silent meditation retreat

The view of the Drala Mountain Center from a hike. (From Drala Mountain Center.)

After celebrating like a mother for my 50th birthday last year, I did a 180: My gift to myself for my 51th birthday was a Silent Meditation Retreat at the Drala Mountain Center. I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of one, and wanted to start my new year looking inward and feeling calm.

After introductions and guidelines on Friday, we have dinner and go into silence. I can’t sleep. I toss and turn like I’m in a commercial for a sleep aid. I know I’m nervous, but the assignment for the weekend ahead couldn’t be simpler—or harder. Notice I’m breathing in, notice I’m breathing out. What to do with all the feelings, thoughts, memories, planning that zip through my mental dashboard millions of times a day? Just notice them, let them float on by and come back to my breath.

Sounds like the deceptive simplicity of a marathon: just put one foot in front of the other. For 26.2 miles.

My training, if you can call it that, for this mental marathon is minimal. The longest I’ve meditated recently is 20 minutes, and I’ve always relied heavily on apps and guiding cues—I’m supposed to take an inhale now? Got it.—from an instructor. I’ve never meditated in silence for 10 minutes, let alone three hours.

Yep, each day features two, 3-hour blocks. Within each block, we repeat the following pattern: 30 minutes of sitting meditation, 10 minutes of walking meditation. So no sitting for three hours straight, and in fact, you do not need to sit criss-cross applesauce in a traditional meditation posture, a fact I confirmed before signing up. (This meditation retreat, while definitely a marathon, is far from a Vipassana Retreat, which is more like a 100-miler.)

My folding chair is bolstered with two meditation blankets to sit on and one behind me to support my spine. A little floating meditation cocoon. As we start on Saturday morning, I feel the momentum of the crisp morning air, eager participants, and energy to get started. Vibes of starting a race. The gong is rung, and I straighten my spine, feel my sitz bones underneath me, and go to find my natural breath. My body is warm, my mind is willing. The next gong, which signals it’s time to stand and 30 minutes are over, comes remarkably quickly. Reminds me of when I ran the New York City Marathon: I couldn’t believe how quickly an hour passed.

The walking meditation is lovely. Instead of focusing on my breath, I’m focusing on my feet. I’ve done this before, thousands of times. “I am here now,” I repeat to myself when I start looking out the window or wondering if I’m walking too slowly.

Loden, the Buddhist monk leading us, hits a wooden block, and we’re back to our seats. I sip from the water bottle next to my chair. Yes, I am fueling. I stashed four Altoids in my pocket this morning to give me a little boost before each sit. I allow it to dissolve on my tongue, so it’s not like I’m chomping on hard peppermint candy, annoying the bliss of those around me. I’m not sure if this is breaking a big meditation rule, but I don’t really care; if nothing else, the intense peppermint brings me back to my physical body, which is the point of all of this, right?

We break for lunch, and I know what I need for to settle into the second session and a good night’s sleep: movement. As much of it as I can get. The main hiking trail is closed due to fire, but there are plenty of dirt roads and opportunities to climb. The wind is blowing so hard, it feels like it’s exfoliating my spirit. I feel my feet underneath me and everything else, save for some chatty birds, is quiet. I love it.

Back to the chair for the second three-hour shift, which puts me in the 11-15 mile range of this virtual marathon. I’m definitely not close to the finish line, and I’m definitely familiar with the effort it’s going to take to get there. Trying not too hard to think about that. Around me, stomachs are gurgling. A man in the corner is snoring (lying down is also an option, but it’s clearly hard not to fall asleep if you do). At 4:20—conveniently at the start of the second 30 minutes of sitting—I have an appointment with one of the teachers to talk about…I am not sure. When I made the appointment, I just knew I would embrace a chance to take a break from sitting still.

Marie is a kind soul, as you’d expect from a mindfulness teacher, and when I sit across from her, I tear up and words spill out and I can’t really remember what I said. [Probably a lot of the sentiment from this post.] She listens and offers suggestions to integrate more of a meditative mindset, then we start to talk about exercise. She’s a runner (of course!), and our talk shifts to fresh air and how grounding exercise is.

Marie is that person I didn’t know I needed in a marathon: the one with the juiciest orange slice, the one holding a sign that says, “Be the Runner Your Dog Thinks You Are,” the one who yells my name off my bib, looks me in the eye, and says, “You’ve got this.” Yep, I can do this. I return to join the slow-moving circle of walkers, then sit back down with the end of the day in sight. My upper back feels like knitting needles are poking it. I’m also very drowsy, so I regularly shift forward to grow an inch and jolt myself awake. Gong and we’re done. After a dinner of ridiculously delicious ramen that carb loads me for our final day, I’m asleep by 8:30.

Day two begins with my spotting the resident moose on a short walk to get my intestines moving—I told you, these marathons are more similar than you’d expect—and the first 30 minutes of sitting is ok-ish. But my clothes feel wrong and I’m antsy and not able to mentally settle in I was yesterday. So I take off a layer and move my chair into the sun for the second sitting, hoping I don’t hot flash. I try to go without popping an Altoid— like all fuel, I’m just weary of it—but then I realize I need my little Pavlovian response. So I sneak one into my mouth and continue moving forward, one breath at a time. Finding my inhales amidst the mental whirlwind feels a bit easier now; it’s like I’m on flat, beautifully smooth pavement. I’ve still got to keep running, but there are no hills or rocks to trip on.

I try not to look at my watch at all; we all know how dispiriting it can be when you’re not as far along the course as you thought you were. I do, however, take an extra unnecessary bathroom break (or two) to mix things up. Afternoon is a repeat of lunch and a hike before I arrive at the final session. Within minutes of the gong reverberating, I am ready for somebody to come take a surgical knife to my back. I can’t get my mind off it, and it won’t offer up any ease. I microshift as quietly as possible, but receive no respite.

Big change needed. For the final two 30-minute sessions, I sit on the floor, back supported by a meditation chair and legs outstretched on cushions, the equivalent of that run/walk/hobble around mile 24.

I try to soak it all in. The quiet room with a high ceiling, the wind gusting outside, the feelings of alert calmness, energetic stillness inside. The last gong sounds. The finish line is not quite the arms-in-the-air, medal-around-the-neck triumph of 26.2, but then again, the calmness that lingers for days afterward is much better than sore quads.