The retreat didn’t change me. Was I disappointed? A little.
For years, I’d wanted to do a long retreat And finally, after months of preparation, I found myself making my single bed in a dorm room behind the meditation hall. The six-week retreat was three times longer than anything I’d done before, so I’d hoped the benefits would be three-fold.Things did happen of course: short periods of strong concentration, one episode in which sensations came so fast I felt dizzy, and a couple of days of calm. But nothing transcendent. Nothing mind-altering. The autumn skies were a waning blue. At night, I saw the stars I could never see in the city.
Packing up to leave, I wondered if I’d gotten a decent return on my investment, both of time and money. Not that I expected to, but of course I did. I made a note to take stock after six months after, so here I am at the keyboard.
I negotiated the traffic back into the city. The return to workaday life went well. When people asked me how the retreat was, I said, Good! Only one person inquired further. I crossed Long Retreat off my to-do list. After only a couple of days, I was yelling Dickhead! again at the many dickhead drivers.
There’s a belief among meditators that the benefits of a retreat last about as long as the retreat itself. I’ve found this to be true. When I evaluated myself after six weeks back, I found that the renewed sense of patience I’d felt had been short-lived. Yet there was one undeniable change. Meditating every morning had become easy. I didn’t have to coax myself to get my ass on the cushion. Somehow the struggle had gone out of it. I just sat down.
Surprisingly, the more time that passed, the more I felt like the retreat had delivered an actual, though subtle, effect.
When one of my brothers behaved like a jerk, I could see how his outburst had nothing to do with me and everything to do with the stress and grief of our father’s recent death. I let it go, which was not my usual response. I didn’t take it personally. I didn’t get self-righteous. And for the most part, I didn’t let it bother me, even though I, like him, was overwhelmed with grief.
After that, when my ANGER button was pushed, I usually hit my own PAUSE button. I let time pass—sometimes a few seconds, sometimes a few days—before reacting. If an unkind remark popped into my head, it didn’t automatically come out of my mouth. I was aware of my chest rising and falling rapidly. My breath.
And just today, while enduring the hell of another condo association meeting, I was reminded of an insight I’d had on retreat: When I’m feeling averse towards a person, it often blinds me to the possibility of compassion. When someone is selfish and infuriating, can I consider how he or she may be suffering? Can I be a little better than I want to be in the moment?
So maybe I have changed a bit. Become more kind. Maybe it was those weeks of meditation, or just the wisdom that comes with growing six months older.
This softening wasn’t abrupt or ecstatic like a transcendent moment, but it already has more staying power. The fireworks did not ignite. But the sky, when I looked, was still beautiful.