What I Learned from Sitting Still and Shutting Up: Lessons from a Meditation Retreat

Try something. 

For the next minute, focus on the present moment. 

On sounds and smells, on feelings that come and go. 

Don’t think about tomorrow’s deadline or yesterday’s screw-up. 

Be fully where and when you are. 

Go.

How’d you do? If you’re like most of us, pretty badly. It’s not our fault—our brains crave distraction. We jump from thought to thought, regret to anxiety, like kids who jump from the couch to the table to the chair because the floor is lava. As adults, our lava is the present moment. It’s the only real thing we have—the past is over; the future hasn’t happened—yet we pay little attention to that space in between.

I wanted to hang out in the lava. In March, I attended a silent meditation retreat with Insight Meditation Community of Charlotte. The retreat would be held in the 2,600-year-old Buddhist tradition of noble silence, which in 2019 looks like this: no talking, no eye contact, no phones or computers, no reading or writing. Four days of just meditation, yoga, and mindfulness. The idea both terrified and excited me.

For five years, I’ve practiced insight meditation—also called Vipassana meditation—which originated in Theravada Buddhism. I began to meditate to ease my insomnia—a Western, á la carte approach to an Eastern, holistic practice. Much like we can’t lose weight in just one spot, we can’t meditate for symptomatic relief. It’s all-in. Day by day, meditation trains us to see the present moment honestly and compassionately. This simple act is counterintuitive, however: We want to push away the bad and cling to the good, even if the pushing and pulling makes us miserable. “Positive vibes only!” has become the battle cry of the repressed. Meditation trains us to make peace with the present moment, and it’s changed how I see myself and the world (both more kindly). And hey, I sleep better, too. 

My practice had grown inconsistent, and I hoped a retreat—with up to six-and-a-half hours of meditation each day—would renew my commitment to it, and to me. I wanted to take a break from my routine and the incessant noise of news and social media to answer the question: Who am I when it’s just me?

Read entire essay in Charlotte magazine.