On July 9, Luke drove me through San Francisco, across the orangey Golden Gate Bridge, and into the summer-dry foothills of Marin County. The Spirit Rock Meditation Center property entrance was marked by a small sign that said: “YIELD TO THE PRESENT.” I guffawed, feeling like I’d arrived in exactly the right place despite the afternoon heat. Good-humored monks??! What luck!
After registering, receiving my “work meditation” (also known as cleaning the dorm showers daily), and picking a spot in the airy, spacious meditation hall, I said a tearful goodbye to Luke. As he drove out of the gravelly parking lot, I exhaled audibly and then marched myself back up the hill to start retreating. I was ready.
I was so ready, in fact, that I took up silence before the retreat even officially began. This wasn’t my standard over-achieving behavior, however. Having anticipated the silence for so long, I felt motivated to go inward, reluctant to socialize. I decided to give myself an early-bird permission slip to simply stop talking and hope for isolation.
Problematically, everywhere I looked, people were greeting each other and even holding conversations (!). Keeping my eyes cast downward, I avoided contact and sought to appear deeply occupied. This stance worked. Even better, it provided a cover for some light reconnaissance on my new colleagues, which I took up with gusto.
I saw three basic categories of retreatant:
- The Professionals: middle-aged and older white folks who wore loose-fit everything and seemed frighteningly peaceful already, even in this pre-retreat phrase. They obviously knew that they were doing at the monastery, and clearly they were good at it. (Unlike me.)
- The Hip: younger, quite colorfully tattooed folks of varied ethnicity with enviable hairstyles and tees, sweatshirts, and plastic bracelets displaying mysterious slogans like “dharma punx” “and “the 5 precepts club.” So cool! So counter-cultural! These people obviously knew how to combine meditation with badassery, and clearly they were good at it. (Unlike me.)
- The Friendly: a mixed-age group of sociable, outgoing folks who were chatting away, laughing, exchanging stories easily and making friends. It was practically a party! These people obviously knew how to settle into a new group and new situations with poise, and clearly they were good at it. (Unlike me, of course.)
This was not encouraging.
Throughout my surveillance, I did have an awareness that these groups existed only in my mind. But, like a tired kindergartener, I wanted desperately to feel included in each group AND I wanted nothing to do with them so I could preserve my reclusion.
It is fair to say that I successfully evaded contact and survived until everyone formally entered into silence that evening. But internally, chaos reigned: a riot of inferiority, a private pity party, zinging self-doubt, and outright rebellion were all happening simultaneously. It wasn’t pretty.
But it was normal - for me. I see now that I’d simply applied one of my basic life templates to this new situation: it’s called “compare and despair.” I fell deeply into comparing myself with my fellow retreatants, creating an inner reality in which I was very inferior (with the accompanying anxiety cocktail, naturally).
The truth is, I simply wanted solitude. I craved silence. I was so ready to retreat! And at the time, sitting in the Spirit Rock dining hall, I unskillfully made it mean that I was lame and anti-social and weird. Now, with the grace of passing time, self-acceptance enables me to not make those desires mean anything when I tell my story. It is enough to simply say: I wanted to retreat. And I can send loving-kindness backwards through time to the distressed, anxious, confused version of me who was adapting to a wildly unfamiliar set of circumstances...knowing now that everything was okay, and that the retreat experience was far more powerful than I ever expected.