As I sat there listening to the teacher speak, I could feel pain radiating up my back. My face grew hot, my throat felt thick and sore, and my eyes started to burn. I had started crying during the last three meditation sittings and was about to start again. Even after he had wrapped up and sent us off to have lunch, the urge to cry wouldn’t go away. My nose was running like crazy and I kept my head down to hide the redness around my eyes. Surrounded by people, I felt completely alone and weird. Why was I having such a negative reaction? Everyone else seemed to be feeling peaceful and content.
I finished my lunch quickly, then decided to go for a walk. First, though, I mustered up the courage to go talk to the teacher. I would let him know how bad I was feeling and see if he had any advice. He was signing books for other participants and I struggled to compose myself as I waited in line. When it was my turn I stepped up and said, “I don’t have a book, just a quick question,” with my voice shaking. He looked behind me and very gently asked if I could wait while he finished signing the other books.
I stepped to the side and a flood of emotion surged, threatening to drown me. I hurried away and fumbled with the laces of my shoes before stumbling outside, tears pouring down my face. My rational mind knew that he wasn’t rejecting me, I knew that he was just being fair to the other people, who had been told that this was the time to have their books signed. But it still felt like every other time I had asked for help and been pushed away. I felt like I didn’t belong, like I couldn’t possibly be around people anymore.
As I left the building and followed the sidewalk to the end of the street, I felt like I was fleeing. I was panicking, crying so hard I could barely breathe. What on earth was wrong with me? I crossed the street and plunged into the wooded trail leading up and away from civilization. Though my heart and head were pounding, I pushed on, up the hill until I came to a secluded spot and sat down in a grassy thicket, blowing my nose and shaking my head.
Learning to meditate
I’ve been meditating on and off for years, getting more and more serious about it in the last three years. Two years ago I thought about going on a ten-day meditation retreat but had just gotten over an injury from too much sitting and my physiotherapist didn’t think it was a good idea. When I saw an ad for a weekend retreat, close to home and by donation, I jumped on it.
As it drew nearer I felt so grateful to have blocked off a whole weekend just for me. Usually, my weekends are overflowing with activities, projects, and plans, and it felt amazing to think that I could spend an entire two days doing almost nothing. Friday night we sat in the community league hall and met our teacher. He seemed like a kind, wise man, and the teachings he shared were relatable and useful. I was looking forward to a weekend of quiet, rest, and rejuvenation. I didn’t quite get what I expected.
The style of meditation we were practicing that weekend is called Vipassana, or ‘Insight’ meditation. While there are different techniques, the one we learned involves focusing on the feeling of our breath until other sensations in our body arose and then focusing on those. As our teacher explained, the aim is to bring our bodies and our minds into the same place and to learn to be completely present with our bodies, something that most of us never do in our regular lives. I often feel so disconnected from my body that when a counselor asked me what was going on in my body during a bout of anxiety, I couldn’t think of what to tell him.
Part of the retreat involved not speaking or making eye contact with anyone while we were on the grounds so that we could focus all our attention on our inner work. This also seemed like it would be wonderful since I usually feel so much pressure to say and do the right thing, and often feel a bit lost and intimidated in a group of people.
While I have struggled with falling asleep during meditation in the past, usually I feel quite peaceful when I practice. This weekend, that was not the case. After the first couple of sittings, my back started to ache and nothing I did seemed to help. At first, I was able to keep breathing and notice the discomfort without judgment or struggle. As it got worse, however, my mind chatter started to pick up. I started worrying about why my body was so tense, what was I doing wrong? Why did it hurt so much? Thoughts started spinning in my mind and I lost my focus on my breath. I wanted to scream, to run, to move around. Sitting still started to feel like a torture, so I stood up, but even that didn’t make the flurry of thoughts and distress stop. Letting tears flow helped to release a bit of the tension but it would aways return and by lunchtime on the second day, I was at my wit’s end. With nothing to distract me from my distress, I did the only thing that ever seems to help at these times: I went to the woods.
Garbage into flowers
Once there, I tried to calm down but was too spun up to even notice the trees. I called my partner and he helped me focus on the leaves and the wind, and told me about a squirrel that he was watching. I started to breathe more deeply and after I hung up I started walking back and forth on a piece of the trail – in the way that we had been taught to do walking meditation – letting all the emotions come and go and paying close attention to the thoughts that were making me feel bad. When something painful came up, I put my hand on my heart and acknowledged, “This is suffering,” as the teacher had instructed to do when things felt like too much.
After some time I was able to show my body compassion for being tense, rather than wondering what was wrong. I laughed out loud as I realized that I had been feeling rejected and judged by the other retreat participants – people who had been instructed not to make eye contact or speak. It was ludicrous! And it showed me that my tendency to feel rejected in groups of people is completely imaginary. I thought about why I had felt so hurt when the instructor asked me to wait. I felt the hurt again and showed it compassion.
Whenever the flood threatened to overwhelm me, I stopped walking and looked at the trees. It was a windy day and the trunks were swaying dramatically. The yellow aspen leaves fluttered and shook. As it always does, being in nature brought my nervous system back down from panic mode and I was able to continue practicing some of the tools I had learned. After an hour, it felt safe for me to return and be around people again. I had been feeling ashamed of running away, but I realized that what I was doing was taking care of myself, which is really the best any of us can ever hope to do.
I sat in a chair on the side of the hall for the final talk of the day. As people took their seats, the teacher came over and asked why I had left and whether I still had a question. I asked what to do when things became overwhelming and I couldn’t sit still anymore. He told me that I could try focusing on any part of my body that wasn’t feeling tension at that moment. If that didn’t work, I could open my eyes and look at something outside of myself. I told him that I had gone to the woods and he smiled and said, “That’s perfect. Good for you.” His kindness and concern melted what pain I had left and I was able to relax for the first time that day.
When I left the retreat, I felt like a failure. Like there was something wrong with me that meant I couldn’t manage two days of meditating without a melt-down. But I don’t see it that way now. In the weeks since, I have found myself returning to the teachings over and over and over again. I really did learn from it, and my learning process was what it was. Now, when a strong emotion arises I take a deep breath, close my eyes and think about how it feels in my body. Where is the tension? Where is the heat? What does sadness, or anxiety, or fear, or disappointment feel like? I am less likely to blame myself for my feelings and more likely to feel compassion towards them. I learned that I am not responsible for the thoughts and feelings that arise, any more than I’m responsible for physical pain. They come up and they go away. All I can do is observe, pay attention, and be gentle and kind. A lot of the time, observing the feelings makes them go away, but sometimes it doesn’t. Either way, it’s okay. I’m okay.
My experiences made me think about this quote from Thich Nhat Han:
“If you look deeply at a flower, at its freshness and its beauty, you will see that there is also compost in it, made of garbage. The gardener had the skill to transform this garbage into compost, and with this compost, he made a flower grow.
Flowers and garbage are both organic in nature. So looking deeply into the nature of a flower, you can see the presence of the compost and the garbage. The flower is also going to turn into garbage; but don’t be afraid! You are a gardener, and you have in your hands the power to transform garbage into flowers, into fruit, into vegetables. You don’t throw anything away, because you are not afraid of garbage. Your hands are capable of transforming it into flowers, or lettuce, or cucumbers.”
In the end, it felt pretty good to dig up some of my compost and turn it into flowers. After this weekend I feel more motivated to meditate than ever before. I learned so much in two days and am eager to continue seeing what insights come up.