Earlier this month, I hopped into a car with six queer strangers I met through a ride share page. We drove three and a half hours north of NYC to the small town of Barre, Massachusetts, where we’d spend the next five days or so amongst more queer strangers. We would leave our phones at the door and all books and journals at home. We would follow a daily schedule that allowed for only two variations of activity outside of meals: walking and sitting. We’d all pitch in and do chores. We’d abstain from all sexual activity (obviously, I masturbated). We’d eat more vegetables and drink more tea than I’ve ever consumed in my life. Oh, and we’d all be completely silent the entire time. Earlier this month, I attended a five day silent meditation retreat for LGBTQ+ persons hosted by Insight Meditation Society.
“How was your retreat?” is a rather simple question but I’ve struggled to concisely answer it. The experience I had feels like it requires a lot of words to accurately describe it, and yet, I also feel as though words in and of themselves fall short in their ability to do so. I think the easiest place to start would be in detailing why I went and yet I honestly can’t remember! I’ve been meditating daily for somewhere over three years now. I’m a certified mindfulness coach who works primarily with LGBTQ+ clients. A queer meditation retreat seems like a natural part of my growth journey, I suppose, but I registered for it so long ago that I genuinely don’t remember what prompted the action or how I even heard about it.
When sharing my experience and what I got out of it, I feel the need to do so through two different lenses: mindfulness and spirituality. From a mindfulness standpoint, I definitely think that spending six days in silence with yourself has the potential to provide some added self-awareness and an improved relationship with one’s thoughts, emotions, and other aspects of the self. However, I certainly don’t think it’s the only way, and in fact can name some other much more enjoyable ways to receive these benefits, such as journaling or coaching or therapy or, my personal favorite: an acting class, which to this day has probably been the most impactful and informative way in which I’ve mindfully learned about myself. From a spirituality standpoint, I do think that this experience was uniquely positioned to offer moments of awakening. Though I’ve had enlightening moments through other mediums, such as while high at concerts, hiking in nature, or again, in an acting class, I learned during these six days that there is value in “clearing the runway so the plane can land,” as they say. I had some deeply enlightening moments during this trip that I believe were a direct result of practices such as noble silence, renunciation, and non-attachment that the retreat called for.
That said, it is worth asking whether my opposition to crediting this experience as a uniquely beneficial mindfulness path could simply be a final protestation of my ego. One of the more interesting aspects of the five days came from the paradox that, while I was receiving all the benefits of the practice (rest, relaxation, clarity of mind, inner peace), my ego was incessantly arguing against the methodology: “Why can’t I have sex and still be a mindful person?”. A valid question, if that was what was being taught, but it wasn’t and so, in the end, I concluded that the non-stop arguments coming from my ego were because of its refusal to die. The ego wants to keep its story alive because without the drama contained within its narrative, it would have nothing to protect me from. I found it telling that the song stuck in my head the entire retreat was MUNA’s “What I Want,” a sure theme song for the ego’s desires if I’ve ever heard one. At the time of publishing this, I’m about one month into a new relationship with a boyfriend and once again, I feel my protective ego attempting to keep its story alive and searching for past pain where there is none in the present. It doesn’t yet trust the intimacy that’s blooming between us. Perhaps understandably so, as it must be strange for it to suddenly be less needed. It’s worth noting the validity of some of the ego’s arguments on retreat as well, especially considering that one of the most impactful tools I’ve utilized in caring for my mental health in recent years has been permission — if I’m feeling lazy, go be lazy for ten minutes .. if I want to shut off and scroll social media after a long day, it’s okay to do that .. essentially, allowing the waves of my experience to rise and subside without evaluating each as healthy or unhealthy. It felt, in moments during this retreat, that the practice was conflicting with this allowing energy I’ve worked to cultivate in my life and yet meditation is all about discovering the rising and subsiding of experience.
What I discovered is that neither modality conflicts with the other. What was really going on here was reflective of my ego’s disappointment in the very idea of renunciation and non-attachment. A scenario I pondered was the example of a haircut. Say you like your hair styled a certain way. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with giving yourself permission to find the salon where you will spend the money to get your hair crafted in a way that suits your preferences. But in what ways are you attached to your hair looking a certain way? How is that attachment causing you suffering? If you like your hair short and it begins to grow back, are you able to recognize the impermanence of things and be okay with that? It felt at times like the lesson being taught at this meditation society was one that condemned desire. I didn’t like that because it reminded too much of the constrictive and conditional elements of religion that I grew up surrounded by. It also seemed to contradict the joyful flow I had achieved in my life by giving myself permission to pursue desires, to honor impulses, and to accept aspects of my identity and expression without judgment. However, I realize now that the lesson is not in the thing itself but in your relationship to the thing. There’s nothing wrong with whatever way you want to wear your hair. It comes down to this: what is your relationship to that desire or that preference and can you recognize that your hair — like everything else in this world — is changing? The only constant is the awareness from which you notice your hair and this is the place to rest in.
On day five, my theories described above were confirmed in the final dharma talk that was given. Unconscious behaviors are going to happen. You’re going to react to desire and unconsciously reach for the fourth cookie sometimes even though if you were to get consciously present you may have realized you were full after three. There’s nothing wrong with this whatsoever but just notice what you’re doing, notice how you’re relating to what you’re doing, and notice what happens after. Over time, this simple act of noticing will create the space within you needed to live your life more and more consciously. Maybe there will be days where you’ll intuitively want four cookies and that’s okay too. It’s just about creating a life that’s in alignment with your authentic self, which can only be discovered through the moment-to-moment detective work of being a kind and present witness to your experience.
One thing I expected going into these several days of practice was that I would have insights that were “corrective,” meaning that I’d perhaps begin to question my relationship with weed or my phone, for example, as I was concerned both had gone too far. Oddly enough, I found the time spent with myself really validating. For instance, I took comfort in the fact that I was able to withstand the duration of the retreat thanks to my daily meditation practice. I took some time to celebrate this growth considering that in college, I couldn’t even take a yoga class because the very idea of sitting still even temporarily drove me crazy. It was cool to see that me sitting in silence for ten to twenty minutes every day for the past few years has had a profound effect on my tolerance of time with myself. I also entered the retreat fearful that my self-dialogue would be difficult to sit with for six days. Instead, I discovered that the conscious efforts I’ve taken in recent years to speak more kindly and compassionately to myself have had a lasting effect. I wasn’t nearly as bogged down by harsh or critical thoughts as I thought I would be. I realized that even though I still have moments scattered throughout my life that are crippled with anxiety and self-doubt, I surprisingly didn’t leave these five days of reflecting with any commitment to change or correction. My reflections allowed me to see that I’m actually quite happy with the path I’m on, that I’m not doing anything wrong, and that the work I’m putting in towards building a life guided by increased self-awareness is slowly but surely paying off. Sure, my relationship with my phone isn’t perfect but it’s human.
One aspect of the retreat that I really valued is that it seemed to reacquaint me with neutral. I’ll spare the details, but I started the summer off in a chronically stressful relational situation that was extremely anxiety inducing and ended in tough feelings of shame, loss, and abandonment. Meanwhile, it was still a bit of a hot girl summer in some senses of the phrase. I challenged myself socially by joining a gay kickball league and said yes to various other social experiences and dating opportunities that would keep me out of my comfort zone in an exciting yet vulnerably exposed way. I competed in a mock Survivor competition that was highly self-informative. Finally, I released some new music, which always brings a unique mixture of feelings that run the gamut from celebratory to insecure to validated. All this to say: I was often in the thick of an adrenaline cycle in one way or another. Stripping everything away in the form of a meditation retreat forced me to face neutral in a way I hadn’t in a long time. It was a mental health reset that allowed me to reintegrate myself with my base level beyond what a vacation would normally allow.
It was this next major takeaway from the experience that came to me quickly after it was over that really drove things home: the realization that our culture is rarely, if ever, at its neutral base level. We are constantly overstimulated, with opportunities for arriving at a grounded reset slim to none unless we intentionally carve out the space for them in our lives. I think we’re all somewhat aware of this (perhaps you’ve seen The Social Network?). Adjusting to “normal” life following this period of time off the grid was layered. I quickly got sick after returning home and I attribute that to the rapid change of pace going zero to sixty. I found myself unable to push as hard in my workout classes as I had less cortisol to convert into energy. And after a week back to my regular schedule, I ended up needing to take an entire second weekend to crash and catch up on rest because my brain and body were simply exhausted from all the stress of what I would have otherwise considered a normal week. If we, as humans, weren’t constantly overstimulated and caught in adrenaline cycles, we’d probably be operating at a more restful functioning rate. One thing that consumed much of my first two days at this retreat was sleep. Without the distractions of my day-to-day “to-do’s”, my body eagerly welcomed a turn-off. Frankly, I spent a good amount of time thinking about dogs and how often they sleep, and that we’d likely spend our time similarly without the stories we tell ourselves about why we shouldn’t.
On the positive side of post-retreat effects, I’ll note that I was calmer and more stable afterward, barely blinking an eye as the lower level of my apartment flooded the week of my return. By relocating a satisfied peace at home within myself, I exited the retreat with a noticeably clearer mind and a more compassionate heart. I found myself looking passersby in the eye, giving more space, presence, and attention to conversations, and yes, being overall more intentional with my phone, thoughtfully responding to texts only when I would sit down to do so, for example. After the closing sitting, there was some time allotted for retreatants to converse and get to know one another at last. During this brief socialization period, a fellow passenger from the car ride up approached me and reported that my face was glowing and that my eyes were brighter (something I had actually also clocked in the mirror). I’d be remiss if I didn’t note the amount of giddy laughter all of us shared in the car ride back to NYC. I don’t know if it was the extended lack of human contact or what but the seven of us were like little kids, seemingly fascinated with our own curious and playful dialogue. When normally at home, I typically have a difficult time relaxing. The week following my retreat, restful activities came much more easily to me. A final testament to the retreat that even my protesting ego couldn’t invalidate had to do with reactivity. On the very first day, I was outside in the garden when a bug buzzed past my ear. I did what we all do when that happens — I shuddered and aggressively swatted it away instantaneously. But on the last day, a bug once again buzzed past my ear and I just noticed it. I didn’t react.
Words not only have a way of falling short of describing an entirely non-verbal experience but I also feel as though they rob the experience of the point. I think it would be a misstep to externalize everything I noticed during the retreat, as if the noticing wasn’t the goal and an arrival point in and of itself. I left Massachusetts with a stronger appreciation for human nature (nature being the operative word) because that’s what we are and I think we forget that sometimes. We become so over-identified with our intellect that we miss the constantly evolving and unfolding process that is our very being. Just as we wouldn’t try to stop a leaf from falling off a tree, we don’t need to stop or correct or resist or change our human nature. We just have to notice it.
I leave you with a passage from one of my favorite authors, Glennon Doyle. The battle between my ego and I over the debatable necessity of spending five days in silence with myself is ongoing, as evidenced in this reflection. But I wonder if perhaps it’s both: something I need to do until it’s something I don’t need to. It’s in the noticing of myself that I come to know myself. Though there will always be more of myself to discover, there is something to be said for honoring that of myself which is known.
“The truth of my thirties was: ‘Stay on your mat, Glennon. The staying is making you.’ The truth of my forties is: ‘I’m made.” I will not stay, not ever again — in a room or conversation or relationship or institution that requires me to abandon myself. When my body tells me the truth, I’ll believe it. I trust myself now, so I will no longer suffer voluntarily or silently or for long. I’ll look at those women to my left and right who must stay, because it’s that time for them, because they have to know what love and God and freedom are not before they can know what love and God and freedom are. Because they want to know. Because they are warriors. I’ll send them every bit of my strength and solidarity to help them through this part. And then I’ll pick up my mat and slowly, deliberately, lightly walk out. Because I have just remembered that the sun is shining, the breeze is cool, and these doors, they’re not even locked.”