A few months ago, I had the opportunity to go on a weeklong mindfulness based retreat on a tiny island off the coast of Washington. The purpose of the retreat was mostly just that--to retreat from the pace of day to day life, and come back into contact with my mind, body, and heart. The secondary purpose was to learn more about Mindfulness Based Relapse Prevention, so that I would be able to teach mindfulness based approaches to substance abuse recovery.
It had certainly been awhile since I had made any attempt to slow down. I found a variety of excuses as to why going on such a retreat would be nearly impossible. My kids needed me, my patients needed me, my phone needed me, life needed me. After all, wasn’t I indispensable? The idea of making my way to an island, where I would spend the better part of one week meditating with about twenty other people, seemed out of reach.
Perhaps it was all of those layers of resistance in the end that showed me exactly why I needed to leave my life for a week and go off the grid. One plane, bus, ferry, and shuttle ride later, I found myself in the middle of a secluded retreat center on Vashon Island. Our accommodations were modest, but we were surrounded by acres of wooded land and water. I felt like the twenty of us who were there together were the only people on the island.
The schedule for the week was fairly consistent. We gathered at 7 am, did a silent seated meditation, then a gentle movement meditation, followed by breakfast, which was also eaten in silence. The day held alternating periods of sitting and walking meditation, and some periods of formal learning. After dinner, we went back into silence, where it was recommended that we turn off our phones, and even limit our time reading or writing. I often used this time to wander into the woods alone, settling into the wonder and protection of the towering green trees around me.
We were essentially, supposed to stop doing so much all the time, and remember what it was like to...just be.
As I write this now (at 12:30 am on a Saturday night/Sunday morning), a few months have passed, and I am back--full swing into real life. What did I learn from this one week opportunity to hit the “pause” button? It feels like so long ago, but certainly a few lessons have stayed with me:
Slowing down is not optional, it is necessary: I didn’t realize how much I needed the time alone, away, in silence, until I took a full and complete step out of daily life. I didn’t realize how compulsively I was checking my phone, until I turned it off. I didn’t realize how long it had been since I had taken a full, conscious breath, or tuned into my body. We have grown accustomed to our breakneck pace, so much so that we don’t even notice the pace until we finally stop long enough to pay attention. Why are we all moving so fast? Where exactly are we trying to go? I had stopped asking myself those questions--partly because I didn’t have time, and partly because it felt dangerous to even go there.
Silence is a beautiful thing: Initially I didn’t understand why we had to travel so far to essentially sit. Couldn’t we meditate anywhere? However, being off the grid and surrounded by nature and silence, truly allowed me to settle down. Quieting my external environment allowed me to quiet my internal environment. The sound of silence, allowed me to eventually slow the busy-ness of my own mind. I realized that consciously pursuing silence was different than turning down the volume or the absence of sound. The silence I felt was palpable, a sense of peace and stillness that I hadn’t felt in a very long time.
Meaningful self-care is a complex thing: It took some time for me to adjust to the schedule and the environment. My hips complained about the sitting, my back complained about the bed, and my stomach complained about the food. And yet, the quality of stillness that I eventually felt by day four was something that had eluded me for years. It is something that eludes me now as I write these words, although perhaps that sense of peace is in closer reach than it was prior to the retreat. Self care isn’t always easy or comfortable. Sometimes self care involves doing something that is inconvenient, challenging or out of your comfort zone, and yet somehow, brings you closer to yourself.
My time on retreat was brief compared to the months and years that many experienced meditators spend in silence. Before I left for Vashon Island, I didn’t realize just how much I needed to step out of my life, in order to remember again how to show up for it. Somehow, in the midst of being so busy living, I had forgotten how to pay attention, fully, to all of the thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations that arose throughout my daily experiences. Retreat was a beautiful and surprising reminder of how to bring myself back to life, back to my life.
Of course as time goes by, the memories of Vashon Island, the people with whom I meditated, the room in which I sat, the forest that held me, are all becoming distant dreams. I am back with my screens and endless to-do lists. But there is something inside that has shifted, a new presence of mind and heart, an internal quiet, that remains somewhere underneath the surface.
When I remember, I can find it again, waiting for me.
Author: Dr. Monisha Vasa, MD