A few summers ago, I took a month off. I spent time with my mother and with our daughter, and also decided to take part of the month entirely for myself. Through research, I’d learned about a series of silent meditation retreats held around the world. I was intrigued by the thought of ten days of silence, by the idea of combining a search for relevance and serenity, and certainly by the opportunity to be completely electronics-free for an extended period of time. I chose a location in Oregon and packed my bags.
Like most in our industry, I’m an intrepid traveler. We know where we’re going, plot out the most efficient way to get there, and expect certain perks and niceties along the way. This trip felt more daunting than the most foreign of countries. Among other things, I’d have to give up the one thing that most planners cling to: control.
Initial challenges came in the ground rules for the retreat: no music, no reading, no writing (how, I wondered, am I going to remember any of the insights I come across?). I could, however, look forward to a completely vegan diet – but only for breakfast and lunch, because the evening meal consisted of tea and a piece of fruit. The familiar and the unfamiliar were side by side: I was ostensibly at a meeting with 50 people – and had a roommate – but could neither talk to nor even make eye contact with any of them. Given those limitations, how does one pass the time? Answer: with 10-11 hours of meditation each day.
Anyone who immerses herself in an experience like this will have her own journey. The teachers were supportive and compassionate, but there are hardships and insights. There are times when you wish the experience would last forever, and others when you’d like nothing better than to escape. I went through the steps of trying to corral my monkey mind (thoughts jumping like a monkey from branch to branch in a tree). I focused on my breathing and tried to ignore my body resisting sitting on the floor for hours at a time, my itchy nose or left foot falling asleep. I tried to stop wondering if everyone was having the same distractions that I was - how were they keeping so quiet and calm? I don’t know anyone going through their first 10-day session who finds it an easy experience. But it was, at the end, something which I’m very grateful to have done, and from which I learned or reinforced my thinking on matters both personal and work-related.
Some of the things I took away:
The discipline and patience required of a continued practice.
We don’t learn in instantaneous sound bites even if the world around us sets us up to expect that. While I’d occasionally find a balanced state of mind as soon as I sat on my meditation cushion, more often than not, the deeper experiences happened in the last 10-15 minutes of an hour session, during the time when I was sure I couldn’t possibly sit still, keep my eyes closed and stay focused for another minute. We hear about athletes pushing past where they believe they can go. Meditation gave me the equivalent on a mental and emotional level. I became aware of how often I give up on things, perhaps just as I’m on the verge of a breakthrough.
Levels of adult learning.
Again, if we’re not learning instantaneously, how do we absorb information? A first step may be when you hear or read about a topic, and it piques your curiosity. A second level is talking to someone who has experienced the thing that interests you. The third level is to experience it yourself, not peripherally, but in a totally immersive way. During the ten days, I didn’t learn about meditation, but how to meditate in a way that will keep it part of my life in the long-term. How can this be applied to our meetings, and how can it affect the outcomes for participants? Do we construct our meetings and help guide speakers to allow participants to best absorb the information being presented? What can we do to present meeting content in a way that keeps it relevant and enduring?
Things I could never do.
I’m fascinated at reactions from friends as I talk about my mediation experience. The overwhelming response I hear: “that sounds really cool, but I could never do that.” I’ve taken inventory of the things I, too, could “never have done” before the meditation retreat:
I could never go 10 days without talking
I could never survive 10 days without dinner
I could never do without my phone
I could never meditate for 10 hours a day for 10 days
I could never not know what’s going on in the world for 10 days
I could never – as a business owner – be out of touch with my company, my clients
I could never – as a wife, daughter, mother – not know what was going on with my loved ones
I realized after the fact that I had overcome a long list of things that may have been barriers for me had they not all been part of my 10 days away. I’m now on the lookout for other things I “could never do.” It’s a different kind of bucket list – and I look forward to the challenge.