I had my first immersive experience with meditation when I signed up for a four-day silent retreat with Sarah Powers in 2003. My youngest son was 18 months old, and I had just finished weaning him, and my oldest son was turning six. I had never been away from either of my children for more than a few hours at this point, and I had never spent a night away from them. I was sad. I was nervous. I was scared. But I also was curious with anticipation. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I felt safe and had an odd sense of peace.
The first person to greet me was Ty Powers, Sarah’s husband. I didn’t know who he was at the time, though the contribution he made during the retreat was just as powerful as hers. I felt a bit guarded and lonely and was hesitant to talk to him. When I looked at his face, though, he had the kindest eyes I had ever seen. Right away, my guard was down; I felt welcome and at home.
On the first night of the retreat, we had dinner as a community, followed by an orientation of how the weekend would unfold. We were told that silence would begin at the end of orientation, and we were asked to turn off cell phones and store them away for the remainder of the weekend. We were asked to limit distractions, such as reading books or magazines, listening to music, and talking to anyone. I was in a single room by myself, but many people on the retreat had roommates. There also were couples on the retreat who were sharing a room, and they were asked to have an individual experience and to avoid physical contact with each other. I had the understanding that to truly be in silence, it was necessary to become still and quiet and to do so completely on our own. We would have help from Sarah and Ty throughout the weekend, but outside of their guidance and instruction, it was up to each of us to experience true silence.
I thought I would welcome the silence. I was a young mom; I also was an exhausted mom. I had two small boys and a husband in the Air Force who worked virtually around the clock. I cooked, cleaned, mothered, and did my best to be a good wife. I needed a break and thought this would be it.
Getting quiet turned out to be the easy part. I’m a “follow the rules” kind of girl, and I was good at it. I turned off my cell phone and stored it away. I put away the magazines I had brought with me, then went to sleep. The next morning, we began the day with a 45-minute meditation practice led by Ty. When I say “led,” I mean Ty said good morning, rang a bell to begin the meditation then rang the bell again to end it. That 45 minutes felt like 45 hours. My body was uncomfortable. My brain was thinking, complaining, chattering, and soon became frustrated. I left the room feeling like I had done a terrible job.
As the day went on, with Sarah’s guidance during our Yin Yoga and Vinyasa practice, I began to feel better. The Yin Yoga practice paved the way for my body to become a little more comfortable. The five minutes we stayed in each pose felt doable, and my mind was able to take little breaks as we transitioned from one posture to the next. Sara’s voice was gentle and her words helped me connect and listen to not only her, but to the quiet whisper inside my soul. Her guidance was so important to my ability to make progress and I was grateful for it. I got through that first day easily. I spent my free time outside in nature, hiking, feeding the horses, and sitting by the pond. I showed up for each scheduled class and when it came time for our evening meditation practice, I felt optimistic and prepared.
The evening meditation was just before bedtime. This 45-minute practice at the end of day one felt much different than what I had experienced earlier that morning. Although I still had physical discomfort, my brain was a little more cooperative. Rather than being pulled and tugged by the thoughts in my mind, I was able to practice letting go and connecting to my breath. I remained patient with my busy mind and returned to my breathing over and over again. While the 45 minutes still felt long, it was not excruciating. I left the room feeling more capable in my ability to be in the silence.
That night, everything I had been storing inside, everything that had been covered up by the busyness of my life and the chatter in my mind, came roaring up. I had night sweats and a fitful sleep. I had vivid dreams that didn’t make sense. I tossed and turned and woke up to write poems in my journal. As uncomfortable as it was, it also was cleansing. I felt like I was releasing all the things that blocked my joy. I felt like I was letting go and seeing myself from a new place. I felt grounded, clear, and more at peace.
By the end of the retreat, I felt like a new person. My sense of self had been restored. I felt whole and complete, but I also felt vulnerable. I wasn’t sure how to take this new me back into real life. It wasn’t easy to do, but the practices I learned on the retreat, primarily yin yoga and meditation, helped me. I practiced while my toddler napped, and I practiced when I put my boys to bed. After reading stories, I practiced on their bedroom floor while they drifted to sleep. I brought the practices into my day, in bits and pieces, and they restored my energy and helped me get through the long days of parenting. Instead of an all or nothing approach, I carved out little nuggets of time to practice each day. My practice became my refuge.
Each day, whether I have five minutes or 90 minutes, I create the space for mindfulness. Five minutes a day is much more powerful than 90 minutes once a month with nothing in between.