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 daytime skies were a waning blue. At night, I saw the stars, which I could never see in the city.
Packing up to leave, I wondered if I’d gotten an adequate 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 six months later, so here I am at the keyboard.
After the retreat, I joined 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 asked for details. I crossed Long Retreat off my to-do list. After only a couple of days, I was again yelling Dickhead! 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 six weeks after my return, I found that the renewed sense of patience I’d felt had been short-lived.
There was one undeniable change. Meditating every morning had become easy. I didn’t have to coax myself to get to 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 actual, though subtle, benefits.
When one of my brothers acted 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 my brother, was overwhelmed with grief.
After that, when my ANGER button was pushed, I could usually push 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.
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 behave a little better than I want to in the moment?
Maybe I’ve changed. A little bit. Maybe it was the six weeks of meditation. Maybe it was the wisdom that comes with grief or just growing six months older.
The softening didn’t occur in one exploding moment, but it seems to have some staying power. The fireworks did not ignite. But the night sky, when I saw it again, was star-filled and twinkling.