“My emotions are up and down like the stock market,” a friend told me this week. I can relate! All of our normal social routines are interrupted, many of the things we once thought were reliable have shifted, people are ill or dying in a sudden and unexpected way, and we don’t know when (if) things will stabilize or when the path will become clear.
I could be talking about any meditation retreat, ever.
When you go on a serious meditation retreat, you shed your skin. You leave behind the everyday routine, put yourself on lockdown and just sit with the feelings that arise as you walk from your cushion to your room to the meal hall and back with the same people-all day, every day. Everything you had pretended to yourself you were coping with is laid bare. Your deepest fears and anxieties rise to the surface and stare you right in the face, mocking you. Your deepest cravings plague you night and day and you can do nothing to assuage them (I once spent an entire 10-day meditation course dreaming of chips and salsa).
We are all being invited right now to an involuntary meditation retreat, but without the guidance of a teacher or the positive atmosphere of a course. In fact, if you’re not careful, you can be surrounded by the negative atmosphere of constant fear-based news. There’s a difference between sitting with your real fears, honoring them, and working with them-and just imbibing more fear and feeding it.
Over a hundred couples lined up to file for divorce the day the quarantine was lifted in Wuhan, China. Whether in relationship with ourselves or with each other, we survive on a daily basis in part by avoiding what makes us uncomfortable. When we have no choice but to sit still with that, when we can’t escape ourselves or those around us, we often don’t know what to do. Everything we were pushing out of our consciousness is suddenly unavoidable, and we are left with whatever coping skills we had already brought to the table.
When you go on a meditation retreat, you make a choice. You close down business as usual, willingly suspend communications with the outside world, and choose to limit external stimuli so that you can focus on what is happening within. You might eat simpler foods and sleep in a simpler place. You might talk less, or not at all, and you may stop hugging or engaging in physical contact. You might sit still for hours every day, mostly indoors even if there’s perfect weather outside. And as you do, your deepest demons might rise to the surface and make themselves known.
In a regular meditation course, you’re there by choice. You ideally have a positive environment, the support of a loving teacher and team of staff or volunteers tending to your needs, and a host of modern or ancient techniques for how to focus your mind and attention and clear your path. It’s designed as a pressure cooker of sorts, a place to bring your patterns to the surface and work with them in a constructive way. Quarantine is also a pressure cooker, and you can make the most of it if you so choose.
Here are some basic principles of how a retreat is organized. Take what you can and apply it to your own living situation. Even if you are considered an essential worker (THANK YOU FOR WHAT YOU DO!), you can take some elements of this into the field, and apply other parts at home:
- Create Your Atmosphere: A meditation retreat is set up to be a supportive, positive atmosphere because it is REALLY HARD to face your demons! Many people right now have no control over their wider circumstances, but it’s amazing what you do have control over when you slow down and look. You might choose to: Play beautiful, healing-oriented, or spiritual music in your space. Keep flowers in a vase Burn, steam, or diffuse aromatic plants, resins, or oils. Arrange meaningful photos or objects in a way that inspires you. Limit the amount of news you consume each day (including via social media). Read or listen to deeper, archetypal, personally meaningful stories, possibly including ancient spiritual texts, poetry, or fables meant to focus and clear your mind and spirit.
- Create a Rhythm: Meditation courses typically have strict rhythms. This is to create a container to hold extremes of emotion in balance when they arise. When the externally imposed rhythms of the world fall away, it can leave us feeling un-moored. Get creative and create your own rhythm. Like to sing in the shower? Set a time to wake up each morning and sing your heart out! Make your favorite cup of tea and drink it at the windowsill with no phone or tv on while you sip and view. Take 5-minute stretch breaks at the same time each day if you’re working from home. Your rhythm can be as simple as these things, or much more elaborate, but either way the point is to train your nervous system to expect anchor-points of well-being throughout the day.
- Set up Support Systems: Most meditation courses have a teacher and assistant teachers or course monitors to help with big feelings, and with small needs like extra toilet paper (good luck there!). You will be challenged; set up supports BEFORE things are at their hardest. Make a habit of texting or calling friends and family on the regular, just to say hi. Tell people how you’re doing on good days as well as bad. Set up a “virtual happy hour” with people you rarely see during your normal busy schedule. Join an online parents’ group to problem solve and tell funny stories. Write supportive snail mail letters to strangers. Get in the rhythm of receiving and giving support so it’s already there when you need it.
- Cultivate Simple Beauty: A meditative atmosphere is typically simple, clean, elegant, and has focus points of beauty from nature or spiritual traditions. Staying at home all the time, possibly with more people than you’re used to sharing constant space with, can lead to a lot of mess. In the midst of the mess, make sure there’s something that grounds you in beauty. A photo of your beloved on your bathroom mirror, a spray of green cuttings from a fragrant tree in the center of the table, using your fancy party dishes at a regular meal, or laying your favorite book out to its best photo or poem. I even saw a photo of Australians taking their trash to the curb in full costume just for fun! These are unusual times and they call for unusual, spontaneous acts of beauty.
- Nourish Your Body: Meditation courses typically offer healthy, simple menus and sometimes only two meals a day, with lots of tea and hydration. Eat clean, hydrate well, treat your food as medicine. And if you binge on cookies, consider that a win, too. It’s just part of your meditative process. Have a good laugh with yourself about this crazy human condition.
- Acknowledge that the Nature of Things is Change: This is a primary teaching of many traditions, and a core tenet of Buddhist traditions in particular. Sudden and unexpected change can be hard, but pausing to remind yourself that change is, in fact, inevitable and ongoing can bring perspective when you become myopic.
- Send Goodwill to Yourself: This is, for some, one of the hardest skills to learn. Akin to “put your own mask on first” in airplane safety, sending goodwill to yourself gives you a grounding in self-compassion, allows you to be imperfect, and encourages you to care for yourself. Every day, spend at least a few minutes wishing good things for yours truly!
- Send Goodwill to Others: When you feel grounded in goodwill towards yourself, send goodwill to those around you. This does not mean that you overlook harms done by others-good boundaries are part of goodwill-but rather that you actively cultivate the desire for others to have their needs met. This is good for your own health as well.
- Allow Yourself to Fail: A good meditator is not someone who practices all rules and practices perfectly and whose mind is as clear as a still lake on a sunny day every time they sit to meditate. Rather, it is someone who shows up for themselves time and time again to meet the truth of who they are and the truth of life. This is neither easy, nor consistently pleasant. Sometimes it is tortuously painful and feels impossible (See #3 above). We’re all encountering ourselves in new ways, we’re all learning hard truths, we’re all facing our demons. Allow yourself gentleness as well as strength. Be good to yourself.
Originally published at https://www.ecospiritualeducation.com on April 10, 2020.