Build Your Leaders

Postcard from Asheville

January 2011

No sex. No meat. No alcohol and no talking. For seven days. “You’ve got to be out of your mind!” my friends said, laughing. Three days before the meditation retreat, I wondered if they were right.

Despite my nervousness, I was ready. It had been a tough year, and I wanted a way to intentionally start 2011 anew. A seven-day meditation retreat seemed like the perfect solution; then the snow came.

The snow started Christmas morning and continued until Monday. I measured nine inches of snow on my patio in Asheville. Outside of Hot Springs, North Carolina, where the Southern Dharma Retreat Center is located, it was worse.

The center sent out an e-mail on Sunday morning canceling the first day of the retreat. By Tuesday, we could make it through the mountains to the center’s steep gravel drive. From there, the staff would ferry us up the mountain in a four-wheel vehicle equipped with chains.

By Tuesday afternoon, twenty-two of us were seated in the large meditation hall warmed by a wood stove. The next five days flew. Highlights included:

One: Nature provided a beautiful metaphor for the law of impermanence. On Tuesday, our world was a frozen white blanket of snow and ice. Each day thereafter the landscape changed. By the last day of the retreat, the lawns were wet, lush, and green as the sun broke through the fog.

Two: After a steady diet of beans (the center serves only vegan food), the silent meditation hall was anything but silent. Twenty-two stomachs trumpeted a symphony of sounds.

Three: Not speaking was lovely. Without the pressure to be sociable, we could go totally inward. Even so, I felt a strong connection with the other participants.

Four: I learned how to separate my thoughts from my self. Under the constant waves of my thoughts and feelings, I found a calm, still sea. I found that thoughts, feelings, fantasies, and sensations pass quickly when recognized and observed. When a painful memory or negative thought arose, I would note it: “Remembrance. Remembrance. Remembrance.” “Feeling. Feeling. Feeling.” I didn’t try to analyze it, only name it. Once named, it passed like a cloud in the sky. If it lingered, I refocused on my breath. Minutes later, it would dissipate.

Five: You can take away sex, meat, alcohol, and talking, but don’t take away my coffee. We got one pot of weak coffee that was put out at 6:00 each morning. At 5:50, I was standing in line waiting to worship at the silver urn.

Six: I discovered that I can meditate! If I can, anyone can. My mind is still all over the place, but that’s okay. I simply observe and note my thoughts, and when I get stuck I return my focus to my breathing.

A silent meditation retreat was an unusual way to bring in the New Year, but to be honest, I’ve never been much for the more traditional ways to spend New Year’s Eve. I never enjoyed drinking too much and kissing strangers, even in college.

I’m not sure I’ll do another silent retreat next year, but I’m glad I did this year. I’m beginning 2011 with a clean slate, ready to practice what I learned: accepting “what is.”