I just returned home from a silent meditation retreat deep within the forest at a remote retreat center situated 9,000 feet high in the mountains and am feeling more excited than ever to begin teaching the upcoming Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course in the Dallas area starting this September. Feeling inspired and refreshed from the aliveness of the forest, I thought this would be the perfect time to begin a blog with the intention of sharing mindfulness concepts to live with more presence, authenticity, and intentionality and to tap into the fuller richness of life that is always present yet not always accessible due to our perspective.
I will preface this post with the fact that you do not need to travel to a silent meditation retreat or the wilderness to meditate. The beauty about mindfulness is that it can be accessed at any moment at any time throughout the day whether you are doing dishes, hugging a loved one, or meeting a work deadline. As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “The real meditation is how we live our life from moment to moment to moment.” While I firmly believe this, what I appreciate about my silent meditation retreat experiences is that they add a depth to my meditation practice that I take home and integrate into my daily life. This is why I feel so passionate about formal meditation practice whether it be through retreat, the MBSR course, or a morning sit at home. I believe formal meditation practice allows us to be more present and mindful throughout the day. Being in the present moment allows us to create more space between what happens around us and how we respond. We are empowered and not at the whim of our emotions and thoughts; thus, we can relate to the stresses in our life more effectively.
My silent meditation retreat experiences always feel deeply sacred to me, creating a challenge in expressing my internal experience in words. I often feel hesitant to share my retreat experience with others because I hold them with such reverence. However, I consider it important to share because retreats have been so formative in my mindfulness journey. I believe that it takes great courage to be fully present with oneself in the silence. This is what I call “fierce presence;” to be fully present with all emotional and mental states that arise no matter how aversive, difficult, or challenging. It requires such bravery and can seem quite counterintuitive to turn towards what is unpleasant as opposed to the natural desire to turn away. To practice this fierce presence mindfully asks that we hold ourselves in this vulnerable state with gentleness, kindness, and self-compassion. It invites us to recognize the impermanence of all mental and emotional states and to realize that our thoughts and emotions are not who we are; they are not our essence. At a silent retreat, one does not have the typical distractions of life to avoid or tune out the present moment. How fully one accesses the moment depends on many factors including how willing one is to show up with fierce presence.
To start with, people are often curious about the structure of a silent meditation retreat. I have attended several Vipassana retreats which have all followed a similar routine. The days consisted of alternating sitting and walking meditations interwoven with meals, breaks, and a yogi job/working meditation. This particular retreat integrated sacred sounds including chanting and singing, which added such a rich texture to my meditation practice. The retreat was held in silence other than the sacred sound. All components of the day were intended to be either formal or informal meditation practice. The formal meditation practices included the scheduled sitting and walking meditations, and, naturally, all other daily activities fell under informal meditation practices including meals, breaks, yogi jobs, brushing teeth, showering, etc. Mindful presence is accessed in these informal practices by intentionally directing your full attention to your sensory experiences including thoughts and emotions as they are arising. For example, I signed up for lunch dish washing for my yogi job. As I stood in the dish washing line each day, I noticed the vibrant colors and patterns on each dish, attuned myself to the subtle splashing sound as I dropped the dishes into the sink of water, observed the ripples in the water, felt the warmness of the water on my hands as I pulled each dish out of the sink, and smelled the fresh scent of the clean dishes as I placed them on the rack to dry.
The retreat center I attended was nestled within a pristine national forest in the mountains. What I noticed first upon arrival was the feeling of aliveness when stepping foot into the forest. I felt tingly, uplifted, and energized from the wilderness. I delighted in the whimsical wildflowers dancing along the landscape and the vibrant shades of green bursting from every direction. I felt cleansed by the aromatic scents of the Pine, Ponderosa and Aspen trees. I was enchanted by the birds signing, crickets chirping, and the babbling of the stream. I felt refreshed by the crisp mountain air flowing in and out of my lungs and comforted by the warm sun caressing my skin. I could sense the sacredness of the land. I dropped my belongings in my tent (there were also casita and yurt accommodations) before heading to the first dinner which was a delicious ginger carrot soup served with gorgeous wild harvested oyster mushrooms from the land. After being nourished from dinner, the opening ceremony commenced which formally marked the beginning of silence.
It took such diligence at times to show up to the formal meditation sits with the wilderness at my fingertips, but as one of the meditation teachers Erin Treat, gently reminded us, cultivating the formal meditation practices allows us to more fully experience the beauty of the land and all that it has to offer. I found this to be true. Spending time being in formal meditation practice allowed me drop into the present moment more deeply and wholeheartedly.
I find that formal meditation sits are not always easy but are so worth it as a practice to stick with over time. If you are experienced with meditation, you know that every meditation experience will be different. Sometimes your mind will be highly active and other times it will be more still and quiet. Sometimes you will experience emotions of calm, equanimity, and joy and other times you will experience agitation, anger, or worry. Or perhaps, you might experience feelings of neutrality. Sometimes your body sensations will feel easeful and light and other times you will feel aches, itches, and restlessness. Or even at other times, you will experience no body sensations at all. The only constant is change. Meditation asks for a certain willingness to accept whatever is arising moment to moment to moment whether be it pleasant, unpleasant, or natural. It requires letting go of judgements on whether you are doing it right or wrong. Again, this is why I like to call it fierce presence. In those moments of challenge, I stayed connected with my breath to stay present moment to moment. A heightened sensitivity tends to develop on retreat when spending such time in mindful awareness and away from the sensory overload of technology. For me, this results in feelings of both great joy and anguish. I find that self-limiting beliefs start to surface, but if I allow myself to lean into them and the associated feelings, I gain a sense of great freedom from them.
I feel grateful for being open to those challenging experiences because I sense it allowed me to more deeply drop into the moments of genuine joy, amazement, and wonder. Those moments certainly flowed with abundance in that serene setting. Nature tends to incite those feelings in me. I wanted to share a few moments that reflected such feelings: hiking solo in the national forest outside the retreat center, walking barefoot among the wild flowers, laying down on the earth, resting against Ponderosa trees, swimming in the river, grounding myself with my bare feet on the earth, watching the deer and elk, being in awe of the Aspen groves, serenading the moon out from behind the clouds with a group Tibetan compassion chant, gazing up at the starry sky at night, sipping wild harvested teas from the land, and sleeping among the elements in a tent. I found the most delightful of spots for my daily walking meditation sessions that I always did barefoot on a path along a swimming pond abundant with wildflowers with thick, lush grass cushioning my feet. I felt the most glorious warmth from the sunlight on my skin for the mid-morning to afternoon walking meditation sessions prompting some spontaneous and delicious sun salutation yoga flows. I loved lying down on the earth along the river listening to the water burble and watching the clear, pristine water meander through the forest And then there was the mindful eating, which was a delightful experience as every meal was thoughtfully prepared with the most exquisite of simple and clean ingredients many of which were harvested from the forest. And, it was such a treat to eat outside in the meadow of wildflowers while breathing in the clear mountain air.
It’s funny, all of my retreat experiences have concluded similar thus far in that I always feel content in the silence and time away from technology. I never rush back to my phone. I savor the silence on the journey back from the retreat center. The heightened sensitivity that develops over retreat can make integrating back into the business of life and coping with the sensory overload of our technological society a challenge. I use it as a meditation practice by simply being with my experience moment to moment to moment. This retreat was such a rich experience for me with the opportunity to deepen my meditation practice in the deep forest. As with all meditation retreats I have been on, the benefits from them tend to unfold slowly over time sometimes in the most unexpected of ways. I feel a sense of deep gratitude for what I experienced and the opportunities for learning and growth. I am so deeply excited to guide others into their mindfulness journey with the upcoming MBSR course.
I highly recommend Vallecitos Mountain Retreat Center where I attended. Check out their website here.
Thank you for sharing in my mindful meditation retreat journey with me.
With Deep Gratitude,