Small thoughts: 10-day retreat vs. anxiety

 

Small thoughts from a morning surfing in paradisiac beaches, getting sunburnt, being around Hindu gods and ingesting foreign canteen food.

3 min read


 
 

Last weekend I went for a surf with a bunch of mates to the Royal National Park in the South of Sydney. Surrounded by almost pristine forests and rock cliffs (ok, and a big handful of other surfers and weekenders to break the magic) we spent the morning feeding our soul in the ocean.

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One of them suggested going to this Hindu centre for the after-surf lunch, which has a canteen-style offering traditional temple food. We tasted a variety of what it seemed a similar ingredient combination but cooked in different styles. A bit plain but who cares? We got a pretty good vegan lunch for $15 and a full cultural experience, giving us the impression of having travelled to South Asia just for the day.

I’m not sure if it was the endorphin rush from the morning surf, the fact of being surrounded by exotic gods or just the spice mix in the food but the four of us ended up discussing rather spiritual and deep life questions for a couple of hours.

One of my mates joined not long ago in one of these 10-day retreats where you one is not meant to talk at all and everything one does is meditating. The rest of us had heard about this type of “self-punishment” but actually never experienced it first hand, so we carefully listened to his story and the wicked outcome of his stay. And by the way, none of us matches the classic stereotype of spiritual guy.

The first observation he mentioned was learning to separate feelings from emotions when coping with the physical pain. When he was sitting for however many hours a day and the only instruction was “cross your legs and notice your breath”, his body naturally started aching. The hours would slowly pass as the mind focused around the pain and discomfort. Only when he was able to observe this pain sensation as something transitory, finite and external, he was able to positively cope with the rest of the days. He described it as the change from engaging with the pain to perceiving as only noise in the background.

The second observation was how the 10-day program allowed for situations that revealed his true self, reflecting the way he was approaching some situations in life. Sometimes, under vague meditation instructions, he would become anxious and restless for fear of not understanding the full scope and not matching his self-expectations. Inundated by worry, he finally felt the need to break the silence oath and ask the instructors for clearer directions. And this was it: the craving for a perfect practice and meeting a goal overrun the acceptance of his own personal journey. As the retreat guides told him then, it is sometimes more valuable to find your own way and admit ambiguity rather than get stressed for the perfect experience.

The third and last observation was the re-connection with feelings and sensations. After 6 or 7 days of silence and doing nothing, small acts like shaving or brushing the teeth became the joy of his day. Having forced himself to radically pause and spend his days only noticing his presence and being, the sensory threshold increased by hundreds. He now was able to apply just the right pressure on the brush and experience almost every single bristle in between. He was closer to complete mindfulness. The ability to be fully present and appreciating what’s around us.

Acknowledging the power of our mind, acceptance of our own journey, the power of the present. I couldn't help myself thinking that these are the key concepts that travelling through anxiety taught me (and still is). One learning path takes 10 days, the other takes a single unwanted life experience and 2+ years. But the lessons are the same.

Coincidence? It is more and more clear to me which is the way to live a more meaningful life. More meaningful, not happier or better. The journey you take is your choice. Or not.


 

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