Creatives’ jobs are to concept ideas. The right sides of our brains bring home the bacon, then fry it up in a pan. Thing is, we can’t just “turn it off.” Pity us. We’re cursed with random ideas popping into our heads at all hours of the day and night. (Hey, not saying they’re all good.) And the cruel joke is that 90 percent of the ideas don’t pertain to the particular projects we’re working on. So, is there a way to turn off our brains without turning to propofol?
Searching for an answer, I Googled “meditation retreats.”
I came across “21 Best Spiritual and Yoga Retreats in the U.S.” (Note: not the top 20, but the top 21. Apparently the universe doesn’t read Cosmo.) I scrolled through the list looking for a retreat far, far away from Dallas’s distractions. Boom – Insight Meditation Society, Barre, Massachusetts. It holds the honor of being one of the first meditation retreat centers in the Western world. I would be joining the thousands who previously bowed down to Buddha in the setting of 240 acres of secluded woods. It sounded divine.
The staff told us what we were about to venture into. Meditation was from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Renowned teachers would give lectures. Vegetarian meals. Modest accommodations. And, oh yeah, we’d be practicing noble silence.
Um, what’s “noble silence”? Noble silence is no talking. No laughing. No humming. No whispering. No nothin’ but Massachusetts’s crickets. Noble silence also means no eye contact. With anyone. For a solid five days. (Chris Smith, you wouldn’t last five minutes.)
We chatted among ourselves for an hour before the retreat officially began. I met two women from Vermont, one from Maine, and a man from Toronto. We joked about the noble silence. How this was the last call for small talk. And long talks.
The retreat began. Our cell phones were confiscated. Shoes off. Slippers on. All jokes put on mute.
Turns out, absolute silence was absolute bliss. To be free of inane human noise was a complete and utter luxury. But how was I to put an end to the constant chatter in my brain? This is why I was here.
The purpose of meditation is to be present in the moment. That’s it. You use all five senses to experience what you’re feeling at that exact moment. You don’t just walk: You walk with extreme purpose. You feel your foot leave the ground. Your knee lifts. You smell the grass underfoot. You hear cars in the distance. You feel your stomach growl, because soup and a scrap of bread were your only dinner. All this in a single step.
Imagine focusing solely on the moment. For five solid days. Okay, I admit it – I slipped once. I screamed when I accidentally walked in on a guy using the shared toilet. Other than that, I was totally silent, keeping my brain focused. Whenever I had straying thoughts like, “Wow, oatmeal for breakfast? Again? Stan would like it here,” I would then direct my thoughts back to the moment at hand: Oatmeal smells good. I’m now dipping my spoon in the oatmeal. Oatmeal is mushy. Oatmeal is approaching my mouth. Oatmeal is very hot. Ouch! The freakin’ oatmeal just burned my tongue! I hate it when that happens. I hope it doesn’t blister. Focus. Focus. Stay in the moment. Oatmeal makes me full. And so on.
Forty of us would kneel on cushions in a big room several times a day. We meditated for hours. We had the same spot, all day, every day. I got used to seeing the missing patch of hair in my neighbor’s head. And the bright socks of the woman to my left. It’s amazing how loud sneezes can be.
My favorite time was spent meditating in the woods. Imagine – me, the world’s worst orienteer, hiking in thick woods without anyone knowing my whereabouts. Also, I had no cell phone. This was as close to Naked and Afraid as I’ll ever get. Suddenly, I started tripping. (Ahem, not that I’ve done drugs or anything.) The colors of the forest floor were so alive, they were liquid. Every fall leaf, every gnarly tree root, every weathered rock, every cute chipmunk with stripes down its back that you don’t see in Texas, every bit of nature was perfectly placed for that one exact moment. Until the end of time, that moment will never be duplicated. Whoa. Mind. Blown.
I had many life-altering moments like this. As did my fellow yogis. Is it possible to meditate too much? Well, let’s just say that on day three, a woman was crawling on all fours, wearing slippers on her hands. But for me, no, five days wasn’t enough. I could have definitely gone longer. Our silence was finally broken, and we shared experiences. The guy whose back of the head I stared at? This was his 11th retreat. He used to write jingles in the ’80s. He struggled with the lack of eye contact. It was amazing hearing all the stories. And then we left, oddly missing others we barely knew.
Logan Airport was my re-entry into the world. It was jolting and revolting. My finely tuned senses heard babies screech, and I smelled wretched vomit baked in the carpet. I missed my silent sanctuary. I missed being present in the moment. The whole retreat cost $600. In other words, priceless.