We hear more about balance than ever before. Balancing work, the hours, the demands, and the stress. Balancing life, our health, our families, and checkbooks. Most of the advice you find on balance is in advice on the things you can “do” to get it. These lists are helpful to get our balance back; however, how far have we had to go to lose our balance that now has to be redefined and found? No barometer tells us when we are getting out of balance, just a loud thump when we hit rock bottom, falling off of the path, tripping over ourselves, face down, with everyone around us telling us to pick ourselves up by our bootstraps. Rather than offering lists on how to get balance, how about pre-reads of the signs that indicate things are starting to get topsy before they are turvy?
To be able to take advice on how to be “in balance,” you have to know what makes up each side of the scale that is your balance. What amount of each thing in your life must exist in perfect balance to keep you from tumbling down? Once you can define balance, you can write your list of what out-of-balance looks like. Timing is critical in writing this list because doing it when you are out of balance is like looking for the path while lying flat on your back.
“You can’t see the forest for the trees” – John Heywood
Using my life as an example, I know that my non-negotiables are my family, my health (yes, I know this is second on my list, I am working on this!), my friends, my career, and all other things in the world. Putting all these on the scale is truly an exercise in the finest balance. Too much of any one thing throws me off into a spin cycle that creates a hurricane of activity around me that becomes a forcefield against any help with defenses up and openness down. (Sigh)
Despite my acknowledgment of the importance of balance, I inevitably allow my passion for the moment to take over more often than I wish to admit. If only there was a flag that would wave when everything else in my life starts to get out of balance. There isn’t a flag or a siren, and most of the time, no one is even paying attention until flags and sirens are required to get your attention!
This will not serve as another list; no one needs yet another list. Instead, this is a cry for solidarity for us all to be our own barometer of balance. Stop every day and check yourself. Check your balance before mounting the beam and deciding what dismount to attempt!
Inspired by the “…forest for the trees…” I use it as a tale of two paths:
A Tale of Unbalance:
Here you stand in the middle of the most beautiful forest. You walk in, heading down a guided path, well-worn and manicured. Oh wait, is that a unicorn up ahead? Run, catch up to it, follow it into the trees, off the path, down to the water, hopping from one slippery rock to another, and then WHACK…you are down face-up, looking at a canopy of treetops above you. Where am I? How did I get here? Am I hurt? Can I stand on my own? (Let alone find bootstraps, who wears boots with straps anyway!!!) How do I find my way out? Do I call for help, or do I attempt to figure it out on my own? This is how it happens, proverbially, at least.
A Tale of Balance:
Here you stand in the middle of the most beautiful forest. You walk in, heading down a guided path, well-worn and manicured by your hands, that created this balanced path throughout your life. Oh wait, is that a unicorn up ahead? Sit, be quiet, and give it the respect you deserve to meet each other right where you are on your respective paths. If you decide to follow, do so from afar, and you can never stray too far from your path. Take what you need from this moment, perspective and passion with patience. Add it to your scales of balance by first taking inventory of what you must give up to add it, doing it mindfully.
The lesson of these two paths is a lesson in mindfulness, yours. A lesson that those things that you have lined up along your path should never get in your way. They should not be obstacles. The moment these things threaten to trip you up is your sign. This is the pivotal moment you can stop and readjust before jumping over obstacles. One or two obstacles breed perseverance, but more than that threatens your balance, leaving you searching lists on the internet about how to regain your balance. Don’t lose it, and you won’t have to search for it. Treasure your balance. Respect it as clearly to have it is a prize only awarded to those willing to put themselves first on the list.
I cannot resist concluding with quotes from my favorite poem. Remember, when it comes to balance, you decide. You always decide, choices and consequences. Choose well and stay balanced.
Like a page out of a book or, at the very least, a very finely crafted itinerary, I was off to the annual girl’s trip with great expectations. I was ready for a break. I was “crispy” in all aspects of my life. I thought maybe some time away would solve my quest for perspective. The plans were made, accommodations and transportation booked, and now it just needed to come together as great as it played out in my head.
My girl’s trip comrades shared the first of my three-part journey. We have been making these girl trips for more than 13 years, and they never disappoint. This trip would be the furthest we had ever traveled in search of forests of colorful trees. New England would be the backdrop, and what a destination it turned out to be; full of colors, small towns, great food, and crisp temperatures. This part of my trip delivered on every aspect of what I hoped to be my own “Eat, Pray, Love” adventure. We ate until we popped! We prayed in the solace of the quiet moments. We loved so hard it hurt.
I think it is fair to say that the expectation for every girl’s trip is written in Elizabeth Gilbert’s book “Eat, Pray, Love.” Gilbert’s book would be the user manual for every nervous breakdown since it was first published in 2006. Women worldwide would be given the permission and courage to pick themselves up off the bathroom floor and leave their lives to go on a fiercely independent journey from heartache to healing. While the destinations would differ, the intention would not. How do we take a break from our lives with the hope that disconnecting would allow us to reconnect better?
The second part of my three-part journey would be a solitary trip to a retreat. I have ventured out on this journey many times. Last year would be the most dramatic of these trips as I ventured to Boone, NC, to participate in a Silent Retreat at the Art of Living Retreat Center. It would be the most challenging spiritual journey that I had ever embarked on and one that, a year later, I am still reeling from. I learned a lot about myself; most importantly, I could do it. I could practice silence in full compliance and come out better for it.
This year I contemplated if I should partake in another silent retreat and decided against it. This year, I intended to be more gentle in exploring a new retreat center and program. My expectations are less, but my anxiety is high. I don’t expect this to be as hard as the silent retreat; however, I want to come out of this weekend balanced. This is a large ask for a weekend when I have not been able to manage it for over a year.
While I am not crying on a bathroom floor, I am so far out of balance that picking myself up will take renewed discipline and a bit of stubbornness to do what is right for me. I have traded meditation for Oreos. I have given up running for dinners in front of the television. I have remained silent long after the retreat, as my writing has become less and less throughout the past year. My health has declined, my patience has diminished, and my happiness has become a measurement of productivity that leaves me exhausted.
My expectation of what will become the third part of my journey, resuming life, is to practice what I know to be true for me. Allow my actions to be the judge and not define my actions by judgment. Allow my efforts to be worthy of all things in my life without sacrificing anything. I recognize these are significant asks, but I do not feel put out as I am only asking myself.
Today I sit in a quiet inn on the side of a mountain, preparing for the day ahead. Preparing to check into the retreat center and, more importantly, to silence “my” life, if only for a few days. This time, I will do silence on my terms. I have eaten more food than I needed. I have prayed, in my way, by setting the intention of what I want out of this retreat and worrying little about what I don’t. I will focus on self-love with the only expectation of walking away with a resolve that will bring me back to whom I want to be. The “me” stuck in this cycle will be given the silence and the freedom to redefine. It is the only thing I “have” to do for the next three days.
Quietly departing, silently slinking away, to get back to the core. Shhh, silence on my terms.
You have a voice; how you use it decides if you will lose it. Do you speak up…too much, or not enough? Our decisions in every moment of when we use our voice, how we use our voice, or if we use our voice ultimately decide if we will be heard.
It is essential to know when to stay silent as essential as knowing when to speak. If you are always talking, chances are no one is listening. If you are always quiet, the perception is that you have nothing to say. When you control your voice and its output, you control the narrative.
Think about it; those talking all the time are the ones we drown out. They are the Charlie Brown teachers in the rooms…
…that we stop listening to because they are ALWAYS talking.
Then there are those in the room that say nothing and leave us wondering why they are in the room, to begin with.
You want to be the one in the room that everyone stops what they are doing and listens to. You want to be the one that gets the listener’s attention because they know when you have something to say, it is worth listening to; you want to be that voice, meaningful and with intention.
How to use your voice is a skill that takes practice and self-reflection. It takes time in front of different audiences where you can test out your voice and witness, usually in real-time, the reaction of your voice on the audience. Are you just restating someone else’s good idea? Are you criticizing? Are you adding value with your voice or merely piling on? What is the audience’s reaction? What is the read on the room after you speak?
To start building your voice skills, you have to have the patience to stop and think before you talk. Much like the process of mindfulness in thought control requires you to stop when a thought comes to mind to consider its worth and then choose to let it go or react to it. Using your voice requires a similar cadence. Before responding to what you hear, you must first stop and decide if you should respond or stay silent and, if worth speaking up, what your message will be to create value.
Once you have practiced when to use your voice, the next step in the process is how to use your voice. How we use our voices determines if our voices will be heard again in the future. Will you be invited back to the conversation? Let’s explore a few examples:
Are you a confirmer? Only speaking up to confirm someone else’s point-of-view?
There is undoubtedly a place for this voice in helping to gain consensus on another person’s point-of-view; however, if challenged to stand on that POV for yourself, would you? Or are you only in agreement for the sake of wanting to fit in or find comfort in the group? Use caution in this voice, as your integrity will be challenged.
Are you a statement-maker? Are you always making a “drop-the-mic” statement?
There are times that this voice is relevant and can be impactful if used sparsely. If you are always trying to make a statement, your voice can become overpowering and irrelevant. Powerful messages have a place and time; choose each carefully.
Are you “quoter”? Do you use quotes to add relevance to your voice or message?
The benefit of a famous quote is that it creates recognition with the audience as it is a place of familiarity that can immediately connect the speaker with the audience. For this to be fully realized, the “quote” must be relevant to the message being delivered.
The detriment in quoting without the subsequent relevance is that you require the audience to do the work to connect the dots. Quotes used back-to-back lack integrity and tend to lack creativity in finding your voice by using others in vain.
“Proceed with Caution” – Eartha Kitt (ha!)
In concluding, it is worth noting that every conversation is not that serious, complex, or dramatic; however, practicing in all circumstances will strengthen your voice and your point of view. Your voice is your gift. Use it with discretion and revel in the places where your silence is the loudest voice in the room.
Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.— ABRAHAM LINCOLN
I am on Medium today and in the midst of a 24-minute read when this quote appears before me…
“Crave the result so intensely that the work is irrelevant.”
Michael Jordan’s performance coach, Tim Grover
…and in that moment I have a visceral response. YES!!! This is exactly what is it all about, everything in life, is summed up right here.
Overreaction on my part, some might say, but so be it because I live in a society that points out the “work” in everything we do. Marriage is work. School is work. Yards are work. Houses are work. Friendships are work.
Flip the script I say! Now reframe:
My 26/yr (Happy Anniversary…yesterday) marriage has not been “work” it has been the craving of a partnership so intense that nothing can stand in its path. Easy one to reframe you might say, let’s try again.
Losing 140/lbs was as intense as any effort I have ever made yet it was never about the work and always about the reward of the result which spanned far beyond weight loss and forged paths into confidence, worth, and recognizing my value is more important than anyone else’s appraisal of me.
Spending 30/years in hospitality has been about passion for an industry that inspires me, challenges me, and keeps me on my toes every single day. There have been many paths forged along the way and a few roads less traveled. Ultimately whenever it felt like “work” I chose a new path that kept me “craving” with an “intensity” that has resulted in a career I could not have imagined 30 years earlier.
I can show examples of this again and again because when you stop focusing on the work you find the passion in why you do what you do. To “crave the result so intensely” is to have passion that drives you beyond what “work” would require.
Apply this quote to anything you are calling “work” in your life and you will be forced to evaluate why you do what you do and who you do it with. Life is short, do what inspires you, get passionate and stay passionate.
It occurs to me as I am sitting in the arena. Friends next to me, family nearby, and screaming fans all around me. Happiness is here. Happiness is present, are you? I thought for a moment that this place might be the happiest place on earth. A hockey game, that is where happiness was present in that moment. The jumbotron was capturing smiles, cheers, dancing, singing, it was “happiness” personified by a thousand of my closest hockey friends/fans.
Earlier that day I was having breakfast with the one who could be my sister. This time it was a feeling that washed over me that whispered “this is home” as I could feel the calm overcome me. Being in the presence of one that knows me better than myself and loves me more than myself is a gift. The thing these two very different experiences have in common is that I would have missed the moments if I had not been present. If I had not left enough peace within to quiet my mind to experience the moment, I could not have felt the jubilation of the hockey game or the peace in my quiet brunch.
Today I am here alone and once again experiencing something so similar that it occurred to me that this peace, happiness, and presence is available to me anytime I choose it. Here I sit alone, cleaning up paperwork, organizing, listening to music, and realizing that this is bliss. Do I dare interrupt this moment for any other obligation, no, for this is what presence affords us, the choice to stay still, right where we are, now, in the moment, present.
The irony of realizing that I have not posted one blog since pouring my silent retreat experience into words. Silenced for three months? Or a life that has been so noisy there is no room for thought? Or pure avoidance of sitting in one more thought in silence? Whatever it is, here I sit, not quite on the other side or any side at all but overseeing. Having the power to sit objective in your own life is rare and I am not even sure obtainable but through the lens of others and a mirror of my own I try.
My resolve is still not certain and no resolutions have been made as this process is much longer than a few months of reflection can afford. I carry-on, one observation at a time, controlling the reaction better at times than others.
What I know today…
Integrity matters to me as I define it. It matters how you define as well but I don’t live your truth and therefore mine is priority. Protecting who you are, portraying who you are is the ultimate freedom and true definition of integrity. After all when someone shows you who they are believe them. What are you showing?
Accountability is a two-way street, always. We are held accountable or hold accountable each other and ourselves. Accountability is not expectation. It is being held responsible for what you say or do and less about what someone expects you to say or do. One is a promise made by you and the other is a plea to you.
Self-care wraps both of these together and speaks volume about your value; for you are only as valuable as you appraise yourself. How you care for yourself is the ultimate test of your integrity and accountability. You cannot speak a truth or hold others accountable to values you don’t possess.
I sit in confusion of what I was to take away from my time “on the mountain”. This is likely due to an expectation that could never have been fulfilled considering the nativity in going up on the mountain blind to the process. I have also found resolve that nothing needed to be taken away but instead rather given back.
What I have found is that silence has been redefined in moments, in words not said, in my own restraint if only saved for those deserving. What I have found is that my seat at the table is not defined by the table I sit at but rather where I choose to keep company. In the end, my value is just that MY value and that takes priority.
I am asked often if I would do it again (the silent retreat, that is) and to that I answer yes and no. No, I do not require someone to silence me to find clarity as that cannot truly happen without being transparent to myself. Yes, I would do it again if only to prove that I could, again. Most importantly is that today I do silence on my terms, in my way and my practice is in active form taking back my power, my value, my words for noise has little value, but for me I am priceless in silence.
Arrival was abrupt. Unpacking my car and starting the klutzy balance of suitcase, duffel bag, yoga mat and other “essentials” into the building that welcomes you more like a prison and less like a resort. Three steps up into the foyer (very loose concept) and realizing it is 100 degrees inside and there are no elevators would be my first reality checks, this was not intended to be a vacation. I walk down the hallway to check that the “2” before my room number “200” would suggest that I am on the second floor, secretly hoping that these ground floor rooms were not numbered like hotel rooms. It is confirmed, I am on the second floor. Lugging my luggage (ironic the two words…ha!) up the stairs and down to the last room in the hall I find room 200 and I am not sure if I am relieved or reticent to see what lies behind the door.
I open the door to my room I am hit with a more intense wave of heat and am reminded that the website said there was no a/c but “there are box fans for your comfort”. I immediately open all of the windows and doors and find that luxury item, box fan, that I would power up on max. As I look around the room I am almost giddy with the realization that this is far from the luxury hotels that I sell for a living. It is vanilla and nondescript. This would be the last time I would recall anything about the décor of this room and instead would regard this space as a respite from the intense work we were doing. It would become a “retreat” indeed allowing me to ground myself and center myself once again.
The views were absolutely stunning and once the windows were open it was apparent why no a/c would be needed. The fresh air blowing in from the tops of the trees was magnificent and would have been missed otherwise.
I set up my laptop and iPad and put all of my notebooks and journals on to the desk as if I was getting ready to work. That would be the last time I would visit that space. As it turned out there is much to do in silence and none of it involves a desk, a laptop or books. Wow, what was I in for, this was going to be an experience for sure.
Here we go…
On day one I wake early and start searching on my Uber Eats app for Starbucks. Yep, there is one, but there are no drivers. Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore! I get up and get dressed and decide I will drive down the mountain to get my two cappuccinos. This would inevitably become my new morning routine for the week. As with everything that has happened thus far, I would come to realize the gift of being able to experience the drive down the mountain and back up again. The familiarity of the winding roads and silhouettes of houses as the sun would rise brought me back to the many visits to my mom in Virginia. I would wake up in the coming days looking forward to this drive. The gratitude in places I was not seeking would become a familiar theme of this experience.
I would start my mornings with that drive, those cappuccinos a sunrise every morning that reminded me that there is always a reason to rise again. New beginnings and new horizons are always ours for the taking; every 24 hours.
As I make my way down the stunning walk to the place we would practice silence for the week I was joined by 36 other silent-seekers and one eclectic couple that would become our spiritual guides. The room was brimming with anxious energy as we all sat pensively on our yoga mats. I realize now coming out on the other side how naïve I was on that first day. As I sat there staring at our instructors I had no way of knowing how hard the next three days would be and the range of emotions that we would go through. In hindsight, I find the courage of our instructors to be inspiring as they were the only ones in the room on that first day that knew what was going to happen…and they did it anyway.
After orientations and breathing practices we were partnered up with a “buddy” that had been chosen for us based on proximity. Our first introduction to our “buddy” would be to tell our life story in ten minutes in the third person. What. The. Heck! My initial response was fear of telling my story to someone that surely could not understand where I came from, how was I going to tell a complete stranger my choices and consequences in this life and still be respected? It was decided that the person in the pair with the longest hair would go first, whew, I was off the hook, at least for ten minutes. She (my buddy) began to tell her story in the third person and I was wholly impressed at how good she was at this and then her story started to wash over me and I found myself sitting, paralyzed by her words. How could this be? Her story was so similar, yet so different. Could it be that this person that had been chosen for me was more like me than different? This would become another proof point that I was exactly where I was supposed to be; on that mountain, in that room, on that yoga mat, sitting in front of her; another moment of divine intervention as my buddy was surely chosen FOR me.
All of this chatting created a cacophony of voices, laughter and nervous energy that of course would lead up to the announcement that we were going to step into silence. We had been in session for 24-hours and now were presumably ready to be thrust into silence as the session was ending. We walked out of our class into silence with little instruction outside of “stay in silence”. There were hints during the day of the more obvious “rules”, no talking, no phones, no tv, but we were mostly left to our own devices, or not. I walked back to my room in the dark, wondering where in the world I was that I could be instructed to walk the half-mile up the mountain to my room alone. As with previous themes, this would be the last time I would worry, let alone think, about walking alone in the dark. This mountain was washing over me like a security blanket and in safety, vulnerability is allowed. As I entered my room I was immediately aware of the sounds around me. We had only started this journey and it seemed as though everything was amplified. As I turned on the water to brush my teeth I was acutely aware of the faucet and powerful flow of water. This heightened awareness of sound would continue throughout my time in silence, at times revealing nature’s wonders and other times annoying the shit out of me.
I would go to bed without tv as I had done the night before only as a trial and now as a sentence. These would be my first victories as I have always fallen asleep to tv as long as I can remember. Even as a young child, I remember there being a black and white tv in my room that had no reception, I would fall asleep to the sound of “snow” every night. I am not sure what my parent’s attempt was in that added “amenity”, but it set a habit in stone for life.
When I woke in the morning, still in silence, I would begin to see the range of emotions that would become a roller coaster ride as warned that it might. My trip to Starbucks was uneventful. Our mornings would always start the same with yoga and then breakfast with some alone time in between the break until our 10a session would start. Somewhere in that “break”, the emotion of the few hours of silence realized and the days of silence pending in front of me hit like a ton of bricks. As I sat on the side of the hill in front of our classroom I would completely lose it, crying until I was sobbing. I was grateful that we were in silence as I could not explain where the emotion was coming from or why I was crying. I just was and at the moment I knew I was “in it”.
As the days would go on the meditations would as well. We would meditate for hours on end. Meanwhile, emotions were on a roller coaster that ranged from the rockiness of a wooden coaster to some, few, that was as smooth as silk. When you sit in meditation you are doing the “work” you are inevitably here to do. You are training the mind. Sit, close your eyes, take a deep breath in…and we’re off! I would spend hours fighting back the thoughts that would flood in like a tsunami of randomness, contemplations and plans for the future. I would try to swat them away like the flies that they were but realize that when the flies are in the ointment your swatter is defenseless.
I would find that range of emotions at its height on Day Two as I was ready to quit. Was this normal or was it my typical “MO” of always finding an escape hatch when things got uncomfortable? I was pissed that we were going to meditate again and again and again. I would submit a question for that night’s Q&A asking why we were meditating so much to which our instructor would offer his wisdom after reading the question out loud. His answer was, so appropriate, “Well, you did sign up for a meditation retreat.” HA!!! I would find the ridiculousness of the question and his answer the comical break I needed to let it happen. As the meditations wore on I would come to realize that this is the process of finding the “self”. It does not happen in a few meditations. It happens from the constant practice, one right after another, of quieting the mind. This realization would happen days after this Q&A and when it did it was existential.
Embracing the present
One of the things that became very clear early on was the amount of control that one has to turn over to truly be taken (sometimes dragged) into this process. The only way to get to the “self” is to allow yourself to be guided by trusting the process. For many of the people in the room, this was an effort in itself. “What are we going to do next?” “How, why, when…” “What do you mean I cannot go to the bathroom when I want?” Control; is a bitch. You come to realize (or you don’t) that you have to relinquish it because all that you are wielding in your own hands prevents you from seeing what you can become.
To be present is sometimes not knowing what will happen next. You are aware that there is more on the horizon and you pick your head up for brief checks to make sure you are still on the path otherwise you keep your head down and focus. This thought of keeping my head down occurred to me many times on my journey into silence. When I went on hikes, which is one of the very few things we were allowed to do, you had to keep your head down to avoid tripping on a rock or a root, and would only look up to make sure you were still on the path. Head down = Good. When I would walk around the grounds I would keep my head down to avoid eye contact, since simply pleasantries would threaten my silence. Head down = Good. Keeping your head down became a “good thing” and as with all things in life what is good is also bad, but in these moments “head down” equaled “focus” and that was “good”.
Breaking the Silence
As the final moments of the retreat had arrived we were prepared to “break the silence” in a ritual that would bring value to the first words that you would speak. It would be ceremonious because after all of the silence surely you would have something to say that deserved to be heard. We gathered in a circle and were asked to say one word that would break our silence. This would be the most powerful moment in what had already felt like millions of powerful moments. As we went around the circle each person would reveal their voice in a word and then share why they had come to the silent retreat. The last part of sharing was not asked of us but something that seemed to come as a release and felt natural after spending hours of silence together. We had gotten to know each other through wide eyes hidden on masked faces, passing each other back and forth between breaks, finding safety in our silent numbers. Now we were hearing the voices of those that had come to be our brethren and felt a responsibility of sorts to share. As the stories came flowing into the circle it created a centrifugal force that was apropos for the roller coaster to come to a final stop.
My “word” changed numerous times as the emotions of their stories came tumbling out in front of me. “Acceptance”, “fear”, wait…no, the words, every one of them said by the 22 people that stood in the circle before I applied, how could I choose one? When it was my turn, I stood up holding on to the column beside me and said the only thing I felt at that moment “OVERWHELMED”. It is not only what I was feeling at that moment but inevitably what brought me to that circle. Overwhelmed by my thoughts and my emotions now in front of these warriors and ironically also the reason I had driven up the mountain originally. I was overwhelmed by life, my life, thoughts that had no longer become a choice to act on but instead, had become a directive summoning emotions and reactions at a dizzying pace, literally as I was suffering from vertigo brought on in silence.
There I stood and spoke my testimony. “My word is “overwhelmed” because that is how I feel right now. I am brimming with energy feeling a tingling sensation throughout my body. My word is also “acceptance”. I realized I was in good company on Day One and that allowed me to be vulnerable to this process. My word is also “responsibility” because I owe it to myself to carry everything I have learned into my life and I take the responsibility of each and every one of your stories as mine to keep in solace. My final word is “fear”. Fear is what I felt when I was driving in and realizing that the last time I was in silence was as I sat at my mother’s bedside the last three weeks of her life until she took her last breath. I did not know if I could ever sit in silence again, but I did.” …and then I sat down into a puddle of my own tears. This must be the definition of cathartic…
This word has always fascinated me and at this moment of release, I fully came to understand not only the definition of the word but the weight of it. This word would become a defining word for the “silent” retreat to be used for me and only me. It is not a word I would repeat or use to describe my experience to others but acknowledge deep within. We use “heavy” words to express our emotions, to place emphasis on our stories without ever truly understanding the true meaning. I realized in this moment of “catharsis” that there were very few times in my life that I had been here, truly.
Everyone has one, a story, your story, our story. All of our stories begin with “Once upon a time…” and inevitably we spend all of our lives seeking our “…happily ever after”.
So many themes revealed themselves this week as a final conclusion to a novel that had more ups and downs than a harlequin romance. Your story is my story and my story is yours and by telling my story I share OUR story. We have all been through something, everything and ironically nothing. Every single one of us can tell a tale of tragedy in our lives as easily as one of victory. The degree to which that story affects us is personal. Your story is no less tragic, better or mundane than mine, it is simply your story, which is ours collectively.
“When all you have is eye contact, devoid of speech you see yourself through the eyes of others.” – Lori Kiel, silent retreat revelation.
I saw myself in the exuberant girl so full of energy she could barely contain herself in silence. Her giggles, moans, grunts and loud motions drew the attention of the room. At first, what felt like a distraction soon came to be a mirror of myself. I recognized myself in her “bull in a china shop” persona and immediately knew why she was there.
I saw myself in the woman two yoga mats over from me that would look at me as if she could see into my soul. She was just a bit older, a tad wiser, summoning me with her gaze that told me “she saw me”. As we broke the silence she would come to me to sit and share, of course, she would because surely she felt that energy as well.
I saw myself in the “buddy” I was assigned the day I first laid eyes on her on Day One. Tattoos, gorgeous skin, long flowing hair and a fierceness to her eyes that let you know, she was not to be messed with; just like me. As we were tasked with sharing our life story (in the third person, in ten minutes) her words would flow so eloquently from her soul revealing a life that was shattered, shocking and leaving me absolutely speechless. It would be my turn to tell my story and I would fumble for the words, not even sure of my name in the third person. What she could not know is that as she told her story, it was mine as well. How could that be? I am immediately reminded that we are all more alike than different. She was as shocked as I revealed that I too had walked a similar path. Her assumption of me, my appearance, my demeanor, never let on that I too had seen life like hers, we were safe, together.
I saw others, those familiar to me my mother, my friends, my kids, in those warriors that surrounded me in silence. I saw my friends in the eyes of three others as we were tasked with a “gazing exercise”. We sat in front of three people and could only stare into each other’s eyes to reveal if we were ready to come out of silence. The first two people I sat in front of were new to me. We had not come into contact during the retreat and in gazing into each other’s masked faces I recognized their eyes. The first was younger, scared, kind eyes that were holding back. So familiar to me and reminded me that the kindness behind those eyes should not be confused with weakness, I know her and she is fierce. The second was familiar. She looked like me, 35 years of me. Round, soft, sweet, flowing hair and a gaze that seemed to create compression on my heart. It was physical. I could feel her squeezing my heart, how, what was this…later when she spoke her final word I would come to know her name. Of course, it was that of my childhood best friend. Of course.
Driving Down the Mountain
I thought a lot about what the departure from silence would look like, would I talk, would I stay silent, turns out much like life, it just happened. When you are in a cocoon, enveloped in silence, safe on the top of a mountain, the idea of driving out of that space is daunting. I had been warned before going that how you come out is as important as the work you do during the retreat.
As I got into the car to take the 9+ hour drive home, I was incredibly energized. This again was to be expected, or not, as expectations are “the thief of joy” as one of the many lessons I have learned this last week. Having experienced the range of emotions and feelings I had come to know I was grateful that today I was energized where days before I was exhausted.
GPS set, water in the cup holder and let’s roll!
I call my husband first to tell him I am out of silence and find my first attempt to explain what I had just experienced. I had already decided that I would not share, at least not verbally, this experience with many others as putting it into words would only fall short. He of course knows why I went and was ready to listen and of course support the changes I am coming away with. He is relieved to hear that my resolve is much of what he has told me, begged of me and offered in wisdom through the years. Ironic that it takes a silent retreat to get it to sink in.
The next phone call comes in from my youngest son interrupting my husband and I’s call to tell my husband that he has locked the keys to his car in the trunk. AND HERE WE GO, cue the song “…back to life, back to reality” – Soul II Soul.
After solving his crisis my youngest son, who is now driving the long ride home from his friends, calls and just wants to talk. This is golden. As a parent of three sons, you come to learn that conversations like this one are precious. They are not the “What are you doing today?” calls, they are not trivial, these are the ones that when they happen you cherish and stay present. This time I am present on an entirely different level, good for him, awesome for me. This is a gift.
The last call on my drive home is my oldest son and his wife to “check on me”. They are always light-hearted and make it easy to share without effort. As he is the quieter one in our family his first question is if I made it through the silence without talking. We share some laughs about my experience and I am left feeling loved, as always. He is so gentle with me. This word “gentle” is one I would hear many times throughout my meditations and would remind myself again and again. This is a tattooable word…not that I would…but noting in the case I ever get the itch.
She’s SAFE, Sliding into Home
In between the calls from my family, the best call I had on my drive home was from the one person I had just experienced this retreat with, Jill.
She and I met 15 years ago when working for the same company. We came fast friends and long after going our separate ways and career paths we have remained close. We have an affinity for wellness and Buddhism and we are each other’s “go-to” for retreats. When this idea of going on a silent retreat came to me she was the first one I called to see if she wanted to join me. Of course, she said “yes”.
It’s interesting going through a period of silence with someone as you cannot communicate verbally yet you soon realize that knowing each other is all the communication you need. The energy, the eye contact, the moments…are as comforting and telling as the words you cannot say. We would hike the mountains around us every day using sign language and caveman-like grunts to communicate. We laughed, a lot! We would even get into a bit of trouble as we accidentally wandered off of a trail and onto the land of a very disgruntled man and his two very loud dogs! Uh Oh…
As we were not able to speak until the very end of the retreat we had a lot to talk about in downloading our shared experience on our long drive home, she back to DC and me to Orlando. Jill had left before me and had already experienced “life” in her new mindset. She shared her few experiences with me as a warning of what was to come.
As we downloaded it was a resolve in closing the experience and unexpectedly necessary. My very wise friend and fellow meditator dispelled her wisdom and takeaways with me with her best advice being…
“You can now access silence anytime you want it.” Ironically I always could.
As it turns out silence was always available to me. Accessing it was not. I have now been equipped with tools to truly access that space in which the quiet can resolve and ready my mind for the noise as I decide to allow it access.
What I am taking away
There were many lessons through stories that were told to us throughout the retreat. Again the facilitators had a captive audience; we sat like kindergarteners on the floor looking up at them as our teachers. We were captive indeed, voices silenced and seeking wisdom by the two that seemingly knew how to find peace. I would later tell them (when granted my voice again) that I was in awe of their courage to take a group through this process as the emotions that would bubble up would sometimes be focused on them; anger, disbelief, love…yes by end of this retreat I would come to love these two courageous humans.
While we were not able to use pad and paper during silence I would have to remember the lessons I learned based on what resonated and “stuck” versus what I voraciously consumed in notes. This as many that know me is tough. I rarely sit and do anything without a keyboard in front of me allowing all that enters to produce on the page in front of me. Again, another blessing in disguise as I realized that much of that notetaking was more about keeping “busy” so I did not have to simply sit within myself. Lessons learned. One at a time. Here are some that were taught and others that I came up with within my own observations of the “self”:
When the water hits the rock, the water is not interrupted, it is not harmed by the rock, it remains unfazed. It simply splashes back unto itself and proceeds to flow around the rock. The rock does not stop the flow, it changes it ever so slightly but it still flows. Be the water, not the rock. I am the water.
When you walk like a flame everything you come into contact with becomes fuel.
The body is the wick and the mind is the glow.
What we resist persists.
Vicious cycle involves thought that evokes emotion that elicits reaction. Allowing the thought to present itself dismiss itself without emotion or reaction is the key to peace.
Jill’s favorite story of wisdom is that of the “empty boat” and I have been regarding it since coming home as well so I share it here as taken from the web for better clarity:
There’s a Zen story in which a man is enjoying himself on a river at dusk. He sees another boat coming down the river toward him. At first, it seems so nice to him that someone else is also enjoying the river on a nice summer evening. Then he realizes that the boat is coming right toward him, faster and faster. He begins to yell, “Hey, hey, watch out! For Pete’s sake, turn aside!” But the boat just comes right at him faster and faster. By this time he’s standing up in his boat, screaming and shaking his fist, and then the boat smashes right into him. He sees that it’s an empty boat.
The other boat is always empty, even when there’s someone steering it. There is never anyone to get angry with. Even if the person steering the other boat deliberately rammed our boat, his behavior had nothing to do with us. Anything anyone else does is done for their own reasons, and much of the time they don’t even know the reasons. When we see life as it is, rather than our thoughts about it, we see that every time we look for an enemy, someone to hate, someone to blame, there’s never anyone there. Just an empty boat on a foggy lake.
My own epiphany occurred on the final sunrise. Of course, it did. As I was sitting at the very top of the steps of the main meditation hall, two cappuccinos beside me, shivering from the 40 degrees of cool air blowing I took these pictures and the following came to me…
There is power in meditation. Positively, back breaking, soul stripping power. Sit still, breathe in, breathe out…stay a while. You don’t have a choice. You can’t run away from the mind, the ego, the intellect or the self. Here we sit as one HARMonizing. Take it all in, it’s already there.
Sitting on the bed in my 18th floor Dallas hotel room with the window open, sun shining through and in the moment. The moment is solitary but soothing, and silence is recognizable in this space.
Silence showed itself like a long-lost friend. It was refreshing and revealing. I liked it and wanted to stay in it. When will I see you again and I can’t wait are the themes that resonate after I ruminate.
Today is the day, the start of a 5-day adventure into silence. What am I doing?!?!
This crazy idea started back in May when talking to my therapist who shared with me that he had recently come back from a 7-day silent retreat out in Big Sur. He was sharing his retreat with me after I told him that there is simply too much noise in my life and it was making it hard for me to figure out what comes next. I was on the cusp of my 50th birthday and he told me to try it. What ultimately sold me was his confidence that if I removed all of the noise the answers I was looking for would appear.
I immediately BOOKED IT! I found a retreat center that was a little less “extreme” than the one my doctor had attended, one that was more approachable for someone that is just starting to explore this world. The first session they were offering was in October and I booked it before my mind had time to contemplate it.
The five months that stood between me and silence went on as “normal”. Ironically enough that normal was the build-up to a much needed break but as the months went on I barely thought about the impending retreat. As September came and went I realized that I was two weeks out from my retreat and travel plans needed to be secured. I booked a flight, then canceled, then booked another flight and then canceled. Wavering on commitments to myself is my “MO” and this retreat was proving no different. My life is full of escape hatches and as the days loomed closer I was coming up with them; work is too busy, my family needs me here, my son is coming to town that weekend, you name it, I have an escape hatch. Not this time, there would be no escape hatch because deep inside I knew I needed the retreat more than all of those reasons combined. I decided I would take the 9+ hour drive to North Carolina from Florida.
On the morning the retreat was due to start I woke at 4:00am and set out on my day long journey driving to the retreat center, driving myself to silence. My sweet, and totally opposite-of-me husband, woke early with me to help with my luggage and offer his final words of advice, “don’t join a cult”…and that my friends is what we call moral support!
The drive as it would turn out would be a journey unto itself. As I was driving from Florida to Savannah, my audiobook was playing, traffic was as expected and anticipation was mounting. At the point that I crossed the state line from Georgia into South Carolina things started to feel a bit different. I could feel a melancholy come over me and then I realized, the last time I had driven this trek was to go to my mother’s funeral in Virginia three years ago, only preceded by the many trips to Virginia during her final year. This trek had always been driven with dread, subconscious as it may have been I always knew that this drive up would always deliver heartache and the drive back was wrought in despair. As thoughts of her came flooding in, I found myself reaching for the songs that bonded she in life and now in death. I Put on one of her favorites and a car concert was in full-session, that has only been better performed when she was in the passengers seat. I was strong but lamenting singing my heart out and then searching for the next song and the next like a fiend. As the drive continued into North Carolina and up into the mountains the view became eerily familiar. Again these mountains, these homes, these roads; they are what I remember of my many trips to Virginia, only this time my arrival would not be met with her coming out on the porch to welcome me.
As I reached the retreat center I was in awe of the beauty. I could feel peace wash over me and immediately knew that I was where I was meant to be…today. In the present moment and ready and willing to take silence on, all-in.
The drive into silence had been a journey unto itself. It was not planned and once I was in it there was no escape hatch. As happens with feelings, when they come to the surface, shoving them back in is nearly impossible. As I park my car I feel like a champion. I have conquered half of my greatest fear; going back to her home. I did not make it up her mountain but I faced the music, literally and figuratively.
She is always “with me”, of course, and this certainly makes other people feel better to say to someone who has lost someone when they have nothing else to say…however today I am one-step closer to the place we last held hands.
As for my heart, she has always had it and still does.