On Selfishness and Silence: Lessons From My Meditation Retreat

meditation Retreat Center
Photo by gihin

It’s often said that how you show up on your yoga mat reflects how you show up in life. Imagine living this reality 24 hours per day for days, weeks, or months on ends; such is the reality of silent meditation retreats, which provide an intimate opportunity to face our humanity and patterns in their full splendor. If you think “retreat” sounds peaceful, think again; the inner conflicts, thoughts, sensations, and emotions arising during this experience can sometimes be deeply painful or uncomfortable, although their insight can facilitate awakening and awareness of our default psychological patterning, or samskara.

While on a 9-day retreat over New Years, I was blissfully yoga’ing and soaking in the quiet of the early morning hours when I heard a steady, irritating “clicking” noise. Gazing over, an intense-looking yogi was setting the alarm clock for the duration of his practice. Already slightly offended, I sighed and returned my focus to my mat. Five minutes later, the ear-drum piercing kapalabhati, bhastrika, and ujjayi pranayama commenced. My fellow yogi was, like me, a Pitta, and his practice was accordingly intense. Experiencing waves of irritation and self-righteousness (“how dare he!”), I finally moved my mat out of the room, although he could clearly be heard throughout the rest of the basement for over an hour. Several other practitioners joined me.

That night, during the dharma talk one of the teachers jokingly referred to “Mr. Loud Yogic Breathing.” One participant wrote them a note that he “breathed aggressively” and created an “unsafe-feeling environment.” The teacher encouraged those of us who had a strong reaction to look at ourselves rather than engage in blame. That night I tossed and turned, writing a lengthy response defending the person who had complained, noting that it was distracting for many of us and the concerns were warranted. As I was writing, I recalled the yogic tale of the monk who reported to his teacher that another monk illegally carried a woman across a river, only to receive an admonition to look at himself. The next morning I threw it away, knowing it was not worthy of my time or energy.

The following lunchtime vegan buckeye truffles were offered; greedy for a dessert I could actually eat, I mindlessly took three, later returning for three more to stash in the refrigerator. It was not until several days before the retreat ended that I realized the retreat center made relatively small quantities, and in taking more I had probably ensured that one or two people did not receive truffles. A wave of shame washed over me, as I realized I had sanctimoniously judged Mr. Loud Yogic Breathing for being selfish by disturbing the silence, whereas my selfishness was no less potent. In my unconsciousness and greed, I had thought only of my own experience and neglected to attend to the reality of those around me.

Exploring further, I observed the scarcity schema driving my need to squirrel away resources for myself, and extended compassion towards the parts of me that were conditioned to express frustration toward others, rather than looking inward. This was probably the lightest of the insights attained from this retreat, although it’s a poignant reminder that the qualities most repelling us in others, as reflections of ourselves, are our greatest teachers. I am deeply grateful for the reminder.

Have you been on retreat? What are some insights or realizations you may have experienced?

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