I’m mainly posting this so I don’t have to explain as many times to as many people why I told them I was going to a meditation retreat but didn’t actually do it. It’d probably be easier to lie and say “It was great,” but that would be lame.
But also, maybe this will help someone in the future if they have similar doubts or experiences or whatnot?
Anyways, to put it briefly (okay, less briefly than I initially intended…):
1. It wasn’t the warm, inviting, friendly, collective-energy-type thing I was hoping for.
This is probably largely my own fault. I probably didn’t do enough research for this particular event. I just saw “meditation retreat,” saw the number of people that attend them together, and interpreted it all with my own experiences and preconceived notions of meditation; namely that it is approached with a sense of playfulness, warmth, and, to put it in a bit of a New-Age-y sense, “one-ness.”
But that’s not quite what I got.
Physically and emotionally, it was cold. I mean, that’s partially just the nature of the time of year and the area we live in. But they were going a little bit more “stoicist” with this retreat than I anticipated. And a little bit more old-fashioned (and not in a good way).
The bunk room thermostat was set at 44 degrees when I arrived. They later said we could decide on a temperature together and change it (which went against the “Don’t touch the thermostat” sign posted next to it), but this contradiction and first impression didn’t set my mind at ease.
I also realized that when they said women and men would be separated during the retreat, they didn’t just mean sleeping quarters. They put up a curtain between the dining areas. Men and women had to walk in different areas. They were not to look at each other on the off-chance they did happen come across each other.
In fact, we were to avoid eye contact with everyone, not smiling or gesturing or looking at anyone for the entirety of the retreat, talking only to managers and teachers when necessary. I mean, obviously I’m not at a retreat to flirt with the ladies, but I definitely tend to relate to women more than men, and I feel a certain sense of comfort that I don’t feel around most men. This was going to be more than a little bit weird for me.
And even regardless of that, I knew this would be a silent retreat, but I think there’s a difference between silence and pretending everyone around you doesn’t exist. At one point, when the managers put a tape on to tell us more about the event, the tape-man said “You are to act here as if you are alone.” This is the big part I did not understand before coming. I anticipated coming to this event to meditate with people. I already regularly meditate alone. If I wanted to go be alone for 10 days, I would go be alone for 10 days. I didn’t come here to be alone.
2. I Missed People
I met some very kind folks at the start of the event while eating dinner (which happened to be a really delicious salad of greens, carrots, beets, various seed-y and powder-y toppings, and miso-tahini dressing). And then I realized I wouldn’t be able to interact with them the whole time I was there.
Then I thought about how I could be spending my time. With my wife, with family, with friends. Suddenly spending 10 days somewhere I didn’t want to be did not seem appealing.
I’m sure that if I stuck it out, I would have be uncomfortable for awhile, and maybe at the end it would be worth it. But I know myself well enough, and I’ve been through a lot of experiences that everyone I had talked to raved about, and when I went through it… meh. It wasn’t for me. And I saw this becoming one of those experiences.
A couple of years ago I went to England by myself. It was my first time leaving North America, and my first time travelling by myself. At first I was excited. When I got to the hotel room, though, I had what I would consider a mild panic attack. I was so far away from everything I knew and loved. It took me a long time to fall asleep. In the morning, I felt a little better, but I was still shaking as I walked to the conference. When I got there, the people were so friendly, they were so my people (video game musicologists? hell yeah!), that I couldn’t help but feel welcome and invited.
At this retreat, there would be none of that. No new friends to make up for the people I missed. Only me. And that wasn’t what I expected. It wasn’t what I wanted.
3. I Started to See Through The BS I Missed Before
Once I was overcome with all these emotions, I started noticing everything else that I just couldn’t fully buy into. I already talked about the silly gender segregation (and I guess non-binary folks just had no place here…?), and the lack of any normal human contact. But there was also the bit about how the organization is sustained by donations. I think this is interesting and kind of cool in some ways, but… they said this was to make the retreat “separate from commercialism.”
It just wasn’t true, though. They still have to rent the space. They still have to buy the food, use and pay for running water, use and pay for electricity. Or else they wouldn’t need to ask for donations at the end of the retreat. It’s nigh-impossible to be separate from commercialism, and the way this was being run was not separate from commercialism.
Suddenly the whole thing reminded me of that episode of The Simpsons (“The Joy of Sect”) where all of Springfield joins a cult that tells them “You are free to leave at any time,” and then shines a light on them and asks why they’re leaving when they stand up to go. Obviously my mind was over-extrapolating a little bit, but I tend to listen to my feelings when they tell me stuff like this, even if they are a little off. There was a little bit too much religious new-age-y stuff. It didn’t all fit right in my head. I “got bad vibes.”
The final straw came when the aforementioned tape-man asked all the students to reaffirm their commitment to staying the whole 10 days and following all the rules and guidelines talked about. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t “surrender,” as one woman I met beforehand put it.
So I decided to leave.
The managers were confused, unsure of how to handle it. They told me “You’re free to go” but wanted to talk to the teacher first if I’d be willing to stay for a bit. I didn’t want to be a jerk, so I let them do their stuff, packed my stuff, and left.
Funny enough I hit the closest thing to a blizzard I’ve ever experienced on the way out (there was little accumulation so I made it out just fine), followed by massively heavy rain, followed by a brief hail storm. When I rounded the corner overlooking Longview and Kelso… I sighed a massive sigh of relief. I felt alive. I felt motivated. I felt like a million bucks.
I felt like I’d just finished a 10-day meditation retreat.
It was as if all the emotions I was about to experience hit me all at once before the retreat even really began. I knew I’d made the right decision.
Overall, I’d say I’m glad I went to that first bit. If nothing else, I got a great salad recipe out of it. What I did experience (the ride there, setting up, tearing down, the ride back) was interesting and memorable. People told me it might be life-changing. Maybe it was, in its own weird way.
I know that at least one person reading this is going to think, “Wow, Jon is weak and undisciplined,” or “What a loser, couldn’t even make it one day.” Well, to be frank to that one person… f*** off. This was my decision and I stand by it. Maybe I wasn’t ready? Maybe it just wasn’t for me? Maybe I’m “weak”? Meh. I don’t really care. I’m happy now, hanging out with my wife at my in-laws’ place with their animals, next to the fire, reading, writing. This is a retreat.