The last Friday of 2013, I opened my eyes to a very familiar sound: a sound I had tried to erase from my memory. Another bomb struck a moderate politician in the neighborhood where we pass by every day, killing people and causing destruction; shooting another arrow into Lebanon’s shrinking heart.
As the stress and anger started mounting, I began breathing, feeling my hands and feet and breathing again, until I calmed down. Whether it is a bomb, the daily stresses at work or in your relationships, the feeling is the same and so are the tools I learned at Spirit Rock for dealing with them.
Lesson 1- Pain is Inevitable
Our society is conditioned to avoid pain at any price. Whether it is taking medicine, or promoting the sole pursuit of happiness. The truth is that life is like a pendulum – and for pleasure to exist, there will be pain.
Sitting for 14 hours a day cross-legged is definitely something my body was not a fan of, especially my injured knee. By day 3, I had had it with pain, and my only option was to give in to it. Breathe and let go of it. All I remember is that the pain turned into an euphoric emotion and slowly faded away.
My knee pain was a lesson in emotional pain. The reason why we suffer so much, as it turns out, is not because of heartbreak, or a job loss or loneliness. The true reason is because we are conditioned to fight this emotion. To become hard on ourselves, to drink, get high, or watch TV and “forget,” in other words hurting ourselves more, making it even more difficult to move on.
Lesson 2 – Pain is Good
The retreat was a celebration of solstice, the darkest time of the earth. For darkness is a symbol of pain, difficult times, the feeling of being stuck, lost, confused or hopeless. The beauty of the solstice is threefold. First, it allows you time and space to reflect and pause. And so does any loss in our lives where you experience intense emotions. Secondly, the solstice also marks the full moon, which is symbolic of the light that comes after darkness. Where your heart turns from stone into stars, as a poet put it. Lastly, the darkness is a time to ask for forgiveness: forgiveness from yourself and forgiveness from others. It is the time to liberate yourself from fear and what is holding you back.
The teachers kneeled down on their knees and asked for our forgiveness by the end of the retreat. It was both humbling and inspiring. And I decided to do the same with the people close to me by writing them after the retreat, and asking for forgiveness.
Lesson 3 - 99% of Our Thoughts are Rubbish
You are upset with someone at work. Your mind starts telling you stories such as they did not collaborate on the project because you are not good enough, or they think they are better, or because they are just bad at what they do. This thought starts causing you anger and anxiety and alters your mood.
One cool thing of being stuck with your thoughts for 7 days is the ability to eventually observe them objectively, and do what is called "mental labeling."
Here is a pie chart of what I found in my head:
Then you stop and notice that this thought is coming from the storyteller, and is not reality. You can take 3 deep breaths and try to focus on the present.
And there were 5 stories I kept telling myself over and over again. They consumed my mind to the degree that I missed out on the present, I missed out on being creative and imagining.
The truth is that conquering these thoughts was mission impossible. Instead, simply being aware of them and categorizing them gives you control over your mind.
Lesson 4 – Silence is Sometimes a Better Way
The first evening of the retreat, we were allowed to speak; later, during my daily work meditation where I was washing the dinner dishes with 3 other people, we found ourselves to be more efficient on the rest of the days when we were not talking.
"Thank you" and "Sorry" kept popping up in my head, and each time I realized that they were unnecessary. Not talking taught me to notice others’ body language for example, and by end of the retreat I felt as close to my kitchen co-workers as though we knew each other deeply.
We say so many words, overcrowd our speech, we miss out on the unspoken, we waste energy and it slows us down.
Lesson 5 – Start with Intention (vs Expectation)
I came into the retreat thinking that I wanted to relax, resolve some issues and understand myself better. As soon as I sat down, I realized it was all rubbish. My true intention was to open my heart to whatever I am about to receive. Expectations are the mother of disappointment. We set goals, go to meetings, watch TV and do things all day. What if you stop before you start something, and think about what intention you have for it? In other words, realign with the real "why" behind why you do what you do.
We were instructed to do that before every meditation session, and it is a relief to come back to it, when I start feeling stressed, bored or tired.
Lesson 6 – The Real Meaning of Listening
I had lunch with Buddha in the garden, and noticed while staring at his statue for an hour that he has huge ears. Listening is often brought up as a virtue one must have. My silence and focus on my body taught me another type of listening. A heart-full listening. Being truly present when someone else is speaking. How to do that? A small trick. Coming back to your body which is present by feeling your hands and feet. Try it, it works magic.
As humans, we adapt fast. By day 2 I was used to waking up at 6 AM to the sound of the gong, used to 12 meditation sits and used to not speaking. I did not even think of my phone. The truth is, it is not technology that we are attached to. We are attached to distraction. The escape from the now. The escape from the pain. The escape from truth. For truth is found in the stillness of life. And oh how many times do we turn a blind eye to it.
P.S.: In full disclosure, there was one thing I truly, dearly missed. That thing was writing. If it was for one thing, the silence and the meditation bootcamp confirmed to me that writing is indeed my ultimate passion.