Sit, Walk, Don’t Talk
June 16, 2017 / By Stephen at Parallax
What’s it really like to go on a meditation retreat? Jennifer Howd shares her experience in her new memoir Sit, Walk, Don’t Talk: How I Survived a Silent Meditation Retreat. She chronicles the dueling inner voices that emerge in the silence of her first nine-day retreat: one intent on focusing on the seemingly negative aspects of her experiences, and the other on helping her see the positivity that can come from them.
Here’s an excerpt from Sit, Walk, Don’t Talk:
Sunday, March 10
Deciding to Go:
I was sitting on the edge of my thirty-dollar thrift store couch in my modestly-appointed Hollywood bungalow, nervously nibbling my nails down to their nubs. It was T-minus two months until my fortieth birthday, and I had no idea what I wanted to do to celebrate. I had managed to stave off the gentle—yet persistent—inquiries from my girlfriend, Kate. But internal pressures were mounting.
OK, seriously. I’m running out of time here. How should I celebrate my fortieth? This is a big one.
My brow furrowed.
Do I want a big party? Hell no. I hate big parties—all those people. The pressure to talk to everyone. All that noise. Maybe a more intimate dinner with friends? Nope, that doesn’t feel right, either.
My shoulders started inching up toward my ears. My breath became shallow. I felt a sharp tightness gripping my chest.
UGH! I SOOOOO DON’T WANT TO BE THINKING ABOUT THIS RIGHT NOW. BIRTHDAYS ARE ASININE. DO I HAVE ANY DARK CHOCOLATE?
Welcome to the inside of my mind.
Like the inside of most people’s minds, mine is often filled with an incessant stream of inner banter. Some of it helpful, most of it not.
I sprang up from the couch to make a beeline for the kitchen—and the secret stash of dark chocolate I keep in the freezer door. But just then, my eye caught a glimpse of the Spirit Rock Meditation Center brochure perched atop the mile-high pile of unread (yet meticulously stacked) magazines on my desk. Staring down at the majestic-looking meditation hall pictured on the brochure’s cover, I suddenly paused. My mind redirected.
Maybe I could go on a silent meditation retreat for my fortieth?
Since moving to Los Angeles from New York City four years ago, I’d been on a mission to get to know myself better, chipping away through hardened layers of anxiety, depression, and stoicism in an effort to excavate the softer, more vulnerable voice at my core. A daily meditation practice was at the heart of this process, and I had recently started participating in a ten-month-long intensive practice program at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center. One of the curriculum requirements was to attend a five-day or longer Vipassana, or Insight, meditation retreat during the course of the program––which I had yet to do.
This could be a great way to fulfill my retreat requirement AND celebrate my birthday.
I started leafing through the brochure, and my eyes landed on the Spring Insight Retreat in Yucca Valley from May 3 through May 12 with Jack Kornfield, Trudy Goodman, Noah Levine, and several other renowned teachers.
It’s happening during my birthday, AND it’s only a two-hour drive from Los Angeles? This is perfect!
Standing there, staring down at the retreat brochure now in my hands, I knew exactly what I wanted to do for my fortieth.
I wanted to be by myself, to give myself the freedom to celebrate the way I enjoyed being most in the world: in silent contemplation and introspection. Everything about it just felt “right.”
Opening my laptop, I hopped online to register, the rush of excitement pulsing through my body. But after I hit “send” on the application form, my heart sank.
The confirmation message revealed the retreat was full—very full.
I was number thirty-six on the wait list.
SHIT! WHY DIDN’T I THINK OF THIS EARLIER? I ALWAYS TAKE WAY TOO LONG TO DECIDE WHAT I WANT! I’M NEVER GOING TO GET IN NOW!
Feeling defeated, I could see what I’ve affectionately dubbed my “Shit” starting to spin out of control. Not one particular inner voice per se, my Shit is, essentially, a buildup of emotional debris, the byproduct of previously wounded, unhealed parts of myself that feel uncomfortable being vulnerable (thus often lashing out, complaining, catastrophizing, bitching, whining, moaning, blaming, judging and/or criticizing both myself and others in an effort to avoid it). I wasn’t even aware I had any Shit until I started meditating.
But, in this moment, I could feel it bubbling up. Strong. Which meant it was time to cue a kinder, gentler tone.
OK, I don’t really know what’s going to happen, so I just need to “let it be.” It’s out of my hands now. There’s a chance I might get in—and if I don’t, I’ll deal with it. It won’t be the end of the world. I’m sure I can figure something else out.
The next six weeks passed quickly. There was no word from the retreat center, so I convinced myself that it wasn’t going to happen. I was trying to figure out what else I might want to do for my birthday—now only two and a half weeks away—when I noticed a missed call and message from Spirit Rock on my cell phone.
Oh my God—did I get in?
My heart started pounding with excitement as I pressed play on my voicemail:
“Hi, Jennifer. I’m calling about the upcoming Spring Insight retreat in Yucca Valley. We have an opening for you. Please call us back and let us know if you’d like to take it.”
We are giving away 10 copies over at Goodreads. Entries accepted from June 17 to July 17, 2017. Whether you are new to mindfulness, or have an established practice, this is a touching, fun read that will make you smile. Good luck!
photo: Kristina Flour