I began meditating in earnest back in October 2009. I had spent the previous eighteen months working on some personal issues, and had arrived at a point where I was in a better spot, but still in need of self-care. I had heard so many reports regarding the myriad benefits that meditation could provide (everything from curing physical ailments, to easing mental pain, to even providing spiritual enlightenment) that I decided a few minutes of sitting quietly, breathing and focusing each morning would probably be a good activity to begin. So I spent most of the summer of 2009 trying to meditate – and failing miserably. After a minute or two my legs would hurt, or my back would ache, or my mind would be so ridiculously bored that I would abandon the session just minutes after it started. I left each attempt feeling frustrated, annoyed, and/or defeated. Not exactly the end results I was hoping for.
After several months of experiencing growing hostility towards the whole notion of meditation, I learned of a retreat opportunity that basically promised to give people a solid start on the path of meditation. When I researched the center and found out that not only was it just a day’s drive away, but also completely free, I signed up for the next available session (after consulting with my husband – who wanted to make sure that the place wasn’t some sort of cult. It wasn’t.). 🙂 Shortly thereafter, I spent 12 days in a very intensive meditation experience; and while I absolutely hated parts of it (and yes, tears were shed), I also deeply appreciated some moments. Most importantly, though, I left the center with solid instructions on how to meditate – and “proof” that I could do it. I drove away from the center with an established daily mediation practice – which was exactly what I had hoped for.
It’s been almost five years since that retreat, and I am happy to report that I have maintained a daily meditation practice. I rise early and meditate each morning, even when on vacation, traveling, visiting family, taking road trips, etc. – and the practice has served me well. While I haven’t attained pure enlightenment, I absolutely notice a difference in my mental state on the few days each year when I don’t/can’t meditate – and I definitely feel better (and behave better) on the days when I do meditate.
Meditation is a skill – and while daily practice helps to maintain current levels of “proficiency”, more focused experiences assist with deepening and growing the ability. (It’s similar to an athlete engaging in daily practice drills versus a more intensive training camp.) I have been on a few shorter, less intense retreats over the past few years (some lasting a week, others a few days, still others just an afternoon), and have gained positive insights and perspectives at each one.
But getting away (even for a “mini-retreat”) can sometimes pose a challenge with the various responsibilities I have in everyday life. As much as I wonder how my life might have been different if 1) I knew about Buddhism before 2009, and/or 2) I had somehow chosen to be a nun versus a layperson, I know enough to know that such speculation is not only unhelpful, but unhealthy. I am who I am, and I have the life I have. My “job” in this lifetime isn’t to wonder ‘What if?’ (or worse, pine for a different past), but instead to accept what is, and to make the most of what might be ahead of me.
So instead of wishing for things that I can’t have, I choose to research what is possible. One resource I found early in my discovery journey was Tricycle – a non-profit educational organization dedicated to making Buddhist teachings and practices broadly available. Among their many resources are a quarterly magazine, books, blog posts, interviews, films, and online retreats.
I subscribed to their magazine, read a few of their e-books, poked around their website and located several interesting posts and informative interviews – but resisted the idea of participating in one of their online retreats. I’m not exactly sure why… Did I think I lacked the discipline to complete a multi-week commitment? [Hardly. Not only did I completed multiple years of formal education as a younger adult, but over the past 30+ months I have worked through 90% of the 101 tasks I declared I wanted to complete just over 2 years ago… I think my ability to follow through speaks for itself.] Was I skeptical about the benefits I might gain from a virtual versus in-person interaction? [Not really. I have learned volumes through listening to a variety of podcasts, so I know from first-hand experience that digital formats yield just as much opportunity for meaningful knowledge exchange and acquisition as face-to-face sharing.] Did I not want to invest the time required for this pursuit? [Unlikely. I have willingly spent weeks of vacation sitting in silence on a cushion instead of on a sunny beach.] I truly don’t know what my hang-up was; all I know was that each time I considered a virtual retreat, I felt resistance – so I set the idea aside.
So, all of this is how item #100 made it onto my 101 list. I knew if I made a public commitment to complete an online retreat, it would get done. I’m a woman of my word, if nothing else. 🙂
Last fall I spent several days at a wellness spa. In addition to taking yoga classes, receiving massages, and lounging on a deck chair, I started (and completed) an online retreat.
When I reviewed the various topics available, I had a bit of difficult deciding which one to select – there were so many juicy items to choose from! Should I focus on how to befriend my perpetually thinking mind? How to become more comfortable with death? How to bring more ease and joy into practice? Eventually I decided on a retreat titled “Natural Bravery”. Despite my willingness to try almost anything, and my sincere comfort with looking “silly” (foolish, naïve, etc.), I still live with a lot of fear. I am working hard to not allow fear to prevent me from doing what I want, or to induce incredible anxiety within me (as it has for most of my life) – but this is work. So I thought of all the possible retreat topics to explore, I might benefit most directly from this one.
The retreat was structured as a series of four online videos, each 20-30 minutes long. The teacher gave a talk on one specific facet of the overall retreat topic in each video, then offered items to reflect on, and finally provided a few meditation instructions to follow. The intention was that a retreatant would watch one video each week, and perform the closing “assignments” over the course of the next seven days – so that each retreat would last for a month.
I suspected that if I attempted to follow this suggested outline, I would abandon the retreat around the second or third week. I could just see myself getting busy, losing focus, or most likely tiring of the assignments. (I could already feel the weight of an anticipatory cognitive burden, and it felt gross.) So I opted to complete one video each evening during my five days/four nights at the wellness spa. (Convenient, non?)
So… how did it go? Interestingly, the online retreat experience was rather anti-climactic. The videos were very similar to audio podcasts I have been listening to for the past few years. As I watched the online retreat videos, I was reminded of positive messages, and I received some helpful instructions and engaging topics/questions to reflect on – but these items and experiences weren’t much different from the “interactions” I have had while driving my car and listening to podcast speakers. Could it be that I have been engaging in daily “mini-retreats” for the past several years without even realizing it?
Maybe. (Probably.) While I gained some new perspectives about fear, courage, bravery, and personal power during this video retreat, I also became aware that this overall experience wasn’t really novel for me – that I have already been using 21st century technology to learn from present-day teachers about timeless universal truths that are slowly transforming my current life. That realization buoyed my heart, and brought a smile to my lips.