My Silent Retreat Experience: Faking a Fugue State, Sex in the Informal Meditation Room, and Illegal Vlogging

Sometime in 2018, when my meditation practice was becoming more regular, my sister recommended trying a retreat. Through what I read, as well as from her expert suggestion, the Insight Meditation Society (IMS), was basically *the* place to go in the US. On an absolute whim, one random summer night around 3 am, I signed up for one.

The original dates I picked were in September 2018 I think, and I had to push it back because I couldn’t afford the flight. I was secretly relieved. At this point in time, I didn’t think I could handle it - though now that I look in retrospect, I’m sure I would have been just fine. I had been reading all about retreats and found a particularly scary story about a girl with “just a minor history of anxiety” going on a Goenka 10-day retreat and more or less experiencing a psychotic break while she was there. This made me insanely nervous and I kept thinking, “What if I’m the next one-in-a-million story of someone losing their marbles on retreat?”

Eventually, as I got more regular and relaxed into my practice, I became confident that I could handle what basically equates to five days in meditative silence (the retreat technically spanned six days but two of them were half days). Additionally, the difference between a place like IMS and a random Goenka retreat is… substantial. Not to shit on Goenka - I’ve never done one - but there’s no real guarantee of the kind of support you’re going to get. Meanwhile, there were literal support staff at my retreat available if anyone had issues. That was their whole job.

Still, I heard many concerns from friends and family. “Remember that we love you,” and, “Don’t forget you can always leave if you need to,” with a side of, “Just be careful, okay?” ended up in most conversations about the retreat. While I appreciated the love and intention behind the concern, in my moments leading up to retreat where I was less than confident, these rattled my cage a little. What had I gotten myself into? Why did I think this was a good idea? Why was everyone else so wary? Maybe I should just pay the van driver to take me right back to Boston - I’m sure my sister would send me money for another flight. It also begged the question: what is it about being silent for six days that freaks people out so much?

I had a panic attack on the way to the retreat center. After meeting up with Álvaro at the airport, we shared a ride all the way out to Barre, MA. Now that I had accepted this wasn’t an incredibly elaborate plot to kidnap me, my anxiety moved to the retreat itself. I messaged my sister and husband the entire time, almost laughing at the absurdity of it all. I can’t even remember the last panic attack I had before this one, they’re so few and far between now (thanks to - you guessed it - meditation). Even this one was all gums, a toothless bite. I was uncomfortable but the panic was transparent: it was my brain hitting the literal Panic button in the last ditch effort to get me to not do this. Once you start to recognize it, it’s genuinely funny how your consciousness will fight with all its got to resist sitting, resist facing suffering, resist the approach to enlightenment.

DAY 1

When I arrived, I attempted to give up my phone right away but learned there was a renunciation ceremony the following morning. So instead I picked a zabuton in the meditation hall, filled out paperwork, got in line. “Do you have any history of psychiatric illness?” appeared on the sheet along with “Does your therapist know you’re participating in this retreat?” Questions about gender identity, trauma, meditation background, medication and more all gave me a sense of ease that at least they would know what’s probably cooking inside the brains of each retreat participant.

We had dinner, got our rooms, grabbed linens for the bed we’d call home for the next week-ish, and then it was time to go to the Meditation Hall for our first sit.

The Meditation Hall. See the cushion with the chair back and blankets on it? Count four behind it and that’s where I was parked for many hours.

The Meditation Hall. See the cushion with the chair back and blankets on it? Count four behind it and that’s where I was parked for many hours.

Some past yogi left a bit of warmth behind for future retreat folks.

Some past yogi left a bit of warmth behind for future retreat folks.

The first night is a jittery blur. We briefly introduced ourselves to those sitting around us before reciting the precepts and beginning our vow of silence. I slept well, wrapped in sheets I had gotten from the laundry room. Although the flat sheets and fitted sheets were separated, I grabbed a matching set. I had picked them because I enjoyed their texture, but when I made my bed I discovered an additional surprise: they had the words “Sadhu, sadhu, sadhu” which is Pali for “well spoken”. I felt connected to the sangha (Buddhist community), reinforced in my decision to truly be with my practice. My first journal entry was as follows:

My room was in the Shanti dorm (there were three dorms: Karuna, Bodhi, and Shanti). S261. I may or may not have hidden tiny dharma notes in a few spots in this room.

My room was in the Shanti dorm (there were three dorms: Karuna, Bodhi, and Shanti). S261. I may or may not have hidden tiny dharma notes in a few spots in this room.

2-22-19

I have arrived at IMS. Tomorrow I renounce my phone. It’s so strange to know there’s over 100 ppl here yet it’s so quiet. Scott M--, from Illinois. Ex-lawyer, 2 daughters, lung cancer. Álvaro N--, from Spain/NY. Rideshare. Jen, on my right. Cheryl, in front of me. Laura, front/right. Her friends were concerned. Ben, to my left. Never meditated before. C: It’s gonna be great

DAY 2

At 6 am, some noble soul walked around with a massive mallet and a bell to each section of the retreat center and rang it twice in each spot as a wake-up call for everyone. The days following the first full day, the wake-up was moved to 5:30 am. Breakfast was not long after the first sit and I began to learn to appreciate all the different things you could mix into oatmeal.

The dining hall

The dining hall

As the retreat progressed, I went from wolfing down my food like I was starving to closing my eyes, experiencing each bite. What was the flavor? How did my tongue move? What was the path my jaw traveled when chewing? I’d try to feel each swallow as the food traveled down my esophagus. The longer I was there, the more heightened my perception became and the more sensations I became aware of, which was delightful. Lunch, in particular, became the highlight of my day, an explosion of delectable sensations in a place where I was otherwise very sensation deprived. During one such meal, I caught out of the corner of my eye a man who looked like Ben Folds crying suddenly over his soup. Whether he was just so grateful for the food or had some kind of intense Insight, I’ll never know. I did get the chance to tell him that he looked like Ben Folds before he left, though.

One of two tea stations.

One of two tea stations.

Tea was a similar experience. There were two different tea stations, with about ten different varieties of tea - half caffeinated, half not. I remarked to someone on the last day when we were allowed to speak again that I knew I belonged on retreat because it incorporated two of my most frequent activities - meditating and drinking copious amounts of tea. Being able to see how far down my throat I could feel the hot tea run became a game to me. Alternating between hot tea and cold water to compare the sensations in my mouth was a daily source of entertainment. Every nerve ending in my mouth was noticed.

One of the two bathrooms I was responsible for cleaning.

One of the two bathrooms I was responsible for cleaning.

Everyone received a “yogi job”. For those of you who may not know, yogi is a term for a meditation practitioner. I had heard this used for people who practiced yoga before but didn’t realize that this term was also used in reference to the followers of several different eastern religions. Anyhow, my yogi job wasn’t until the afternoon unlike most folks who worked after breakfast so this afforded me the opportunity to go for a walk outside.

The phone renunciation ceremony on the horizon, I decided to vlog, breaking my noble silence. Walks became an outlet for my pent up energy and desire to prattle on unnecessarily. I don’t recommend doing this. While it wasn’t hard to fall right back into place at the pin-drop quiet retreat center, it certainly shuffled my energy in such a manner that I probably did myself a disservice with these brief breaks. Oh well. It is what it is now.

2-23-19 -> 7:30am

Went for a walk. The Loop is 3 miles but I only did ¼ and turned back bc I was defeated by the elements. Reminded of the time I had to shovel out my car w/ Brandon. Bright red thighs. Next time I’ll be prepared.

As you’ve already realized, I kept a very small journal while at IMS. This also broke noble silence as we were not supposed to read or write. Perhaps this was detrimental to my being fully present but I can’t say I really regret this since in was so instrumental in helping me write this post. Perhaps another example of craving: my craving to not forget anything, to cling to experiences as if they define “me”. If I do another retreat, I’ll ditch the journal and see how it goes.

Finally, at the 8:15 am sit on our first full, proper day, I gave up my phone as they rang a bell. At least half of the hall lined up - it wasn’t a requirement - but I was later incredibly grateful that I did. It removed the temptation to fill my hours with scrolling it or texting people, further jeopardizing my silence. Aside from my tiny journal, I had nothing to distract me other than my own mind.

As it turns out, this would be sufficient distraction.

2-23-19   3:30pm

I really had to catch a ride with the hottest guy at the retreat, huh? My brain wants a pleasant distraction and he switched cushions so now he’s like, right in front of me. Lust, the unexpected hindrance. In other news, my teacher Madeline hates noting. I’ve been doing it all day. Oops.

Noting practice, for those of you unfamiliar, is basically making a mental note of everything that you’re doing. Say you’re going to take a sip of tea: intending, reaching, lifting, sipping, swallowing, placing, feeling. I detail noting a bit more my last post.

At first, I was really bothered by this but I started to think about the sentiment she shared. Her argument was that you end up just saying the words in your head but not actually noticing the sensations. I generally found this to be true. While I think that saying the words can be good training wheels to help you learn to slow down and see the pieces of a process as they happen, eventually you have to let language go.

Her other argument was that you’ll end up noting with a certain tone - like saying “thought” while meditating, but angrily. I don’t necessarily find that to be as much of a problem as much as I do actually experiencing frustration itself. The idea is that you’re not supposed to get upset when you get distracted during meditation because you can’t control it. Therefore, noting could be a tool with which you notice what sort of emotional reaction you have to things. Followed up with a reminder to let it come, let it be, let it go, all would work itself out in the end.

So I tried to just be present, just harness “awareness: pure and simple”, as our retreat was so aptly named. My brain really latched on to Álvaro since we shared a ride together and he was the only one I knew. It wasn’t his fault, just the circumstance.

My teacher Madeline and Álvaro in front of the bulletin board.

My teacher Madeline and Álvaro in front of the bulletin board.

In a nutshell, our days went pretty much like this:

5:30 am, wake up
6 am, sit
6:30 am, breakfast
7:15 am, morning work period
8:15 am, dharma talk & sit (there were three dharma talks per day, in which the teachers would give instructions, tell stories, lead us in semi-guided meditations).
9:30 am, walking
10:30 am, sit
11: 30 am, walking
12 pm, lunch
(I would work after lunch, though it wasn’t on the schedule. I cleaned bathrooms. I’m good at cleaning bathrooms.)
2:15 pm, dharma talk & sit
3:00 pm, walking
3:30 pm, sit
4:15 pm, mindfulness movement (basically the most lowkey yoga you can possibly imagine. It was fucking lovely)
5:30 pm, light dinner
Sitting, walking, dharma talk at 7:30 pm, walking, sitting, with the last sit at 9 pm. The final sit ended at 9:30 pm.

This isn’t exactly on the money - I probably switched a :30 and a :15 here or there but you get the gist of it. By no means were you forced to come to every dharma talk, sit, or walking meditation (I skipped probably about half the walking meditation periods and a quarter of the sits - either I’d be showering, one time I tried to nap, or one particular day I ended up NEEDING to pluck my eyebrows, having the desire to “do something normal”), but obviously the more you attended the more you got out of it.


DAY 3

SUNDAY 2-24-19   5:45 am

I haven’t shit since Thursday.

7 am ->

I’ve been playing a game in my head where I try to figure out what everyone’s name is, using the interview schedule. Blonde/brown hair nosering girl w/ the chair back sitting two rows up is Kelly, for example.*

I’ve also been writing a script in my head. This could make a pretty good comedy movie. Maybe a new staff trainee getting used to working at a retreat center. Someone’s got their eyes closed at breakfast & they’re like, “I just wanna *claps hands*, y’know?”

“Missed you at the morning sit, sexy.”

Oh, in more relevant news, I’ve concluded that my lying about a herniated disk on my intake sheet so I could recline during sits was an aversion to suffering in disguise.

(written later) *I asked on the last day of retreat AND IT REALLY WAS KELLY!

Words will never be able to adequately explain the sheer mirth I felt when I approached this girl standing by her luggage and asked sheepishly, “I know this is going to sound so weird but, what is your name?”

When she said it was Kelly, I literally did a gleeful dance on the spot. She asked me mine and we shook hands. This girl that I thought about everyday - things like, “Oh, Kelly isn’t here. I hope she’s okay,” - we only exchanged two sentences. That’s the nature of retreat, though. I thought about Jen who sat next to me often as well, noticing when she wasn’t in the hall and hoping my shifting wasn’t disturbing her when she was there.

As tempting as all my distractions were, the challenge laid in letting go of them and returning to the present moment. Sometimes it was easier than others. Some days I felt like I was swimming in a stream of equanimity, my sits steady with access concentration. Other days I squirmed endlessly. At one point, I thought to myself that the phrase “(screams internally)” was certainly coined by a yogi.

Having scoliosis, sitting upright for extended periods of time is uncomfortable for me. I went one step further and on my intake form, I said I had a herniated disk so I could get permission to recline when meditating. Most of my practice, prior to IMS, had been reclining. They were a bit more adamant about posture than I had anticipated. I got to use a nice chair back thing that I propped a pillow by my lower back to give me some actual lumbar support which made an enormous difference. Eventually, though, my posture improved enough that most sits I could sit straight up, not leaning on my lumbar pillow at all. Plus I felt really guilty about lying - after all, one of the precepts was to refrain from incorrect speech.

precepts

And a TMI: after my asshole got over clenching through flights and related travel, my poops became insanely regular. Like, better than they’ve ever been in my entire life. It was pretty fantastic. My body enjoyed the vegetarian diet greatly. I am now pescatarian.

1 pm:

Had group interviews. It’s the first time I’ve felt like something was done “wrong”. A girl* asked how groups were chosen, observing that everyone in our group was young. I don’t remember Madeline’s exact words but she confirmed that was how she assembled the group. I can’t help but feel irritated that one of the ppl in my group, World’s Loudest Digestive System Ben, has never meditated before coming to IMS. So I had to listen to a bunch of ?’s that were completely unrelated to anything I was experiencing. 2, no - 3 questions about the breath and one about watching squirrels. I hate being lumped with a group by age. Like, how is that relevant? S I G H I’m trying to let the irritation go. That’s why I’m writing this. I don’t hold it against my fellow yogis but I would have liked to have listened to some more “advanced” questions.

M200, the room we had our group interview in (and also where my best sexual fantasies took place).

M200, the room we had our group interview in (and also where my best sexual fantasies took place).

Everything is very amplified on retreat with the lack of distractions. Poor Ben, who was probably just hungry, was a source of immense irritation for me as I could hear every gurgle and grumble his tummy made. The girl who made the astute observation was actually Laura. Despite sharing one (1) exchange with her - in which we said our names, I said I was grateful for the love my friends and family showed me before leaving for retreat, and she said her friends were mostly just concerned - I felt a kindred connection to her and her desire to understand how groups were chosen.

I had worked out this whole thing in my head before group that it was based on meditation experience, maybe previous trauma, psychological background. Nope, age. Not realizing this would be the one and only question I would EVER get to ask a teacher (and trying to be present meant I wasn’t spending hours trying to decide the perfect question), I asked a really mediocre question. So I got the mediocre answer it deserved. This was a huge source of animosity later in my retreat.

3:45 pm

I ripped out my last page w/ the drawing of Lion & Chewy’s child on it to write a note to someone. They were in the bathroom a long time while I was waiting to shower. Finally they left. But the toilet was clogged. At first I thought to myself, “do you not know how to plunge a toilet?” Then I thought about how embarrassed they probably felt. So I plunged it and left a note on the door that said “Don’t worry about the toilet. With Metta <3” I guess I’m warming up to this loving-kindedness

Metta roughly translates to “loving-kindedness” or “befriending”. You’re supposed to befriend all emotions, people, experiences - regardless of whether they’re “good” or “bad”. I had a base knowledge of Metta prior to retreat but this was probably one of the things I appreciated learning more about the most.

I attended the final sit on the second day after skipping it the first day (I was too exhausted to stay up until 9 pm the day before). In group, Ben had mentioned a “chant” and how they “felt the Metta”, so I was curious. And really needed that feeling, honestly. The loneliness was starting to set in.

The chant was actually sung, and we all got to sing along. It felt so, so, so good to sing. I’m literally tearing up thinking about this moment now. In this moment, I realized how important music and singing was to my life. Although I have no professional affiliation with either, I sing basically every single day. I listen to music incessantly. I was so moved that eventually, I stopped singing and just sobbed, overcome with emotion. Not only did it feel good to let my voice soar, but I could also sit and pick out individual voices, admiring the beauty of each one. We repeated the same stanza over and over, cycling through I, you, they, we after one complete cycle.


May (I, you, they, we) be filled with loving-kindness
May (I, you, they, we) be well
May (I, you, they, we) be peaceful and at ease
May (I, you, they, we) be happy

When I went back to my room, I decided to finally unpack Nicholas’ shirt. Before I left, I asked him to wear a particular shirt to bed and give it to me the morning after so I could smell him. This made me bawl my eyes out even more.

9 pm ->

I almost made it to Monday w/o any crying. God, I miss Nicholas.

I slept like the dead.


DAY 4

2/25/19 ->

So cold. Cried a lot last night/this morning. Had some Insight about sex. Mundane. I can tell my concentration and awareness are getting stronger. I’m starting to think a week isn’t enough! But I’m trying to be present, instead of worrying about how much time is left.

At this point, I’ve really settled into the routine and I’m starting to enjoy the concentration and awareness I’ve cultivated. I believe it was this morning that I sat for God only knows how long, after having sat with the whole group for an hour, and just stared at the fuzzies and dust caught in a stream of light coming through the window in the Meditation Hall. I could see literally every single one in that beam of sunlight, picking which one to focus on at a time while still perfectly aware of all the others. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen (and I’ve tripped fucking BALLS and seen some BEAUTIFUL SHIT from the confines of my brain, people. I’ve been to Alaska’s interior passage! I’ve been to Rainbow Falls in Kauai!! But this dust beats them all!!!), because I could truly fucking see it, with no noise or thoughts to distract me from admiring its simple beauty. As people walked by and the fuzzies danced around the airflow they left behind, I was reminded of the interconnectedness of everything. I cried some more.

Later when I told my sister Ariadne about this, she remarked that crying is a method of purification. It’s the soap that cleanses the soul. All the crying by day 3 was out of gratitude to be in this place, love for my fellow yogis, and appreciation that I could love and miss someone as much as I did Nicholas.

12:45 pm ->

Mushrooms for lunch. Of course this triggers anxiety. I knew this was going to happen eventually. Trying to resist the knee-jerk reaction to take a Benadryl. Hopefully my yogi job is sufficiently engrossing.

6:15 pm -> I was over my anxiety before I even got to my job. I sat after I wrote and used Madeline’s “ah! (emotion)” as if it was new. Helpful.

I’ve all but given up on obtaining stream entry while I’m here. Oh well. Obviously it’s still helpful. Maybe I’ll pick up some other fruit.

Among the other new things that I learned, I really enjoyed what Madeline taught about emotions. It applies to most other aspects of life as well - she said to say, “ah!” before recognizing an emotion so that we could approach these feelings with curiosity and an open mind, as if this emotion had never been experienced before. Often, we assume that we know things as soon as we see them. Oatmeal, again? Walking meditation, again? But the truth is that while things may be similar, each footstep is a new experience, each bowl is a new experience, each emotion is a new experience.

What does anxiety REALLY feel like? How do I know I’m anxious? Why do I immediately react negatively when I feel it? Sitting in my room, saying, “ah! Anxiety,” and really examining it made it so the emotion arose and passed away without my usual struggle.

As for stream entry, for those who don’t know, this is the completion of the first of four paths on the journey to enlightenment. I entered retreat thinking this was when I’d crack the code and finally become sotapanna.

Soon, I would have to confront the defilements of envy/jealousy in my walking practice. This realization that I would not reach my goal triggered my “hardest” sits the following day - our last full day.


DAY 5

2/26/19 @ 10 am ->

I! Don’t!! Want!!! To!!!! Meditate!!!!! Anymore!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (which means I definitely should) >:c ~ Charolette

You know how you can tell you’re really feeling something? You handwrite S I X T E E N exclamation points in a row. Not including the sets of one, two, three, four, five before that. The Charolette sign off came from my walk that morning. I talked aloud to myself for a good thirty minutes, narrating a fantasy in which I faked a fugue state, appeared on the doorstep of a nearby house, claimed my name was Charolette, and started a life there, working as live-in help. I grabbed massive branches that had broken off the trees from the day before when we had gusts up to 70 mph and broke all the limbs off of it, hitting telephone poles with my giant stick until it was too small to hit anything with anymore.

My sits this day were wiggly, distracted. I kept trying to sign up for individual interviews but I could never get my name on the paper in time. Only six slots a day were available and with a group of nearly 100 people, you can imagine how quickly these filled. By this day, I spent a lot of time actually sitting in the foyer where the bulletin board was to try if I could see when they actually put up the sign in sheet. I missed it anyway. This became the object of my attention for several hours.

This mood of intense disillusionment peaked during one of my walking meditations. A woman walking next to me stopped dead in her tracks about halfway and just started crying. I could tell she had some fucking huge, profound Insight and I was seething with jealousy. Several times I stopped and stood, staring out the window at a stone wall, at a dead spider, at the inside of my eyelids, asking the abyss why that couldn’t be me. If there was ever a time that someone should have radiated steam off of their body, this was one of them.

The room I paced endlessly, below Karuna House.

The room I paced endlessly, below Karuna House.

1:15 pm

Angry and disillusioned. Saw Álvaro after having a very explicit fantasy ft. him and just wanted to punch him in the face. It’s not his fault but he just happened to be the person I shared a ride with so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ Gonna shower. Fighting the urge to just sleep until it’s time to go. Craving and impermanence… Had cookies (!!!) for lunch yet they didn’t satisfy.

Fun fact, I would not have considered myself all that horny of a person before this retreat. During this retreat? I was riled tf up. Of course, the reality is that it was the most “plausible” distraction my mind could conjure up. Remember that mundane insight I mentioned earlier? For me, sex is often about exerting my control. It’s a piece to be played in a game, not a genuine expression of desire.

My sugar addiction became very obvious during this time. I wanted cookies every single day. But once I actually got them, they (unsurprisingly), didn’t last, didn’t satisfy, weren’t me. I remarked at our final lunch when we were able to talk again that they made cookies specifically to serve as a silent dharma lesson about the infinite cycle of craving.

I finally cracked my anger during walking meditation. I keep mentioning walking but not really explaining it so for those who don’t know, there are four postures of meditation: reclining (laying down), standing, walking and the classic sitting. Everyone only thinks of sitting usually but it has its limits. If you’re struggling with drowsiness during your sits, either standing or walking meditation can help with your energy levels. If you are restless or agitated, reclining might be suitable.

Prior to the retreat, I didn’t do any walking meditation. At first, I really hated it. At one point, I even tried walking backward (I’m still surprised no one else gave this a shot). But I appreciated it immensely this evening.

It began with me skipping the post-dinner sit. I couldn’t tolerate the idea of being in the Hall. Instead, I thought I’d spent some time alone in one of the lower walking rooms and really give this walking meditation a serious try.

At first, my pace was fast. Nyoom! I zoomed back and forth, pacing a hole into the floor in front of a massive Buddha statue. My slippers tread soundlessly across the pale wooden floor.

I turned the clock in this room around so I couldn’t see it. I would walk here until the ball rang for the evening dharma talk at 7:30 pm. It was around 6 pm that I arrived.

Eventually, my steps began to slow. The ultimate goal of walking meditation is to be completely present with each moment of each step. At first, this can be as simple as “lifting, placing”. You notice your foot lifting, then placing it. You may notice your legs and hips instead, the way the weight shifts with each step. The deeper you get into it, you will deliberately lay down your foot so that you can feel each and every millimeter of it contacting the earth. I closed my eyes, examining the sensation of my foot lifting, traveling, placing, shifting. Each turn to reverse directions took at least thirty seconds. I progressed to a snail’s pace.

I did not have any major Insight that I can record here. The best thing I can really say is that I became fully, completely, utterly present. The emotions in the past were just that, in the past. I had let them go. Finally, I had found my way back to acceptance of the moment exactly as it was, not how I wanted it to be.

9:35 pm

Equanimity C: of course it all comes back around. Last night. Time to really appreciate my bed C: (In other news, I don’t know if my body cares for tofu.)


I’m still not sure about tofu. I’ll have to give it another shot sometime.

DAY 6

2/27/19

My lava stone bracelet broke right after bfast. It felt like a metaphor. Someone helped me pick it up.

I ended up speaking to that man after we broke our silence. He asked me if I could restring my mala. I shrugged and told him maybe, but either way, it was okay.

“It felt like a mandala,” I told him, “we were pouring the sand into the river.”

Anyone who knows me at all knows that I’m basically confirmation biasing my way through life via metaphors. Everything’s a fucking metaphor, you potato with eyes. While packing, my headphones broke on this morning as well, further contributing to my contemplation of impermanence.

We got our phones back and I powered mine on immediately. The bracelet was broken and in my mind, the retreat was already over.

I did three things immediately.

  1. I bought a game that was on sale on Steam. Ahh, endorphins.

  2. I texted back everyone I loved.

  3. I turned off Notifications for every single app besides messaging apps.

It was soon time to go downstairs for our final sit.

We did a reintroduction to speaking. We picked a partner (Jen and I turned to one another - after spending so many days thinking about how much I liked her pants and her silent presence, I was glad for this), and they gave us small prompts. First, establish whose birthday is first. Mine in May and Jen’s in… June? Or July. She was a Cancer. I told her my best friends were Cancers. Then whoever’s birthday was first, spoke first. The topic? Our yogi jobs. We were given three minutes to talk about this very innocuous topic.

While I didn’t really think that breaking silence would be such a big deal - technically I had done so four times, twice talking to myself out on walks, one random time I told my teacher that housekeeping had left a key behind in the bathroom I was cleaning, and one time I whispered to one of the chefs, “What’s escarole?” It’s a leafy green vegetable if you were wondering. He also featured heavily in my sexual fantasies.

After I was done talking, though, they instructed us to return to the body and see how we felt. Holy SHIT. I was filled with ELECTRICITY. I realized suddenly that talking required a great deal of energy. Then it was Jen’s turn to talk and they instructed us to try and stay in our body as we listened, be aware of the sensations. Finally, we were all given red cords or pieces of string and told to tie three knots, each one representing a promise or vow to ourselves. I vowed:

  1. To be aware of my judgements. Because, wow, I thought I was a nonjudgmental person but I am actually NOT.

  2. To keep meditating every day, regardless of whether or not I ever obtain stream entry.

  3. To have one mindfulness moment every day - a meal, a shower, a grooming activity, whatever.

Then we had the option to ask our partner to tie this string for us, whether it be around the wrist, ankle, neck, wherever. I chose my ankle so it would be relatively out of the way yet be able to stay on me until it literally fell off. Jen chose her wrist. The intimacy of this moment was… unexpected. Being deprived of human contact for a week made it even more special. I will never forget Jen, even though we never traded any information.

Lunch afterwards was optional and probably about half of the retreatants stayed. I found myself overwhelmed easily by conversation. I spoke with a man named Scott (not Scott M who I mentioned earlier), who was very enthusiastic and very well might read this since he is literally the only person I gave any information to (hi Scott!). He described an experience to me that sounded a lot like first jhana. I also spoke with a woman who I can only describe as my “Sitting Sister” since I’ve forgotten her name. Sorry! We spent two nights sitting next to each other in Bodhi house during the sunset. We discussed the playlists our brains came up with and how amusing it’d be to put it on Spotify and the noisy old white men who felt entitled to letting the rest of the Meditation Hall know what they were experiencing via loud sighing. One of the support staff, Alex, asked us if we were sisters and commented on our similar energy. I wish I would have had my business cards so I could have given her one and we could have connected.

Bodhi House’s informal meditation room. I would sit in the chair all the way to the right, my sister in the one to the left. My “best” sits were in this room.

Bodhi House’s informal meditation room. I would sit in the chair all the way to the right, my sister in the one to the left. My “best” sits were in this room.

Several people remarked on my panda slippers - Alex at the beginning of retreat, two others at the final lunch. One man said he really appreciated them during walking meditation, which was a lovely compliment. I wore the bottoms of the slippers so much during this retreat I actually had to retire them. RIP Pandas.

Before long, it was time to go. I did one last lap around, taking pictures of everything. Álvaro and I actually shared a ride with one of our teachers back to the Boston airport. We talked about the environment and politics, mostly. Well, they talked and I mostly listened. Talking was still exhausting. I really wanted to drill my teacher with dharma questions but it didn’t seem appropriate. I’m fortunate in that I have my sister to talk to about these things. She was the one who diagnosed me as cycling between Desire for Deliverance and Equanimity. Oh, map theory. Guide me to stream entry!

PRESENT DAY

The evening after retreat, I took a glorious bath with the world’s most glittery bath bomb. Like the dust, I could see every single shimmering piece of glitter. My heightened perception lasted a few days. I’ve still been sitting, though I haven’t broken over 30 minutes. I’ve been instructed to OD on my equanimity. It’s really quite a pleasant feeling, being unperturbed by just about anything, but like everything else, it won’t last, it won’t satisfy, and it ain’t me.

I realize that this is an INCREDIBLY long post. To be honest, I expect absolutely no one to actually read it all. At this point, it’s really more for me to look back on someday than anything else. Though perhaps someone will really want the nitty gritty explanation of what a silent retreat at IMS is really like and appreciate how in depth I get.

Having had some time to process the experience, I’m insanely grateful that I had the opportunity to go. I had my moments of feeling like I didn’t get what I really wanted - instructions on how to really observe the three characteristics, how to initiate insights, how to investigate deeper than I already knew how - but it was good to get a really solid foundation that not only supported what I’ve learned but add on some additional tidbits for my practice.

Truly, I think that just about everyone would benefit from a short retreat like this. And if anyone reading this is considering such a thing, give up your phone. Really. I hesitated, and actually didn’t plan on doing it up until the day or so before, but I’m so very glad I did. IMS has a phone booth that you can use if you REALLY need to make a call but I can almost guarantee you won’t.

People have remarked to me that they don’t think they could do it. Yes, you could. Honestly, unless you have some really unbridled psychological issues, you’d be fine. Your brain would do the same thing literally everyone else’s did - make up stories, play songs, replay old TV shows, think of jokes you wish you could whisper to the person next to you. The rewarding part would be when your concentration and attention would increase, your perception and awareness would increase, and you’d realize how powerful your brain can be without having a screen shoved in front of it all the time. Your ability to notice things, appreciate things, be truly present would astound you. I am in no way unique in this capacity. This is inherent in each and every one of us.

I could have gotten my phone back if I asked for it. I could have left. I didn’t want to. And as scary as it may sound, it’s really not. There are shorter retreats that you can look up - often nearer than you think - if you’d be interested in trying a weekend or even one day. I’m now of the opinion that pretty much everyone would benefit from spending some time actually slowing down, being mindful, and living in the fucking moment. Like everything else, moderation is key. I’m not saying it’s time for four years at the Forest Refuge c;

Anyhow, should anyone actually make it this far - you’re sweet and I love you. And for those of you who don’t read this, it’s cool, I still love you, too, you just might not know it. I’m more than happy to answer any questions for anyone still curious about this experience. Whatever your relationship with meditation and mindfulness is: may you be safe and protected; may you be peaceful; may you live in love and in compassion.