Days 2–3: Silent Meditation Retreat, 2023

I love waking to a day without the phone in arm’s reach! (It will be stashed away for the duration of the experience.) A day wherein my sole commitment—outside of eating and other, you know, office business—is to the discipline of meditation.

It is difficult to rewire the brain from the time-obsessed, time-crunch mode of too much to do in too little time. Life as we live it has become too much. Too much for me, too much for many. It’s become a protest mantra of late: Too much. (Though I simultaneously can and want to do more.)

But, I am meditating more effectively in this period, spending longer stretches in silence that begin with several rounds of nadi shodhana.

Unlike the Buddhist retreat, true outer silence is more difficult to come by at home, even with Trish and the dogs gone. Various devices around the house like the HVAC, the fridge, the flux capacitor, etc., make noise. There is a lawnmower there, a car driving over here, a Civil War battlefield reenactment there, in my backyard. Wait, why is there a Civil War reenactment in my backyard!? Focus Gary, focus.

Also unlike the Buddhist retreat, I decided to work. I don’t mean work-work. I mean that which I love and don’t get to do enough of: yard work. It is late April and highs in the upper 50s outside, sun shining, birds singing, and a small mountain (5 cu. yards) of undistributed mulch calls to me from the driveway.

I spend much of my life parked in front of a monitor. If I took a picture of myself every day and made a timelapse, you’d just see me growing old staring at a monitor. And routine exercise, while I mostly keep up with it, is uninspiring. I love and need to use my body in some constructive, physical purpose, particularly if it outside, particularly if it beautifies Trisha’s and my home. So I got on my worn-down stained outdoor clothes, grabbed the wheelbarrow and pitchfork (a perfect tool for shoveling out mulch into a wheelbarrow), and went to work. But not in a rush. Not with earbuds in. But with mindfulness and mantra.

In addition to diving into pranayama the previous night, I re-opened Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi. Here is absolute consciousness speaking through the voice of a relative and temporary form known as Ramana Maharshi, or the term of endearment he was also known by, Bhagavan. Much I could say. And even more I cannot say.

Injecting his thought into this contemplative space of silence was a potent catalyst. Deeper springs of understanding, as it were, bubbled up into my awareness, particularly around the eternal, always present nature of the true self, which I’ll explore more later on. So, I began an internal mantra using a phrase extracted from his recorded words.

I spent the afternoons working outdoors by myself, my mind repeating the mantra over and over in steady rhythm. I came much closer to being at one with my work than ever before. (In case she might see me outside, I had texted my neighbor, Sue, in advance to tell her I CAN’T TALK! I let her know that I’d be in a silent retreat and I could waive, but no words. Unless something was on fire.)

And in the process of wheelbarrowing that mulch over the course of the next few days, I trimmed back overgrowth, cut dead limbs on bushes, pulled out dead ground cover, dug up and repositioned old bricks, and feeling very Jim-like, I brought up limestone rocks from the drainage creek that runs behind our yard. (Over the course of years, Jim hauled tens of thousands of pounds of limestone rock from the 100-acre undeveloped property he and Carla used to own an hour away in the countryside. All that limestone is visible today in the structures and footpaths around his and Carla’s home.)

It is a unique thing, this home retreat. More and less challenging in various ways.

In the less challenging: I am not bound to someone else’s schedule, expected to be up at a certain time, to spend multiple hours in meditation in the Dhamma Hall, and be otherwise very much restricted in activity. There are not maniacs letting their metal doors shut hard in the silent dorm room at a silent meditation retreat. Grrr. Plus, I have access to my home staples, like peanut butter, tortilla chips, and Vegannaise.

In the more challenging: The above can also be counterproductive (minus the tortilla chips). Moreover, the home environment is saturated and imbued with busy and distracting cues. Particularly as I look around and see all the things I want/need to do.

BUT, conducting this retreat at home has its major benefits in sort of reprograming the home space as a sanctum to seek the sacred.

Also different from the 10-day retreat: Frankie. In her passing, my sister Noelle left three older cats: one father named Porthos, and his two sons named Frankie and Squash. Trish and I took them in, us caring for them, my mom paying the bills. Porthos, the father, passed away on New Year’s Day this year. He had been the active one who would march into our space and—with total disregard for whatever we might be doing—demand attention, in all his regality. After his passing, Frankie and Squash began to step out of his shadow and come upstairs more often. Frankie, a marshmallow and cream-colored cat, and I became close buds during this retreat. He curled up on my lap spending the whole time purring. I did not find this distracting to my purpose.

From left to right: Frankie, Porthos, & Squash. Frankie got his name because his blue eyes reminded my mom of Frank Sinatra.

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