Sometime in June, I was in a horrible mood and signed up for a seven-day silent meditation retreat. I had been having a lot of stormy days, and I was sick of my mood, my perspective, and, frankly, myself. Nothing else — exercise, yoga, therapy, fun trips, time with friends and family — seemed to do anything but temporarily relieve my sourpuss mood.
So in September, the time finally arrived to pack up for the retreat: Seven days of no talking, no reading, and no eye contact. The schedule had a
minimum of four hours of meditation per day, and all meals were held in silence. If someone had an emotional outburst at any point during the retreat, you were absolutely not allowed to look at, touch, talk to, or comfort them in any way. The goal of the weeklong silence? To deepen attention within, in order to allow more profound awareness and understanding to emerge. When the silence started on Friday night, I felt anxious, but with no one to look at or communicate with, I kept my eyes downcast and decided to take it one step at a time. Within just the first 36 hours, it was clear this was going to be a transformative experience. And it was.
Here are seven realizations that came out of my seven days of silence.
I can be a real asshole.
When I arrived on campus in the mid-afternoon, I was given my room key and led to a small cabin room on the border of the woods. There, I met my roommate (an older lady), whom I would not be allowed to talk to, look at, or really acknowledge at all for the entire week starting at 7 p.m. that evening. Upon meeting, she asked me if she could hitch a ride in my taxi upon retreat’s end. For absolutely no reason at all, this totally stressed me out. On the surface, I smiled and offered to help, but inside a voice was whining,
Why do I have to do EVERYTHING all the time? Why am I always the one with her shit together? I called the taxi company, arranged for her spot in the car (she told me that she didn’t know how to call), and then I went for a walk in the woods where I ruminated and lightly fumed, feeling totally put upon by this old lady who needed my help getting a taxi.
As I was walking by myself, getting rid of my ridiculously unnecessary agitated energy, I realized how crazy and out of proportion my entire relationship to that experience was (I am not proud of it). Is this me? Am I really this person? Where does this come from?
Photo: Courtesy of Giphy.
My “I’m so busy” ego.
Every morning, the Zen spiritual teacher leading the retreat would give a talk. On the second or third morning, he spoke about the ego in a way that made me reflect deeply. He explained that everyone has an ego, or maybe we should say everyone has
egos. The ego is very fluid and wears hundreds of different costumes, even over the course of one single day. Being in the grips of an egoic trance is something I think will feel familiar to many people: It’s that itchy feeling that pesters and nags at your mind, and even when you “satisfy” the voice, it immediately comes back in the form of another manifestation or obsession. The ego is never satisfied; it is always seeking more, more, more. The ego also gets incredibly petulant or upset when it does not get what it wants, or does not get the kind of recognition it wants.
After some long, silent walks in the woods, I realized that one of my most damaging and ridiculous ego costumes is the “I’m so busy” ego. I now affectionately call her “Bego” (busy ego). Bego is reinforced internally and externally: Internally, I am naturally ambitious and competitive, and I love to work. Externally, as we all know, this country’s ethos is based around work and success. And I think it’s safe to say that the “I’m so busy” ego is particularly concentrated in NYC — a small island where millions of
Type A personalities are in each other’s faces all hours of the day. Sit down at any dinner party, and the question, “How are you?” will inevitably elicit a big dramatic eye roll, a heavy sigh, and a very self-important, “I’ve been so busy.”
I’ve done this a million times, too. And you know what? Yeah, I am busy, but I also feed my busy-ness immensely and totally unnecessarily. Just as an example, the day after a presidential debate, do I need to read the morning paper for its analysis, then turn on CNN to watch a bunch of talking heads talk about their (inevitably conflicting) opinions while I am getting ready for work, and then read what my Twitter-verse is thinking about the whole damn thing while I am on the subway, and then go on the internet and read what other papers are thinking while I am on lunch break, and then download an NPR post-debate podcast to listen to while I am walking my dogs? Do I
really need to do all that? No. Those are choices that I am making that feed Bego. Or maybe I should say that those are choices I am making when I am in the grips of the Bego trance. Even something as simple as choosing to look at social media or fire off (often unnecessary) emails and texts while I am walking my dogs or waiting for a coffee at Starbucks are things I do when totally wrapped up in Bego. Even when my mind is screaming at me that I have to check social media, or I have to answer that text immediately, and making my fingers itch to grab my phone, do I have to believe that thought? NO.
Being trapped in Bego is sad for me in several ways: Not only am I suffocating my own mental space, but I am also missing out on the lovely, quiet moments that are peppered throughout each day. And these hundreds of tiny choices reinforce my feeling of being overwhelmed, which leads me to being cranky and thinking or acting like an asshole.
Photo: Courtesy of Giphy.
I have an irrational fear of men.
During the retreat, anytime I was walking along an empty road or a forest trail and would see a man of any age or size, my entire body and mind seized up. The extent of the tension that I felt was incredibly surprising to me. No matter what I was going through, thinking, or feeling at that moment, everything would go into suspension the very instant a man would cross my gaze, and I’d hover in “flight mode.” Even if the man was many yards away, my mind would race with all the possible ways I could escape if he decided to attack or get too close to me. At one point, I found myself even making a mental note of how far out into a lake I would have to swim to make it to a wooded island in the middle. Did I think similar thoughts about the bears in the area? Not for one second.
This is obviously totally Crazytown. These men were not talking to me, not looking at me, and they’d walk far away from me (and anyone else they came upon, as we were all required to do), but nonetheless my instincts were on total alert and my mistrust was visceral. Once I clocked how scared I was, I started posing some important questions to myself: Does this fear subconsciously seep into my daily interactions with men? If the first neuron that fires in my brain the second I encounter a man is,
WATCH OUT, what does that mean about how I construct relationships with them? Then, I started thinking about the people who are survivors of abuse or assault — the terror they must feel, what they have to do to overcome and re-instill a sense of normalcy and safety in their lives — and an immense feeling of compassion swelled in my chest to the point that tears came to my eyes. I am very fortunate and have never been abused, nor have I ever been physically threatened. All my fear, then, must come from cultural and media messaging that clearly has palpable effects on my psyche (and body!) way, way, WAY, more than I ever fully realized.
My anger meter is OTT.
As the days passed, the silence and frequent meditation started having an interesting effect: It started feeling like there was a thin gauze between my thoughts and feelings and a deeper, infinitely calm me. Thoughts came flying into my mind as they always do, but rather than an immediate cascade of strong emotional and physical reactions, I felt I had an internal sense of stillness that just watched. For example, one thing I noticed in my “stillness space” was that I can get
really angry, really fast. I was on my way to the cafeteria to get some tea when I saw three of the retreat employees walking on the road and they were TALKING. My mind immediately went into blaming and aversive judgment mode — What the hell are they doing?, Um, hellooo — SILENT retreat!, They have no respect!, How dare they!, You’re taking me out of my precious silence!, and on, and on, and crazy on. I felt anger come into my chest and stomach, and then a calm voice in my head simply asked Really? and — poof! — all the thoughts and emotions instantly flushed out of my system.
It struck me that within about three seconds, I went from calm as a
Hindu cow, to rageful dragon, to totally calm again — even kind of laughing at myself. Did the situation merit my intense and overly dramatic reaction in any way? Nope. These three seconds made me realize how I create (thought) and perpetuate (rumination) my own negative emotions. In other words, I ruin my own day. Can I help the spontaneous thought? Maybe not. Do I have to believe my thoughts? Nope. Photo: Courtesy of Giphy.
I am great at “rehearsing” negative emotions.
I’d be walking along, enjoying the fresh fall air, and out of nowhere some totally imaginary scenario would come into my head. Immediately, my mind would be off to the races with how that situation would play out.
If that person said this to me, I would do this and this, this, and this… Emotions would follow, and everything about my energy would shift — my shoulders would get tighter, my jaw would clench, my walking would speed up, my head would look down at the ground, rather than ahead or up at the sky. My enjoyment of a glorious, silent, lonely walk through an open field of wild grasses and flowers toward the lake could instantaneously disappear as my mind took over and I went into “autopilot.”
I realized that I’m particularly prone to these emotion rehearsals when I’m picturing a negative scenario. Someone makes me sad or angry, or disrespects me, and I imagine all the ways I can defend myself. Do I do the same thing with positive scenarios, picturing my gratitude in response to someone’s kindness? Not so much. Now, whenever I catch myself falling into that mode, I’ll interrupt my own thought flow with a mental exclamation —
Rehearsing! — then drop it, and call myself back into the present moment. This can feel like a battle, particularly if a thought or scenario feels particularly enticing to play out. But if I keep insisting my mind will get nowhere with me, it eventually gives up and allows me to enjoy what I am actually doing — which is not arguing, or fighting, or whatever-ing with anybody 99.99% of the time. Photo: Courtesy of Giphy.
I think another way of saying this is, “We all have our own cross to bear.” Every night at the retreat, we’d have a satsang for 90 minutes. A satsang is when you sit with the Zen teacher leading the retreat and are allowed to ask him or her questions about anything you want, if you get called on. Everyone else has to sit in silence and listen. What became clear to me during these sessions was the extent to which everyone is dealing with some major issue, loss, obsession, tragedy, fear, or obstacle. There were many times when I’d look around and notice that everyone in the room had tears in their eyes or rolling down their cheeks while listening to someone speak. I suppose I “knew” that everyone had problems on a superficial level, but watching these silent strangers morph into human beings who had suffered losses of children or spouses, or were living with a traumatic brain injury, or were stuck in devastating heartbreak, really made me feel it deeply in my heart —
And when I came back into the world, I found that this new perspective had carried over and helped me feel a tiny spark of affection for every single stranger I passed on the street or brushed shoulders with on the subway. I know how horrible I feel when I am suffering, and how much a kind gesture or even a simple smile can mean in those moments. Starting now, I am paying that forward.
Photo: Courtesy of Giphy.
To get away from yourself, you’ve got to confront yourself.
Prior to the retreat, I think my feelings toward myself can best be summed up by the chorus of
this song by the Counting Crows (remember them?!). Specifically, the line that goes, “Try to keep myself away from me.” At first, I thought everyone else and everything else was driving me nuts, but then one day I wondered, What’s the common thread in all of this? Answer: Me. But how do you get space from your own self to really attend to what is nagging at you? How do you get away from yourself?
For me, the answer is to go and be completely alone, completely silent, with absolutely zero distractions, and
meditate almost the whole day for at least one week. I know it’s a luxury, but it has been the only way I have been able to knock up against my own walls and really see the neuroses that were driving me. A lot of people have said to me something along the lines of, “Oh my God, I could never be silent for a week! I’d be scared to find out what is really going on.” But for me, that wasn’t really what it was about at all. Sure, I confronted all the ways that I am a little nuts, but for the first time I also saw my crazies for what they really are — very convincing illusions. And beneath all my mental and emotional noise was an endless well of calmness and awareness that I did not know I had. But now that I know I have it, I can tap into it to help me stop my patterns of being highjacked by my thoughts and emotions. I don’t pretend this is a “one and done” deal. In fact, I am sure it will be a lifelong process. By the time I work through and past this pile of crazies, there will surely be a whole new pile to sort through. But I am totally cool with that, because that’s what being human is. Photo: Courtesy of Giphy.
So, in conclusion …
If someone came to me and said, “Elettra, you have two choices: Either you can go to a 5-star resort of your choice
anywhere in the world and stay for FREE for an entire month, and any and all amenities — food, spa, whatever — will be 100% covered and paid for. Or, you can pay to go to a weeklong silent meditation retreat and sleep in a bare-bones room with a stranger, with no heat or air-conditioning, and a shared bathroom,” I’d choose to pay for the silent retreat every single time, no question. That’s how precious and important the experience was. In fact, I am going to do this every year from now on. And you know what? Maybe someday, I’ll even do a silent month. Photo: Courtesy of Giphy.
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