A few weeks ago I chucked it all and headed to Esalen, a well-established retreat center on California’s pacific coast. I went on a meditation retreat to sit with Sally Kempton, a renowned master for over 40 years. Esalen isn’t a fancy wellness resort like Canyon Ranch or Miraval by any stretch of the imagination. No 500-count sheets. Shared bathrooms are the norm. Truth be told, it feels a little more like summer camp than the Four Seasons, what with the bonfires at night, the serve-yourself line at the cafeteria, oh, and the herb and vegetable garden that is the source of much of what is later served up in the cafeteria.
Although many friends shudder to imagine a weekend without their Fios network, Wii, or anything else going blip or beep, what seems to be the deal breaker is when I tell them how much time we spend in SILENCE. And not just the kind of silence you experience in the absence of communication gizmos, but the kind of silence that happens when you have to stop talking. No sound at all.
What happens when you get silent like that is first your thoughts get really really noisy. The thoughts that arise seem so loud, so unignorable, very quickly some urgency will arise that you mistaken as being real and therefor necessary to be conveyed. It’s almost like someone has crept into your brain and turned on a full-blast stream of constant, jumbledy talk radio broadcasting pre-game and post game analysis of every aspect of your life that has ever or could ever happen. One friend self described the feeling as being like a “talk junkie in desperate need of a fix”. It’s pretty dreadful, and the exact reason why so many of us say, “I can’t meditate, my brain is too busy”, and exactly why we absolutely need to learn to meditate. This is a big moment for lots of folks. Getting through this moment oftentimes will define whether or not the rest of the time in silence really happens.
But what happens over the course of the seconds, minutes, hours and days unfolding is sublime. Sure, thoughts do come up that you might feel the urge to share with someone. Instances happen when you have to somehow convey “please pass the napkins” . But the voluntary surrender of any excess words, any unnecessary expenditure of energy in talking in favor of just having the experience of being, suddenly your nervous system calms down a bit. Over time, your awareness stops scanning your surroundings for ways to entertain or amuse folks around you, you give up the need to prove your validity or existence by amusing or otherwise provoking others and you simply start to BE.
The moments of just being are pure delight. Think of a moment when you’ve felt completely peaceful, maybe in nature, cooking, playing tennis, doing something you absolutely love that absorbs you completely. Wade through the briars of all that thought, the “I couldas….I shouldas…I wannas….”, the endless urges to seek love/attention/approval from others around you, and most of all, the very common-held conviction that for some reason you just aren’t wired the same as others so therefore the peace of meditation can’t possibly work for you. If you can do that, and keep doing that no matter how long, deep or thorny the thoughts might get, if you keep wandering your awareness back to the steady flow of your breath and your own state of well being, you’ll find yourself steadier, calmer and more alive in your own skin than you’ve ever imagined being.
But maybe a week away isn’t in the cards for you right now. Even for me with a profession that requires I do these things, it can be tough to get away annually, if at all. But if something in this post or other discussions on meditation resonates with you, look around your local community at your community centers, your YMCA, your public library and even local book stores. I’ve even seen local spas that offer weekly community meditation classes. If you can’t find anything in person, check out the many free meditations offered online on YouTube and countless other sites.
It’s not going to feel natural at first, and why would it? After all, you’ve spent decades of effort manipulating yourself into being whatever you thought the world wanted you to be at any given moment. But try it, and do so with the conscious thought — “I’m just going to have this experience” for better or for worse, no expectations and definitely don’t expect to feel like some enlightened soul. Then try it again, and again. Talk to others about your experience and try another form/offering/teacher and another. Keep at it until you connect with something that leaves you feeling so much better after the session, you can’t imagine not having it. That’s exactly the moment of pure being — well worth every effort invested in getting there.