“Meditation is the ultimate mobile device; you can use it anywhere, anytime, unobtrusively.” ~Sharon Salzberg
It was the fifth night of my first silent retreat, and 100 of us spilled out of the meditation hall into darkness, flashlights swinging as we made our way along the path to our dorms and sleep.
Suddenly the wind picked up and quiet excitement rippled through the group as we looked up to see a bank of clouds move and reveal a full moon, beaming a bright white light from the night sky. We stopped and stood, some of us for hours, gazing upwards.
This is a painfully obvious metaphor, I wanted to say to someone.
Despite my natural cynicism, despite the sleepiness and agitated thinking that had haunted my meditation for days, as I looked up at the moon I thought: In a world this beautiful, how can I not pay attention?
Days later, when my weeklong retreat ended and I came home, I was reminded that being on a retreat is a lot different from regular life.
I can’t see the sky let alone the moon from my house, and my time is punctuated by the sound of email notifications instead of gongs. But is it possible to recapture some of the mindfulness you can cultivate on a meditation retreat? Here are five strategies I am trying, and you can try too.
1. Enjoy a daily meditative meal (or snack).
On the first day of our retreat one of the teachers gave an inspiring talk just before lunch. Every mealtime is an opportunity to practice, he said. Try smelling each spoonful of food before you put it in your mouth. Put your silverware down between each bite.
Lunch that day was the longest meal I have ever experienced. We considered each bite of salad, noting the whiff of vinegar in the dressing and the crunch of the greens. I grew to know the subtle flavor of plain brown rice, and the multisensory experience of holding a mug of hot tea to my lips and inhaling the lightly scented steam before sipping.
It was reinforcing to be in such a large group enjoying meals together so slowly and quietly, but everyday life presents multiple mindful eating opportunities as well.
Post-retreat, I try for at least one meditative meal. Where I would once wolf down lunch while scrolling through Twitter, I create space to experience the flavor of the food and note the texture. It works for snacks too—you can really taste the salt on your lips from the first bite of a chip. An added bonus: All that chewing is great for digestion.
2. Ground yourself by walking.
Much of the retreat schedule can be summed up as “seated meditation followed by walking meditation.” The sitting-walking pattern helps break up the day and ideally prevents us from dozing off on the meditation cushion.
Slow meditative walking, with its noting of the “lift, move, step” motions of our feet, felt like a close cousin of seated meditation. Normally paced walking in the hills of the retreat center was still more inspiring, as I tried to tune into each step connecting me to the earth.
At home, where sitting at a desk dominates my awake time, I am incorporating periods of mindful walking—even if it is just down the hall. Between meetings or projects, I get up and feel the floor under my feet with each step, noting the swinging of my arms, and the way the fabric of my pants moves across my legs.
Longer walks, taking in the sights of the neighborhood without a distracting podcast, is also part of my new routine. With or without the mental noting of “lift, move, step,” walking can effectively bring our minds back into our bodies.
3. Befriend a tree.
One retreat teacher encouraged us to select a tree from the surrounding forests and forge a connection with it. We each considered our tree’s solidity, the sap running through it, the wind in its branches bringing constant change, and the co-arising circumstances that led to its growth. It was common to round a path in the woods and come across someone standing looking up at a tree, seated at its roots, or even swaying in rhythm to its movements.
Back in the city, I can simply sit on my front steps and contemplate the river birch in the yard without alarming my neighbors. I pay attention to the subtle grays and whites of its bark, the way its leaves almost shimmer in the breeze. I have lived with it for years, but this tree is now a brilliant object of meditation in my daily life. Cheesy as it sounds, the tree has become a friend I greet with a smile every morning.
4. Embrace mindful chores.
Just like the summer camp I attended as a kid, my retreat required us all to sign up for a job. My work meditation was to chop vegetables in the afternoon. It became a highlight of my day to carefully peel parsnips or work my way through a box of eggplants, guiding the knife into the flesh to create slices then cubes I would eventually see in the evening meal.
In everyday life, chopping vegetables can feel like a boring imposition, something to rush through between more exciting activities. But when you have been meditating all day the subtle pleasures of chores become clearer.
I try to invoke some of that mindfulness at home, feeling the weight of the knife in my hand as I chop, and taking the time to focus all my attention on removing the peel from a carrot. Using vegetables as my gateway I am now experimenting with mindful dishwashing. Soap bubbles can be a revelation if you really pay attention.
5. Take a break from needing to “be” someone.
When you are on silent retreat, you’re not just quiet, you’re existing anonymously within a large group of people. It was enormously relaxing not needing to “be” someone for a week—and eye-opening to recognize how much effort goes into conjuring up the ideal “me” to present in social situations.
In not speaking to one another, or even looking each other in the eye, my fellow retreatants and I could co-exist, focusing on our experiences in the moment instead of mentally rehearsing what we would say at dinner.
I admit to secretly pondering the backstories of my fellow retreatants, and I was certain that people were judging me whenever I forgot to take off my shoes inside or made other newbie mistakes. But overall, our shared silence created much more space to do what we were doing without extra mental labor.
The relaxation of silent co-existence can be harder to achieve in the regular world, where our work and family lives can hinge on being visible and vocal.
Taking “non-being” home for me has meant noticing the relaxing qualities of being alone, rather than looking for distractions, and recognizing the temptation to needlessly make an impression in passing interactions as I go about my day. That jokey comment to the barista might be less about being friendly and more about being noticed.
I’ve also brought a new kind of attention to gathering places like the grocery store or library, asking myself: Can I navigate among people without comparing, judging, fixing, or asserting an ego that demands attention?”
As Sharon Salzberg so wisely says, we can use meditation anywhere. I had the privilege of dropping out of the daily grind for a weeklong retreat, and literally saw the clouds part for a moment of insight. In the time since returning, however, I see that many of the retreat’s greatest gifts were the less flashy moments—the practices that provide tools for the other fifty-one weeks of the year.
About Sarah Clark
Sarah Clark is a Saint Paul, Minnesota-based writer, aspiring daily meditator, and nonprofit consultant at clark-squared.com.
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