I step out into the Stirling train station feeling slightly discombobulated and highly agitated. The irritation from having spent five hours in a hot, sardine can of a train on a Friday afternoon on a U.K. holiday weekend is written in the crevices of my scowl.
Not my best start to a week of zen, that much is evident.
A large sparkling water and bag of sour candy assuage my anxiety until an oversized van claiming Dhanakosa Buddhist Retreat Centre ownership rumbles up to the station. Soon, nine of us are situated inside. Mostly women. One man. After an hour and a half of winding through the picturesque roads of Loch Lomond National Park, we arrive at the retreat centre.
A white house tucked into a large swath of green with patches of colorful wildflowers, the landscape looks eerily similar to the Lord of the Rings movie set. I cannot make this claim for sure, as I’ve never seen the movie, but every stranger in the van assures me this is, indeed, the Scottish version of Frodo’s Middle Earth. I want to ask if Ian McKellen will make an appearance, but the appropriate moment to spill my 80-year-old man crush never surfaces. Instead, a friendly-enough staff checks me into my shared room, and before I realize it, my cell phone is off and the seven-day silent meditation retreat officially begins.
Retreat, day one. I made it, and I haven’t run away yet. We’re calling that a win.
I spend the second day taking everything in: the people, the landscape, the schedule.
Wake up, 6:30am. First meditation, 7:00am. Fifteen minute tea break (U.K. priorities). Second meditation, 8:00am. Breakfast, 9:00am. Break. Yoga, 10:30am to 12:30pm. Lunch, 1:00pm. Afternoon break. Afternoon meditation, 5:00pm. Dinner, 6:00pm. Break. Nightly activity, 7:30pm. Bed, somewhere between 9:00pm and 10:00pm.
I start slow, spending my breaks journaling and inhaling Pema Chödrön books.
“None of us is okay, and all of us are fine.”
Pema’s words reverberate in the calm silence of the retreat centre.
“Meditation isn’t about getting rid of thoughts — you’ll think forever. If you follow the breath and label your thoughts, you learn to let things go. Our thoughts are very tied up with our identity, with our sense of problem, and our sense of how things are. You are not your thoughts.” I am simultaneously frightened and comforted. My meditation practice is — for lack of a better word — shit, but if Pema thinks I can do this, maybe I actually can?
That night, silence descends on the retreat.
Day three begins. I fall asleep during morning meditation doing that head bob thing anyone who has ever endured a 7am college lecture will know well. I’m tired, irritated and don’t want to attend morning yoga because the class is painfully slow. I have no patience for it. I want — need! — someone to agree with me on this, but that whole not talking to anyone thing is getting in the way.
But I go to yoga, and I feel better, more awake.
Okay okay, I get it Buddha. Eighty percent of life is just showing up.
That afternoon, I read more Pema while sipping my 8th cup of mint tea that day. “The best way to use unwanted circumstances on the path of enlightenment is not to resist but to lean into them.” This woman is asking me to do things I don’t want to do, and while part of me wants to rip her zen-filled Buddhist nun head right off, her words resonate. I know she is speaking a truth I need to hear.
During the afternoon and evening meditations, my monkey mind spins out of control. It refuses to heed Pema’s advice to lean in (or Sheryl Sandberg’s, for that matter) and instead, wildly undulates from cranial branches that I do not realize exist underneath my mass of frizzy curls.
OMG. Meditation ability and focus is dwindling with every practice. Send help.
The sun rises over the shivering cold loch. Day four.
I woke from a DEEP night’s sleep not wanting to meditate at all. Like seriously, AT ALL. I still haven’t pooped (that’s four days in a row) and feel so tired. The last thing I want to do right now is sit with my fucking thoughts.
But I go. Despite my failing digestive system, I remember Pema’s words, and I commit to showing up, bad attitude and all. Even though it doesn’t get me far (I spend most of the morning meditation planning how I would spend my money if I won the lottery), I am karmically rewarded with much-needed digestive relief after breakfast.
I go to yoga, albeit begrudgingly, and I journal.
Maybe I need to accept that this yoga is slow, boring and not going to be “what I want.”
I pick back up Pema’s book and the first line of the chapter reads, “Can you allow yourself to feel what you feel when things don’t go the way you want them to? When things don’t go the way you hoped and wished for and longed for them to go?”
Damn you Pema. I get it. I’M LISTENING.
It’s day five. I awake having slept through the first morning meditation. I only feel half-guilty, because you know what? It’s nice. As a not-morning person, I happily enjoy my quiet time and coffee before joining the group for the second session. I surprise myself with moments of being deep in the meditation and in my body. I lose them repeatedly but with patience and breath, they return to me. Once. Twice. A third time. They are brief, but holy hell, they are beautiful.
“The basic ground of compassionate action is the importance of working with rather than struggling against. The point is not that you’re trying to achieve harmony or smooth everything out. Good luck, if that’s your goal.”
Pema is in my head, and I’m convinced somehow watching my every move.
I furiously journal for five pages and end my maniacal writing with an affirmation (per Pema’s suggestion): I’m going to lean into the unknown and let the rest of the year unfold, allowing it to bring me where I need to go. Can I surprise myself with where I am in one year? After a year of break-ups, work shake-ups and severe self-consciousness, this affirmation feels right. Dare I say even good?
On day six, I wake up feeling off. After a night of weird dreams, tossing and turning, I sleep through the morning meditation once more. I’m highly irritable and unsettled, and yet, I am okay. I repeat this to myself three times.
I AM OKAY. I AM OKAY. I AM OKAY.
As a perfectionist, being okay with being okay isn’t a thing I do. (Why be okay when you can be the best? The voice inside my head is a real beast.) But I try to embrace these three simple words. I repeat them again and again, letting them wash over me like the hot shower I manage to procure that morning.
From that moment, the rest of the day and the next seem to fly by so easily. The silence ends that night. I catch up with my Irish friends, Deborah and Barbara, over dinner and listen to their sweet, lilting accents as we share our experiences. Everyone in the room is talking a million miles an hour, and this whole silent meditation retreat thing seems to be ending far faster than I am ready for.
On the last day, I wake up early and enjoy an hour of just being. They encourage us to do this at least once a day — no journals, no tea, no books. Just sitting and observing the living earth around us. And despite my mediocre week of meditating, I feel a distinct sense of calm and peace as I stare out at the Scottish Middle Earth.
It’s not a feeling I am used to, but I like it.
Saturday, June 3rd
I’m officially back from the retreat, and as the universe has a tendency to do — the journey home was a test of everything I learned all week. Just 30 minutes after leaving Dhanakosa, I had the worst motion sickness as our driver maneuvered through the winding roads to Stirling station. Then, I got a text from a good friend that made me sad, and the train from Edinburgh to London was mysteriously canceled, leaving us stranded for nearly an hour until a new train was able to pick us up.
BUT…BUT…BUT…through all of this, I feel like I maintained my mind and didn’t let it all affect my mood. I made it through the car ride by talking with my lovely Irish friend, Deborah. When I received the text, I let myself feel sad without devolving into a story or placing blame. I shed a few tears and tried (successfully, I think) to remind myself that this feeling is part of being a HUMAN BEING.
On the train, I befriended an older woman named Kate. We kept each other company during the hour wait and ended up chatting the entire rest of the trip until she got off at Petersborough. An archaeologist who worked much of her career at Cambridge, she was so interesting to talk to — telling me about her late husband, step-children, work and house hunting. I got the sense she was lonely. I also got the sense she saw me crying. Together, it seemed we were exactly what the other needed.
Arriving back in London, I was HUNGRY. It was such a nice night (the skies luminated pinks and creamsicle orange), and even though I wanted sushi, the thought of going to eat alone was too much after such a long day of travel. But I forced myself to go. I sat at the bar, ordered a raw fish feast and met the most wonderful women — Ellah and Audrey. Strong, intelligent, beautiful and so, so funny. I had the loveliest time talking to them as they befriended my lonely American self. What I loved most about them was they are evidently women who have been through some shit. Ellah graciously let me in on her two mottos: “Don’t be afraid,” and “I give zero fucks.”
So yeah, they were awesome and an unexpected surprise to my night. Living open-heartedly, this is what I’m working on and perhaps already reaping the benefits of.