Tomorrow I head off for a 4-day, silent, women’s retreat in New Windsor, Maryland.
My packing list is short: comfortable stretchy pants and tops, warm sweater, socks, shawl, and meditation cushion. No makeup, no cell phone, no reading, no gadgets.
When we arrive, we’ll check in, find our shared room, plop our cushions in the meditation hall and have a delicious vegetarian meal. There will be lots of chatter and energy as 85 women from all over the country come together in this place with a common intention.
I love thinking of the day before a retreat… in different towns, life situations, personal stages… all of us “strangers” are preparing ourselves to arrive.
It is no small thing when so many people travel long distances to gather for a common purpose. For peace.
Something powerful is created by that simple act- something palpable. Because we know it is not at all simple to devote a weekend to “filling your own well”. Because the lives we live have become so complicated.
At 8 pm that first night, we will settle into the meditation hall to hear a wise teaching, a dharma talk- practical and profound guidance about how to “pause”, “arrive”, “allow”, and “stay” with what is HERE, right here, in this body, in this room, in this life we bring with us.
The teachings this weekend will be gentle and forgiving. They will need to be. Because only human beings sign up for these retreats We are women bringing with us busy, noisy minds and baggage full of normal, human life issues. No saints ever show up to these things, as far as I’ve noticed.
By the time we leave the meditation hall, we will be in silence. It will not be broken until Sunday afternoon when we gather for the closing. (sometimes there are small group gatherings with the teachers to ask questions and share issues coming up for us in practice).
Yep. All weekend… and it is divine.
When I first started attending silent retreats, my friends laughed. They just couldn’t believe I could last an hour, much less a weekend or week, without talking. I admit I thought the same thing.
But then I experienced it… and was changed.
I was simply shocked at how effortless it was to close my mouth and operate from another voice.
To follow a thought deeper and deeper into wisdom- without interruption.
And, of course, it is much easier and delicious when you share space with other souls moving about, eating, and sitting in silence.
It is a rare gift to be encouraged to hear the birds or taste the soup. To really pay attention to sensations in your body. To awaken the other senses that get drowned out by talking and rushing around all day… like touch, or smell. (have you ever really smelled the layers of jasmine tea as you sip it?)
The weekend is structured around set blocks of sitting and walking meditation, meals and dharma talks. The schedule is posted everywhere and bells let you know the end of one and beginning of another period. No one needs a watch, phone, day planner. No one cares if you keep walking and miss a sit. No one is watching. No one is judging. Our focus is inward and sensory. It is okay not to smile or make eye contact when you pass another- the pressure of social convention and those “shoulds” that control us are left at the door.
It takes time to quiet the mind and wake up in the body. There is so much unlearning to do. There is so much control to relinquish.
Each day, sometimes each hour, you can feel your body soften a bit more. By the third night the meditation hall is enveloped in a sweet, thick quiet… feels natural, not so “practiced”. The connection between me and the women beside me has grown… although we have not uttered a word to each other. It is magical. It is profound.
Sitting here anticipating the weekend ahead, I am having a strong body memory of how snow days felt when I was a child or young, busy mother.
They were a gift. Permission to let go. Unannounced. Unplanned.
Snow days always felt like a warm bath.
Unlike a vacation- which can kick a busy mind into overdrive; planning, packing, worrying, anticipating- snow days take it all “down a notch”.
Snowdays force you to let go of control- roads are blocked, schools are closed- can’t go shopping, can’t carpool, no homework assigned today. You eat what is there, enjoy who you are with, and feel the relief that you can’t change things.
Ahhh, yes, it is a relief sometimes to be powerless.
Snowdays whisper, “so, what do you really want to do right now?” The answer from inside might be, “I want to stay in my jammies, eat oatmeal, and start a good book!” or ” I just want to sit on the floor and play a board game with my kids… and listen, and laugh.”
The voice inside knows, “I just want to be Here, right Now”.
And surrounded by a white frozen world outside, you get to do just that.
I loved who I was with my kids on snowdays- playful, spontaneous, relaxed.
On those blustery, family “retreat” days, the carpet felt softer, the hot chocolate tasted chocolat-ier, and the world seemed at peace.
Snow days seem to awaken the senses and make the ordinary feel fresher somehow.
I think my retreat weekends are just like that… except I put these “snow days” on the calendar.
I am so thankful for a meditation practice that teaches me not only to allow “what is” to be what it is, but also to smell it and taste it and sit down on the floor to play with it.
And I am thankful for a community of fellow seekers who courageously stop their busy lives, if even just for a weekend, to create our own snow days. To release the “shoulds”, put down the planner, and ask our hearts “what do you really want in this moment.. and this one?”
I am looking forward to letting it all go… into this weekend.
I guess I need to pack my snow boots.