By Erin Casperson
Meditation. How many of us know that it’s good for us, but avoid the experience like a root canal? I avoided it for years. I would practice asana, chant, do pranayama, anoint my body with oil according to Ayurveda teachings, cook all-organic meals, study classical yoga and Ayurveda texts, but meditation … nope. It was excruciating to sit and watch my mind ping-pong among the endless montage of thoughts. How could sitting and observing these thoughts roll through, like a stock market ticker, be good for me? I couldn’t do it. I wouldn’t do it.
Until I did. I signed up for a 10-day silent meditation retreat. Total silence for 10 days. And yes, it was excruciating.
I completed the retreat during my time as an Intern for the Kripalu School of Ayurveda. It was during New Year’s break, and I was looking forward to the experience of ending and beginning the year in silence. I had done very little meditation practice (see above!) and didn’t know what to expect, but was hoping to leave feeling relaxed and settled. Everyone I spoke with who had done a silent retreat was encouraging and had only positive things to say about the experience.
So, there I was, with 100 others. We sat on our cushions for sitting meditation. We did walking meditation. We did standing meditation. We did metta (loving-kindness) meditation. I was mindful in the transitions between sitting, walking, and standing. I ate in silence. I washed the lunch dishes (my daily yogi job) in silence. Ten days of utter silence—but my mind was anything but silent. Its constant chatter was deafening.
Joseph Goldstein, in his book Mindfulness, writes, “It’s always good to have a sense of humor about one’s own mental foibles.” For me, this was easier said than done. By day seven, I had had enough. I was planning my exit strategy. After all, nothing was keeping me here. So I did walking meditation in the subzero weather, planning my escape. I sat in meditation, planning my escape. I ate my soup, planning my escape.
And then, a sweet, soft voice came into my mind, a voice I will call my deeper self. This voice gently asked, “Erin, where are you going to escape to?” And the answer was: nowhere. There was nowhere to go. Wherever I went, I’d be there. Needless to say, I didn’t leave.
I had been through a difficult few years coming into this retreat—I’d gone through a divorce, and left my job, home, town, and community. In this time of transition, I’d kept myself very busy in order to avoid completely feeling all the challenging emotions that come with so much change. I’d never taken the time to stop in order to feel and witness the grief, hurt, anger, betrayal, and deep loss that I had experienced. This retreat was the appointment I made with myself to do that witnessing. It turned out to be the best thing I’ve ever done. I needed this experience so that I could come home—home to myself.
I haven’t been the same since. I didn’t feel relaxed or settled at the end of the 10 days, but my inner landscape was realigned. I have greater compassion for myself and for my states of mind. The retreat also helped me establish a daily meditation practice. Every day, I welcome myself and my mind with an open heart. I feel everything, but I don’t get lost in the story. I simply feel what is happening in my body and allow it to softly move through. Daily meditation has been a practice of getting to know and love all of me—not just the parts that are easy to like, but the yucky parts, too. The Buddha says, “About this mind…in truth it isn’t really anything. It’s just a phenomenon. Within itself it’s already peaceful. That the mind is not peaceful … is because it follows moods.”
This year, I went back for another 10-day retreat over New Year’s. This time, I loved every minute of it, even the challenging mind states. One of the teachers instructed us to “trust in the silence, to have faith in the silence.” The silence is the place that I have surrendered to, and it holds infinite power to soften and heal.
Erin Casperson is a former Intern for the Kripalu School of Ayurveda.