 years. I wake up after 10 hours, the longest I’ve slept since before I was pregnant with my first child. I think, I love this. I never want to leave. 

I have coffee on the balcony in the 60 degree sun. The family is up, they’re packing the car to go back home, to normal life and school and work.  It’s Sunday. 

I have a small group meeting, I’m with the woman who is coming to heal.  We are led in a meditation, and have a moment to share.  It surprises me, but every time I speak, I cry.  Every time I speak, everyone bows.  

I walk down to the beach past the hilly dunes, the remote cragginess that I craved, that I chose specifically for this experience.  I’m the only person on the beach in either direction, as far as anyone can see. The dunes obscure the quiet two lane highway that separates the ocean from my motel. 

I sit on the solid sand and watch the waves. This one. Then this one.  It swells, it crests. It fades into the wet sand with a million foamy fingers. 

I think - I’m the only person alive who saw that wave. 

It’s the most profound and precious thought I think I’ve ever had. 

I go back to the balcony and watch the family pile into their Chevy SUV. They drive away and the silence they leave in their wake is stifling.  I am suddenly drunk with loneliness. A sunny Sunday afternoon at the beach, and I am all alone. 

I log on to another small group, and then the large group where we hear a dharma talk by one of the retreat leaders. 

It ends, and I have to do something. I go for a walk around the neighborhood, I see kids playing with a grandfather and we wave.  I nearly open my mouth and say “I’m on a silent retreat! With women from around the world! It’s on Zoom because of the pandemic! I’m from Maplewood, NJ but I rented a place all by myself here to get away from my family!”  But instead I just mouth - “hi.”

The night repeats itself, and as I meditate before bed I experience a physical sensation unlike anything I’ve ever had before. I hear a man’s voice in the downstairs condo and I notice it. And then my entire body - every single muscle - jolts in one violent spasm.  It’s like I was falling asleep and electrocuted back to life, but I had been completely awake. I look at the screen to see if any of my fellow meditators notice, but of course they didn’t. I notice, I notice, I notice.  I keep meditating. I later learn this is a kriya, and can be the body’s way of releasing pent up energy when it is entering into a period of profound rest. I think about the phrase “profound rest” over and over. 

The days continue. On Monday I wake up and the sun shining in between the vertical blinds mocks me. I’m over this, I want to leave. I scribble “I want to leave” on my legal pad, like the last living sailor aboard a shipwrecked boat. But I don’t. 

I text Chris occasionally and he sends me videos of the boys and I watch them and clutch the phone to my chest and sob. I say “it seems like Baxter is sad - we should probably talk, right?” And he texts back “we’re all doing great. Love you.”

He is protecting me from myself, without telling me he’s doing that. I think about how often he does that for me. How he knows what I need and gives it to me silently, over and and over and over, without ever saying that’s what he’s doing, or needing to be recognized for it. 

I lay in the sun on my balcony and notice how my day dreaming, which I’ve become addicted to throughout the pandemic, is just my mind needing an endorphin rush, a spark. I’m bored, and a daydream is stimuli. But then I think about boredom and loneliness. When I say boredom, do I really mean loneliness? 

I don’t want to let go of my daydreams. I ask myself, bargaining, “if I’m aware of it, can’t I still daydream? It’s not like I’m numb, unaware….I am lost in thought, but I’m in control of it.…” 

I revisit old boyfriends. Old lovers. I flip through the greatest hits. Since I’m aware I’m doing it, it’s ok. Right? 

When we do the group meditations I notice that the computer is closer to me now. It’s inched from totally off to the side so all anyone else could see was the profile of my body sitting on the floor, to three-o-clock. I linger at the beginning and end of those sits, looking at my friends around the world. 

Tasha, always on at 7pm and 9pm, always fully reclining in bed with a fluffy pink comforter drawn up to her chin. I don’t know if this is what Buddha meant by “lying down meditation,” but seeing her there comforts me. 

On Tuesday, when the group meditation is over and I open my eyes and see a screen that says,  “this meeting has been ended by host,” I am plunged into panic. I won’t say or hear a word until the next day’s small group in 18 hours. I am itchy, frantic, bottomless. I can’t just lay here and cry, I don’t want to leave the condo and be confronted with the bright light and buzziness of this beach town. I can’t meditate through this. I turn on my computer and do a Pure Barre workout. This is what we mean by “resourcing,” I think. It’s the first time in my life I have used working out for something other than trying to make my body a certain way. 

Each day I hear more of the stories and reflections of the women in my small groups.  We each get about a minute to share, and within each minute there are whole lives revealed, whole hearts.  Lila in Mexico City. Jan in Hong Kong.  Karey on Kickapoo land, in Kansas City. 

Women going through divorces, ushering their parents through the end of their lives, watching their children leave their homes and become adults.  Women with babies at home, in the other room. Women who cry when they share because they can’t even meditate for 30 minutes without hearing someone else in their house cry. Women who cry because they, like me, escaped their family for the week, and are swallowed by guilt and regret and loneliness. 

I share that I notice every hour, if not every few minutes, my thoughts are planning, rehearsing. Striving, grasping. Always in the future. How many times have I found myself writing this newsletter, writing an Instagram post, practicing the way I would talk about the experience I was having in that very moment? Removing myself from it by trying to remember it. To process it as it was still happening.

My teacher says, “it’s helpful to remember your intention. Did you come on this retreat to write a newsletter?”

It stuns me. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know if I did. I don’t know if I will know it happened if I don’t write about it. 

On Wednesday, a teacher leads a group meditation on mindfulness of emotions. I think, if I hear the words “felt sense” one more time I’m going to throw the computer off the balcony and run screaming into the ocean. 

I was trained to meditate by teachers in the Shambhala lineage, the lineage of warriorship, of knowing and training the mind. This body stuff is new to me, and it feels like cheating. The mind is the ocean we must know, the thoughts are the waves we must surf. The truth is the stillness underneath that. So what are emotions and why do I need to locate them in my body? Aren’t they just thoughts, wearing a fake nose and mustache, ringing the doorbell and hoping we let them in? 

The teacher asks us to lay down and get as comfortable as we can.  She asks, “can you get ten percent more comfortable?” I lay on the bed, facing the ceiling, a starfish woman.

She says to think of a challenging emotion you’ve been grappling with. 

Fine, I think. Whatever.  Let’s go with loneliness. 

Now, she says, explore where this may be showing up in your body. 

I roll my eyes under closed lids. 

As I do with my therapist, I just pick a body part. 

My belly, I think. Sure. 

I put a hand there. 

What is the felt sense of this emotion in your body? 

Here we go…I think, again rolling my eyes. 

But to honor her and this experience, I acquiesce. 

I say to myself - liquid. Warm water. 

And then... it was. 

My loneliness was a pool of warm water, floating within me, or maybe I was floating within it.  Was it my womb? I could feel the warmth, the fluidity, under my hand, in the very lowest part of my belly. Right beneath my c-section scar.  

What images come to mind, our teacher asks gently. 

Before she’s even finished the question. My mother’s light blue nightgown, the one with a lace trim around a square neck, a light pink ribbon running through it. Her cool face, covered in Pond’s cold cream, bending down to kiss my forehead. When she was gone and I was with my dad or another caretaker, and the absence of her was suffocating, I would sleep with that nightgown balled up in my fists, because it smelled like her. 

I knew, from my earliest memories, that she was all I had on earth. I was smart, I was aware of the fact that if something happened to her, I wouldn’t survive. 

I don’t mean I would die. I mean I wouldn’t be lying on a bed in a motel in Montauk exploring mindfulness of emotions. I wouldn’t have made it here.

The truth of it consumes me. The Zoom ends, and I lay on the bed for almost two hours, just letting the tears flow and flow and flow and flow.

A mother myself now, with children that miss me. And at the same time, a child, who misses her mother. 

That afternoon I go to the grocery store and as I walk back to the motel on the sidewalk of the Old Montauk Highway, the dunes to my left, with apples and seltzers and yogurts in my little backpack to last me the final days, I think of myself on the bed that afternoon.

I can see it, the whole picture. I can see me, with the spacious awareness I’ve worked so diligently to cultivate over the last 13 years of my practice. I can see her. 

Not my body laying on the bed, but a body.  

Not my tears. Just, tears. 

Not Jessica’s loneliness. But the loneliness passing through, as it does through all living things at some time or another. 

I let out an audible sob, the beauty of the thought dousing me like walking through a waterfall. I then notice with a shock a woman right behind me, walking her small dog. I startle and move to the side and she keeps walking. Maybe she had been lost in thought as well.  Maybe she saw me, heard me sob. I watch her in her exercise pants plow ahead, as I stumble back to the condo, shaking my head with wonder. 

That night at the group meditation, I put the computer right in front of me.  Some faces from my small groups I knew intimately, have grown to know over just a few days, just a few cumulative minutes of speaking. I had witnessed their grief. I had witnessed their revelations. I had been held by them.

Now instead of just bowing, some of us wrap our arms around ourselves as if offering a hug to each other, put our hands on our heart, look at each other’s little faces in the little Zoom boxes. Sometimes I cry, sometimes I see someone else with their eyes closed, just letting the tears flow. In silence, around the world. Together. 

On the last day I meditate for a full hour, the longest I have ever sit in one stretch.  I stand up from the carpet in my motel condo and feel like a sane queen of a sane world. I float out to the beach, my feet on the earth, my last walk on my last day.  

I turn to face the wind, the ocean to my left and the dunes to my right.  The craggy cliffs beginning a hundred meters ahead. The sun streaming through the clouds. It is as beautiful a landscape as I have ever seen. 

And I think - I have to keep it. I have to take a picture, to pick up a shell and take it home with me. I don’t want it to end.  Grasping. Grasping. Grasping. 

I walk and walk for hours. 

It’s a sunny warm day in early May and I’m on a train heading west, back to my family and my life. The mail stacked up, the emails lined up, the calls scheduled, the texts awaiting answers. People wanting to know how it was. 

But I have a little more time. I watch the Long Island towns sail by in reverse. 

Bellport. Patchogue. 

I think about the wave. The one, the many, that only I alone on earth saw. 

Like my own life, cresting, building, eventually fading. So beautiful, so powerful, so complex. So quick. 

Is there anyone watching this wave, mine? 

There is. One person, standing on the shore. 

Both the wave, and the watcher. 

She’s here. 

She didn’t miss a thing.