One of the perks of being a meditation teacher is that I get to meditate for free.
Last year, I decided, last minute, to join an “online retreat” run by my colleagues at Or Ha lev. I was a bit ambivalent about it. To me, that sounded like an oxymoron. One of the reasons I “go” on retreat is precisely to leave home: to go into a neutral container, detached from all the relations and constraints of everyday life, so I can give myself entirely to the practice.
So imagining “going on retreat” while staying at home, with meals to cook and laundry to launder and people (not) to interact with, felt a bit too much.
And what if I was out of almond milk and would need to go to the store and interact with people? And what if, in moments of resistance, I would be just too tempted to switch off retreat mode and switch on my phone? And what if it was going to be just too challenging without the support of a whole group suffering next to me in silence, and while being in a way too familiar environment I usually associated with conversations at meal times, Netflix, friends over, eating not so mindfully crashing on the couch after way too many hours on the computer?
Speaking of computer, there was an additional challenge: I was supposed to keep working that week. How then could I imagine pretend to myself that I was going to be doing a meditation retreat at the same time?
And then it dawned on me.
That is what retreat is about: to help me learn how to stay centered and present in all the moments of everyday life.
I used to notice that when I started going on retreat: When I was alone on the cushion, I could be mindful and kind. I thought I was doing great spiritual work. And then too often, back home, off the cushion, within an hour I could find myself again being mindless, triggered, irritated, judgmental, and the like.
My whole practice over these past few years has been about integrating the practice in my everyday life and interactions.
This is why retreat, whether full time or part time, is so precious: it helps me strengthen these muscles of mindfulness so that I can use them in situation. Instead of being reactive, I can be responsive. And I can respond from a place of space, and kindness for myself and others.
And then it dawned on me.
Maybe a home retreat is an even better opportunity to deepen and test my practice. Even more than onsite retreat, online home retreat is a super gym for the mind and soul. This doesn’t mean I should be moving into the gym. It smells like sweat and tears in there. The whole point of the gym is the work out I get there so when I get out of there, I feel better to experience my everyday life.
And there I was: I decided I wasn’t going to let my professional obligations nor my a-priori assumptions about what retreat should be, get in the way of my practice
So I got myself organized for an online retreat twice in the midst of life: at home, and while working.
I defined carefully the frame of my retreat.
I decided which work tasks I was going to focus on, and which ones I would put on the side. I decided at what time to stop working every day, and which sits I would attend. I put everything on the calendar, so that I wouldn’t meet dilemmas and have to go through the qualms of decisions making once the retreat would have started. I cancelled all the meetings I could, got a colleague mad at me because she couldn’t understand how I could cancel a meeting with her to go on retreat, put whatsapp partially on hold, let my friends know I wouldn’t be available, did the grocery shopping- did forget the almond milk, and there I was.
I went on retreat ready: ready to be there only very partially without judging myself; ready not to be fully ready (because we never really are). I was ready to make mistakes and come back again, and ready to make the adjustments that would be necessary.
And I took the deep dive.
I was very surprised to see how deep the experience was, given the little time of formal meditation and practice I had allotted to myself. Like in a regular retreat, things happened. I went through the whole thing. Things coming up. Things coming down. Deep sadness I didn’t know was there. And deep moments of pure joy. Feeling vulnerable. Feeling more present. Enjoying the sound of the birds singing more clearly. Enjoying the view of the tree branches moving in the wind more intensely. Surprisingly, my work experience too, was transformed. I was more focused, but also more detached. There was something about being rooted in the essential, that made work things less big. And me better at dealing with them.
Just like for every retreat, I came out of these four days with a clear sense that there had been a before, and an after.
Although my participation was formally very light, the strong container offered by the teacher, the clear sense of community, the intention, were with me all the time. And I did have a profound experience. In the midst of my everyday life.
In the time of Corona, this would be a moment of Gam zu le tovah:« This too, is for the good ». This expression is based on a Talmudic story showing the reversal of fate of a rabbi who, no matter what calamities befell him, always replied, with indefectible faith, ‘this too, is for the good’. He kept saying so until what seemed to be worse and worse situations would turn out for the good. In everyday life, we cannot always say that every thing is, in itself, “for the good”. But we can search within ourselves to see, what we could do, in our own particular circumstances, to turn things for the good. We can search for the hidden gifts in unexpected situations.
Here is for life’s unexpected gifts.
The author teaches Jewish Meditation with Or Ha Lev, with the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and with Applied Jewish Spirituality. She will be co-teaching with the Or Ha Lev teachers an online meditation retreat in preparation for Pessach, “Awakening to Freedom“, starting on Saturday night, March 20th, 2021.