In the midst of chaos, stillness.
It is unthinkable that in the middle of moving, preparing for a show and working that I found myself sitting in stillness for a four-hour retreat. Taking this time would have been (and still is) unthinkable a few months ago. When my schedule gets packed, the first thing to go is my mindfulness routine, let alone four hours on a Sunday when I could be working on Enso, or unpacking boxes, or cleaning our old apartment.
Or at least, I had every intention of it being four hours long. (we’ll get to that in a bit)
There are things I sacrificed to take the time for this retreat -- I was also meant to see a friend in their show that afternoon, and that discomfort was very alive in me as I began. But the fact that I can and did make this choice, to cut out the time, was revolutionary for me.
To set up this time I asked my husband to leave me undisturbed and he wonderfully found things to do completely outside the house, so I had the entirety of our new home to myself. Most of the rooms were littered with boxes so I cleared out a little space in the basement and on the outside patio, wrote out my schedule, and jumped in.
I started in my favorite part of the new house, on the deck, facing our giant Catalpa tree. I stood on my yoga mat and asked my body how it would like to move.
As I write this, I am judging how I’m recording this retreat. The thought arising is -- “You shouldn’t be writing this like you know everything. Like you’ve done everything right. Figure out what hasn’t gone well.”
So that’s fun.
Hello, Perpetual/Perfect Student! My Perpetual Student can’t ever be good at anything, and God forbid she should ever express herself in such a way as to suggest that she actually knows things.
I love her, but she’s not helping right now. Come back later when I have time to address you.
I moved through some yoga positions. My mind was ping ponging with lists. I tried to focus on sensations as I moved -- the light, the warmth, my shaking muscles, my breath. The thought of -- “I better wrap this up so that Jordan can come home. You are keeping him out of the house” -- kept arising. When it did, I would repeat, “He’s okay. I’m okay.” This allowed me to return to the present for a short while but this was a thought that returned throughout my retreat.
I like asking my body how it would like to move, but it’s very hard to let go of The Planner. She was also very present as I moved through my planned retreat.
When my timer went off, I tried to practice walking meditation as I turned it off and walked downstairs to the basement, where I had set up my meditation cushion. I even tried closing my eyes as I walked down the stairs, feeling my feet and the texture of the floor. Everything is new in this house so getting to experience it in this way was fun and exciting. It felt like I was introducing myself to the space. I still very much feel that this is not our house yet and that we are guests here.
I sat down to meditate. I started with a 10-count breath exercise, in which each exhale is counted, and you try to reach 10 without your mind drifting from the sensation of your breath. I was pulled away several times by The Planner.
I journaled, and shifted to practicing Unconditional Loving Reassurances. This is a practice in which you create unconditionally loving phrases to say to yourself when your mind generates unhelpful/hurtful/anxious thoughts.
I was not looking forward to this. I felt this resistance to having to come up with responses to the stuff in my head because it’s not always effective. Or it’s temporarily effective for a very particular circumstance. I wasn’t sure that I would actually come up with anything. But I laid down, and rested my hands on my heart and abdomen, and brought back the two prominent voices that had been showing up throughout the retreat -- the Planner and the Perpetual Student. I tried to ask myself, what would you say to someone else’s Planner/Perpetual Student? I came up with:
To the Planner: You are adequate to whatever experience happens next. Happiness rests in presence, where you are.
To the Perpetual Student: You know enough to know that you don’t know everything. You are strong. You are kind. You are have something worth hearing.
I went upstairs for a Mindful Dessert. I had this whole plan where I was going to do a meal but with moving, we basically didn’t have any food in the house, just a homemade pie from a friend as a housewarming gift. So, that’s what I ate. (thanks Alana!!) I enjoyed the initial experience but by the end I could feel the sugar really riling me up and making my thoughts bounce around again. I’d never noticed that effect from sugar before, so distinctly!
Mindfully eating dessert meant that this part of my retreat, which was supposed to be 45 minutes, lasted about 10 or 15. And I had been moving through other parts of the retreat faster than intended -- I think because at the back of my mind was still the fact that it was getting late and I felt like I was keeping Jordan out of the house.
I couldn’t remember exactly how to do the Body Scan exercise I learned from Peace in Schools, so I tried following body sensations as they arose -- there's an itch, tingling in my leg, pain in my thigh, etc... but it was hard to use my body sensations as an anchor. I felt like the sensations were all over and bouncing around. So I did some stretching and releasing and that helped settle my mind.
I also noticed that the things my mind was drifting to during the Body Scan were different. I wasn’t drifting to my to-do list anymore, I was daydreaming. The kind I get when I’m really relaxed. I definitely did not expect to reach that state of “settled” during this retreat.
Creating the mindful art was the part I had been looking forward to the most. I had our big Catalpa tree in our backyard in my head. There were a few moments when I noticed some shoulds floating in and out of my head -- it should look like this, etc. I tried to breathe when I caught those thoughts.
Next time, I think I’d like to give myself permission to really go abstract, to focus on the sensation of the chalk on the paper. And maybe set up a towel and water to clean my hands afterward. ;)
I soon realized that this was not going to be a four-hour retreat, because I was nearing the end of my retreat schedule. The full retreat ended up being about 2.5 hours. My Perpetual/Perfect Student was really unhappy with this. I felt like I wasn’t doing the full assignment. And just as that thought entered my head, I heard the garage door open and Jordan had come home.
I wrote in my journal: “Just heard the garage door open which means Jordan is home. So maybe this is okay. Maybe I’ll see if I can take a walk? Or maybe it’s just okay that this is what it is. I made time where there wasn’t. That in and of itself is valuable.”
So, I let it be. I went out and checked in with Jordan -- he was fine with me continuing my retreat but I could see that he also needed help at the apartment. So I decided to let it go and go help.
I like to hold on tightly to things. My ideas, my expectations, my dreams, my plans. But it was really empowering to have created a plan, to be presented with a new alternative, and to decide that I was going to go that direction. I could have stayed home and extended my retreat. But ultimately, if mindfulness, and personal retreats, and self-care, isn’t ultimately intended to help other people when they need it, what’s the point?
I created time and space for me. It wasn’t as much as I originally intended. But I got SO MUCH out of that time. And because of that, I felt able to help Jordan.
I kinda think that’s the point.
This is quite long -- if you’ve made it this far, KUDOS, and THANK YOU.
Let me know in the comments below if you have any questions or qualms about creating a retreat of your own.
ORIGINAL RETREAT SCHEDULE:
Night Before: Set up the space.
9:00a - Paint an Enso
9:05a - 9:30a: Mindful Yoga
9:30a - 10:50a: Sitting Meditation - Breath, LovingKindness meditation, Tong Len
10:50a - 11:15: Mindful journaling - what am I present to?
11:15a - 11:30a: Practice Self-Compassion: Unconditional, loving reassurances
11:30a - 12:15p: Mindful Eating - Lunch
12:15p - 12:30: Body Scan
12:30 - 12:45p: Mindful Art - Create with chalk pastels on a big, big sheet of paper
12:45p - 1:00p: Journalling final reflections
1:00p - 1:05p: Paint an Enso
ACTUAL RETREAT SCHEDULE:
5:00p - Paint an Enso using my sumi-e board
5:05p - Mindful Yoga
5:25p - Sitting Meditation
5:45p - Mindful Journaling
6:05p - Practicing Self-Compassion
6:20p - Mindful Eating
6:35p - Body Scan
6:50p - Mindful Art
7:05p - Journal Reflections
7:20p - Paint an Enso using my sumi-e board
7:25p - Help Jordan.