I Spent New Year's Eve on a Five-Day Silent Meditation Retreat

The two things that I was the most worried about were that I would have successive panic attacks, and that I would cry every day. Check, and check.
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Alison James
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The two things that I was the most worried about were that I would have successive panic attacks, and that I would cry every day. Check, and check.
Credit: dharmatechno

Credit: dharmatechno

The setup: The New Year’s Eve Vipassana Meditation Retreat. Dec 27 – Jan 1. No speaking, no internet, no phone, no reading, no writing.

A bunch of rough stuff happened this year, and my brain exploded. Shortly after I turned 36 I decided, out of desperation really, to give meditation a concerted effort. I found it useful to some extent despite my skepticism, and decided to go on the retreat as a two-birds one-stone sort of manoeuvre: I would learn more about meditation and I would have plans for New Years that wouldn’t make me want to kill myself. The two things that I was the most worried about going on retreat were that I would have successive panic attacks, and that I would cry every day.

Check, and check. And yet, it was the best possible gift I could have given myself at this time.

Pre-retreat. My sentiments on 2015.

Pre-retreat. My sentiments on 2015.

Arrival – Day 1

I arrive for registration at the farm. I am given details of my accommodation (yurt) and yogi job (after-dinner pots and pans). I am shown around. Sally shows me the station where we can make tea. “I guess there’s no coffee, hey?” I say, trying to sound casual. No, there isn’t. Perhaps sensing my panic, Sally points me to the green tea containing the most caffeine.

I get lost twice trying to find my way back to my yurt. This becomes a focus of anxiety for me – terrible sense of direction combined with bad night vision means that I am constantly afraid of getting lost in what is in reality a very small space. I mention this to my yurt-mate Cassie before we go into silence and she waits around to walk back with me the first few times and later always ensures I have one of her flashlights with me. We are fast friends in silence.

Anxiety arises quickly- there is absolutely nothing to distract me. This is of course the way retreats are designed – with no external stimulation and nothing in particular to do/plan/worry about, we are able to go deeper into the mind and the mind’s workings. We don’t even have to pay attention to the time – yogis volunteer for bell ringing shifts and each time we are to be at a meditation session the bells are rung fifteen minutes in advance. This is also the way we are woken up at 6am. 

Beyond even my intense anxiety about getting lost, I am convinced I made the wrong decision by coming, and start planning to leave early. There is absolutely no way I can do this. Sitting with my ‘stuff’ seems like a horrible idea, now. There’s so much of it. It’s so unpleasant. What was I thinking?

Day 2

I would commit homicide for a cup of coffee. I am both foggy and anxious.

At today’s Dharma Talk, Sarah, the teacher, goes through the process of feeling and being with your emotions, rather than fighting them or trying to distract yourself from them. She lays out the idea of noticing an emotion, letting it be without judgment or add-on thoughts, and just sitting with it gently.

The big ol’ obvious emotion that comes up time and time again for me in these first few days and throughout the retreat is grief. Plain old insides-tearing grief. This is the grief of my marriage ending, of losing my partner, my friend, and the person I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life with. It comes in different forms. Often it arises during meditation. 

One day after lunch I am sitting on the couch and a memory of how happy my wedding day was arises, followed by the acute pain of plans and hopes and love lost. I sit with it a lot. I cry about it a lot. It is a clean, straightforward, uncomplicated emotion. I also have chest crushing, complicated anxiety regarding a Situationship. This anxiety arises regularly throughout the retreat as well, and it is more difficult to penetrate – it is a tangle of confusion and mixed messages and hurt and it is harder to be with this emotion not knowing exactly what it is all about.

I try to craft a message in my head about why I need to leave. I’m just not ready for this. I’m not in a good enough place right now, and I am not strong enough. I need reassurance from my people because I am unable to reassure myself. I decide leaving will be the responsible thing to do on mental health grounds. I decide to stick it out for one more night so that I can explain my decision to Sarah in person at our meeting in the morning.

In the midst of one of these ‘I’ve got to get out of here’ panics, I listen very carefully to what I’m actually telling myself about why I can’t do this. I realize that I have persistent negative self-talk. The dominant messages running on a loop are:

You’re crazy and will always be unhappy.

No one will ever be in love with you ever again.

You’re not strong enough for this or for anything life throws at you.

Day 3

After breakfast I innocently peruse the green tea box while waiting for my tea to steep. “Only has the caffeine of ¼ cup of coffee!” the box boasts. After that I switch to black tea. At one point I spy a women with multiple green tea bags hanging out of her mug.

In a morning meeting with Sarah, I tell her about the negative self-talk and the panic. She says it’s huge that I am able to identify that I’m doing this. She advises not ignoring it or fighting it, but treating it kindly. It is my subconscious trying to help me. Fight or flight is about survival after all. I should gently tell myself that I’m going to try another way, and that it’s safe here.

This part about not fighting it really resonates. When I’m in the midst of the panic/negative self-talk loop, these statements are the gospel truth, scientific facts. So, arguing with them never worked. She also advises me to really focus in on the Metta (loving kindness) part of the meditation practice. She recommends coming up with Metta phrases in patterns of four or five pairings. For my Metta, I use: I am happy and light, loving and loved, connected and passionate, honest and strong. I practice this all day, really considering each word and what it means. I have never even considered applying empathy to myself.

My sleep is solid. I hit the yurt as soon as meditation is done for the day at 9:30 and am always asleep within the half hour, almost always sleeping completely through the night. It’s a far cry from my recent pattern of falling asleep around 2am, waking up multiple times during the night because my phone is going off or there’s a loud murder happening on the stream of Dexter I’ve fallen asleep to, and then either getting up groggy or sleeping through my alarm and panic waking later in the morning.

Day 4

My mind feels very quiet today. I am getting better at positive self-talk. I continue using my Metta mantra. I feel proud of myself and grateful to myself for coming on retreat. Sarah asks us to consider our virtues. I am caring. I am thoughtful. I am reliable. I am loyal to the extreme (I think the kids these days say ‘ride or die.’ I am ride or die.). I am THERE FOR YOU, man. And I love easily. I love my dear ones so hard and I love my acquaintances and I love strangers.

After a seated meditation session, I sit at the noticeboard writing Sarah a garbled question about sitting with your emotions and letting them be without letting them overwhelm you. She sees me puzzling over the small piece of paper. 

“Is that for me?” she asks. I abandon the note and we have a short whispered chat instead. I try to explain my question. 

“What it basically comes down to is that I cry on the bus a lot, and ideally I would like to, you know, not do that.” Sarah advises trying to stay present with the body and the breath as well as the emotion when feeling a strong emotion. I try this over the next few days, but I still cry a lot when the old emotions get big. 

Maybe I will just be that person who cries on the bus sometimes. I’m sure people cry in their cars. I decide it’s like crying in your car but more social.

The afternoon’s Metta session is focused on gratitude. This is easy. This year in particular my friends and family have hugged me, listened to me cry, listened to me panic, laughed with me, eaten with me, drank tea and coffee with me, lent me their couches and spare rooms to sleep on and in, and their muscles to help me pack and move. They have helped me arrange the complicated logistics of my living situation and my work/school situation. They have been there for me, which I am sure has not always been easy. And I have needed them.

Day 5 – New Year’s Eve

We’ve been focusing, this morning, on noticing ourselves, observing the mind. We are to particularly notice when we engage in aversion or grasping. 

I go for a walk. It’s very cold in the shade. Aversion. It’s lovely in the sun. Beautiful. Looking at the farm covered in frost, I wish I could take a photo. Then I think about how I would describe it in writing. Then I think about when I can come back. Hey, there’s that grasping, that taking of a beautiful moment and wanting to cling on to it for dear life. Oh yeah, I do this. I think of that David Foster Wallace quote I love: “Everything I’ve ever let go of has claw marks on it.”

We have a small group meeting with Sarah. I mention the grasping. “So, how do I stop doing this?” The answer is that I don’t do anything. I notice that I do it. The more I notice it, the more my system will realize it doesn’t feel nice to engage in grasping and aversion, and my system will adjust. I don’t have to do anything but notice it. This is a relief, and I think I am starting to understand how this whole Buddhism thing goes.

In the afternoon guided session, we are asked to consider three ways of being that we would like in the new year. We practice breathing these states in, feeling them in our bodies, and sharing them with others. I pick serenity, warrior (which I’m defining as just generally being a badass), and joy. When I do this visualization, I find that each way of being has a colour. Serenity is magenta. Warrior is a bright white light. Joy is orange. I think I’m a hippie now.

Because it is New Year’s Eve, our schedule extends to midnight tonight, for those who wish to take part. Everyone does. We gather in the barn and lounge around together on the couches, on cushions, on the floor by the fire, drinking tea, and, at Sarah’s request, contemplating the year that was. I don’t relish this task. She asks us to consider what we want to let go of and what we want to usher in in 2016. While writing up my year, I find myself vigorously shaking my head no a couple of times, kind of in awe at all the shitty stuff that went on in the space of 365 days. It was a clanger of a year.

At around 10:30, one by one we take our pieces of paper up to the fire and are invited to speak a few words about what we are letting go of and what we are ushering in. Some people speak, some silently place their paper in the flames. When I take my turn I simply say that I am letting go of all the grief and pain and loss of 2015 and that I am welcoming in anything else! The letting go feels so real and freeing, and it’s like the rush of emotion that comes with making a big change.

Okay, I am definitely a hippie now. I earnestly took part in a fire ritual, and now I find myself (while wearing a toque and fleece and plaid) taking part in a Leonard Cohen sing along, led by one of the yogis. I imagine telling myself a year ago that I would be ringing in 2016 at a Buddhist retreat and it is absolutely flat-out hilarious.

After the fire ritual we retreat to the meditation hall for the duration of the evening. We do some meditation and a ritual involving the lighting of candles and the tying of red string around our wrists, and we come into midnight singing a Buddhist chant. It is perfectly beautiful. I go to sleep grateful and happy.

Departure – Day 6

In the 6:30 meditation I feel lighter, shed of the previous year. All my grief is not that heavy anymore. "Morning Has Broken" gets stuck in my head.

Once silence is over, I take exactly two photos of the farm. This is one of them.

Once silence is over, I take exactly two photos of the farm. This is one of them.

At breakfast, we are allowed to come out of silence. However, people are tentative, and the barn is largely still silent as people eat. I think about initiating a social interaction, but I feel like I’ve lost the skill. It is only when I return to my yurt to find Cassie packing up that I have a conversation. 

The first thing Cassie says is “How are we ever going to explain this to anyone?” We laugh hysterically for a good couple of minutes.

Sarah gives us tips on reorienting back to life in the real world. Don’t proselytize about your experience. Don’t expect to feel exactly as you do now on retreat because it’s not sustainable under regular conditions (she likens everyday meditation practice to doing the dishes and going on retreat to spring cleaning). However, do ensure that the lessons of retreat carry you forward by practicing daily, reading and listening to the teachings, and finding community (sangha).

Post-retreat. All mellow and chill.

Post-retreat. All mellow and chill.

I feel nervous heading back to Real Life, nervous that I will start to feel panicked and unhappy again. And I am sure I will feel that way again at times. And that’s okay. I do know that I have found a path that I think is good for me right now, and I have had some important insights. 

I have also survived a five day silent retreat staring all of my stuff in the face when I’m feeling broken and depleted and hopeless, and that bravery has filled me up again. I leave feeling like a hopeful badass. And that, let me tell you, is a solid feeling.