I walked into the cabin and dropped my luggage like I’d been carrying it for miles. The anxiety of daily life wrapped around me like a cloak; so used to it, I barely even noticed. The hectic nature of everyday life, coupled with some thick layers of stress, had become my norm. Like a busy squirrel, I hurried around the house, going from room to room, unpacking my belongings for a 10-day stay. Even at the beginning of a silent, solitary retreat in the middle of the woods, I acted like I had somewhere to go, something to do.
I put away my groceries, unpacked everything from my suitcases, and only until every last object was put away did I allow myself a moment of rest. Like a brick, I collapsed onto the couch, exhausted from the morning. The unsettled energy still surging through my veins, I felt a throbbing sensation in my arms and legs. That initial shock of silence followed by a moment of stillness were ripe with emotion of a long, lost friend; simultaneous joy and sadness.
I lit some incense and watched as it quietly seeped into the room and subsumed me with her sweet aroma. So too did thoughts slowly begin to pervade my mind; a roller coaster of emotion and I rode them up and down the track. A feeling of exhilaration followed shortly by the despair of an unsettled heart.
My dis-eased mind tossed and turned, begging and tormenting me with her plea. Compulsively, obsessively wanting to fill that wide open space with words, ideas and concepts, making that space feel smaller and smaller as she went on. I followed them as they paraded along. On a regular basis, most of my thoughts go largely unnoticed, but not here. Not in the midst of this silence.
The night closed in on the day and my anxiety levels sharply rose with fear. Here I am, in the middle of a mountain, completely defenseless. Not even a phone within my reach, as I’m outside the range of a single cell phone tower. I shut the windows, closed the blinds, and locked every door I could find. I flashed the outdoor flood lights on and off to see what, if anything, lurked in the shadows. I went to my bedroom, locked the door behind me and hid under the covers until I fell asleep.
2:00am. The house settled and cracked loudly, waking me from a very deep sleep. Startled, and then terrified, I thought someone was trying to open my locked bedroom door. My heart began to race, beating so hard I thought it would jump from my chest. Paralyzed by fear, I gasped for my breath, but the wind was completely knocked out of me. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t even think. I laid there, motionless. After a few minutes it became obvious. Out there, in the middle of that mountain, the scariest thing was right there in bed with me, in the middle of my head.
I woke up the next morning and was ready for a productive day. I grabbed a broom and began to sweep my thoughts out from every corner of their dark and scary rooms. Out from their hiding places, I brushed them into the light, in the middle of the room. Illuminating what was previously invisible, no stone would go unturned. Hours into the day and there they were; compulsively, obsessively demanding my attention. One after the other, they would sprout up. Out of nowhere. Unexpectedly. FORCEFULLY. Calling me to action. Powerful and spontaneous with their persuasive messages. They scared me with their intensity and volume. It felt like someone was yelling at me.
Like a water skier with no skis, pulled by a boat, each and every thought dragged me along for a ride. Outside, it started to rain. Exhausted by all of the chatter, I just sat down and watched it come down. Slowly at first, then picking up intensity; the rain, along with my thoughts, turned into a downpour. A terrible storm.
Many days passed, the rain finally started to clear. The dark clouds dissipated and the sun peaked onto the lawn. I sat on the patio and watched as the animals came back out to play. The birds sailed from their trees, and the snails stretched out from their hiding places. Bees and hummingbirds gently poked at the flowers and garden that surrounded me. I grabbed my camera and tried to take it all in. Like the snail, I too began to stretch out and expand into the silence of the retreat. Five days in and the stillness of the place was glistening in the sunlight. The leaves shimmered in the wind. I could finally relax in this serene and soothing space.
Like the white billowing clouds overhead, my thoughts are slower now. Fewer and further between. They are bigger and have more detail. I can see them clearly.
…this is anxiety.
…this is sorrow.
…this is paranoia.
Like the coyote’s cry in the middle of the night, those fears pierce my heart, but they just want to be heard. Like a mother cradling her child after he falls, I carefully brush each one off and hold them in my arms before they fade away. They arise out of fear, but they heal through my awareness. A simple acknowledgment puts them at ease, allowing them to float away, back into the expanse of the sky.
I found joy and happiness in the sunset and the dusk that followed. The animal’s nightly routines and songs soothe me with their predictability. The darkness of night no longer holds me in her clutches. I leave the windows open and my bedroom door unlocked. I use ear plugs when I sleep so I won’t wake up unnecessarily. For if a boogie man is coming to get me, then I’ll be dead anyway, so what’s the sense in worrying? I sleep peacefully now and I wake up laughing from my dreams.
The sun is warmer, so I sunbathe in the grass and do salutations under her gaze. The birds sail up in the sky and the woodpecker gently taps on the tree reminding me to stay present with my thoughts. There’s little grasping at them now, so instead I draw silly pictures of nature and color them in with my kid’s crayons and water paints. It’s so easy to find joy in the simple things.
I’ve found peace within myself that wasn’t there before. A completeness from deep within; the space that fear used to fill. A freedom in my heart and a spaciousness in my mind. Those rains swept through every pore of my body, cleansing me from head to toe. I can now go back to my family, friends and co-workers with a renewed sense of life and purpose. I have such appreciation for life and every single person in it. Truly, life is a gift, meant to be savored and cherished. Even the tough stuff can bring growth, a blessing in disguise. I want to be more available for others and live more fully and completely in the moment. I’m no longer weighed down by thick layers of unnecessary suffering. I’m back in the world again. It’s the only way to be. I’m naked like a tree. The only way to be.
This year marked my 2nd retreat, and as long as my life allows, I will continue stepping out of the world for the rest of my life. These breaks have proved to be the most valuable tool to really reflect and bring more gratitude and meaning to my life. Although painful at times, I am so grateful for what I have learned in going through the process.
My intention in writing this post is to encourage everyone to take just a little time to step “out of the world” to make you happier and more productive for when you’re back in. Even as little as three days would offer an enormous benefit. It’s nothing special really, you’re just getting to know yourself a little better and discovering what is really going on in your mind, day in, day out, that isn’t so obvious. There are too many distractions and so many things competing for our attention, who has the time to observe what is really going on in there? I promise that it’s time well spent and it will benefit you when you go “back in the world again”.
Benefits, from my experience only. There are many, many more:
1. More freedom and space in your mind, less yucky stuff
2. More joy found in the simple things of life
3. More gratitude and appreciation for the world around you
5. More present & available for your loved ones
Go on, give it a try, it certainly can’t hurt… well, unless that boogie man comes to visit. That will probably hurt. 😉