Have you ever been so deprived of stillness you forget what it feels like? Do the tiny seconds of stillness you might experience during your day cause pangs of anxiety that make your chest feel like it’s being crushed? When the world stops even for just a second, does it feel like a barren landscape with no vegetation, no light, no warmth? Do you immediately find something to fill the space, to wipe out the barren view? Check your phone, watch TV, read a book, go for drinks, go to the gym, anything but give in to the stillness? This was a dirty old habit of mine. Running from the stillness. Terrified of being alone with myself. To just be, to feel.
I remember driving down a winding dirt road, splashing through the mud puddles at high-speed, racing to get there in a timely fashion. Like a familiar habit I went through the checklist in my head the music was blaring to blast out any silence that might sneak in. I’m an over-thinker just as I am an over-planner, over-packer, over-controller. Enough bags packed in the seat behind me to last 3 weeks let alone 3 days. But as I headed down that road to the unknown, to retreat myself for 3 days, I tried to reassure myself I was prepared. Prepared for anything I could think of. Prepared for the unknown. I ran through all the lists in my head, and the ones that I had left at home for my husband too. The constant need to feel control fervently rising as the anxious fear of the unknown for the weekend became more apparent.
Yes I felt awake, yes I was ready for change, yes I was ready for the hand that reached out, for the big invitation – but at what cost? I felt like I was in a nightmare, naked; desperate to hide so that nobody would see.
Vulnerable, weak, frantic, and scared.
As I got closer to where I was headed, the mud got deeper and thicker. I was forced to drive slower. To concentrate more on the road ahead of me instead of the lists running through my head. I could feel the grip tighten on the steering wheel. The list reviewing turned into a bantering conversation in my head. ‘What was I doing? Why am I doing this? I should be at home cleaning and making meals. I should be doing something more productive than slipping away for the weekend with a bunch of women I hardly know, doing goodness only knows. But they sent an invitation. They reached out. But I didn’t have to accept. What if they need me at home? What if my friends want to get together? What if work is short? What if? what if…’
Back and forth both sides would argue. This happened a lot when I was alone – the bantering. But in the end I was able to talk myself out of all the reasons I should turn back. As I slowly pulled my car into the parking area at the retreat center, I drew in a deep turbulent breath. Held it for as long as I could and then exhaled as I gave in to the fear – allowing it to wash over me like thick syrup.
I looked at myself in the rear-view mirror. I looked old. I could see the dark circles under my eyes, my skin was dry. There was this sort of sadness in the fine lines that draped over the sides of my mouth. And the darkness in my eyes felt cumbersome. I don’t remember looking that disheveled. My eyeliner scraped across my eyelids so people didn’t think I just rolled out of bed. The silvery hairs shining at my temples. What happened to me? When did I become so….so ancient, so unrecognizable.
I pushed the mirror aside and dragged all of my heavy bags toward the entrance. Before I could set down an armful, the door opened. And there she was, the woman from the restaurant. The women who was emitting light and reaching a hand out toward me. The smile on her face felt genuine.
It felt like the universe was shining down through her smile and whispering to me, ‘it is good you are here’.
After I put my bags away in my room shared with two other women, I hurried down to meet everyone. The energy was light and welcoming. I slowly set my controlling habits aside one by one, since I came to realize there was no chance of controlling the journey this weekend anyway.
I remember standing out on the dock with sixteen other women. The lake was glistening in the late afternoon sun. The warmth was charming. It held a sense of peace in it. I stood there letting go bit by bit. No connection to the outside world, no Wifi, no tv, no phone. Forced to be fully present. Forced to engage. I became curious of the other people who accepted the invitation. Curious of where I would fit in. Curious of what the plans would be for the weekend.
A few minutes later the retreat leader appeared. Everyone hushed in an eagerness to hear her speak. I felt like a kid at summer camp. But there was a gentleness in her voice. A welcoming gesture, that we were all in safe hands.
As she spoke I felt a smile settle into my tense face.
Yes! This was what I had been waiting for. This was my inner storm’s great call to growth. And as quickly as I fell into a comfortable place, I was abruptly startled with her voice ending with, “Let’s have a moment of stillness. Let us begin this weekend by breathing in deeply all the beauty around us in silence.”
I could feel panic seep back in through any crack it could slip through. ‘Stillness – oh please no.’ This fidgety need to do something, think of something, anything. I looked away from everyone in hopes they wouldn’t see that stillness and silence did not come easy for me. That not doing a thing was harder for me than adding ten more things on my to-do list. As a low hum rang in my ears, I forced myself to keep staring out at the lake. ‘What was I trying to hide?’ I felt crazy. Even the voice in my head rolled its eyes at me and muttered ‘oh you are so pathetic.’
We all kept standing there. Nobody moved. Nobody spoke. Even my breath was too loud. The water looked like glass, not a single ripple. The birds sang off in the distance and every once in a while you would here the buzz of a dragonfly float by. The uncomfortable stillness became more bearable as we kept standing there. Then after a few more minutes everyone quietly turned and walked silently up the path to the main cabin following the leader one by one. Taking slow, steady yet gentle steps. The awkwardness felt acceptable since the whole group of women did it together.
Now what happened over the next three days was pretty magical. It was not a silent retreat (thank heavens! I am so not there yet.) But it was messy and emotional, well for me anyway. It was a retreat for women to come together both as one and as an individual. It was a place where the great invitation was to step out on the edge and truly focus on personal growth and development. So much introspection, so much reflection. And there were many times of stillness. Even during mid activity. I remember going out in the canoe one morning enjoying the movement of each row with the woman behind me working simultaneously. And then when the timing felt right we just sat there in the middle of the lake watching the sun rise.
It occurred to me that I had let stillness become a forbidden place. That I had worked so hard at not having to be still that the very thought of it caused extreme feelings of displeasure. That ‘busy’-ness became my way of coping.
Thankfully the stillness did get easier.
I learned so much that weekend. About mindfulness, living simply with authenticity, about connecting to my higher self. About identifying the old patterns that kept me stuck and creating a life led with intention that would endlessly fill me up. The unfolding of layer upon layer was no easy task.
I could not possibly describe all the magic that took place that weekend. Not that I would want to ruin the sacredness of it. But I can tell you that I felt a shift inside of me. I had developed this new perspective about myself, about my life. In fact, I learned that I didn’t actually know myself that well at all. That I had become this person I didn’t really like to be left alone with. That I had neglected the heart and soul inside of me for so long that they had hardened and developed this thick shield to protect themselves – even from me! That all the guilt, false beliefs, negative patterns, and the constant grasping out there left me feeling dark and empty inside.
So I surrendered.
And the most important thing I learned was that everything I ever truly wanted, everything I ever dreamed of, everything I was searching out there for, was actually right here inside of me. That I was enough!
The message that became so vital to me, the beacon that shed so much insight the first time the leader spoke of it, was that we only have this one precious life. We all know this. But do we all cherish the fragility behind its paramount meaning? Our one precious life, our journey. Honoring that; living our best life – that is truly living.
So before I left for home that weekend, I took a vow. A vow to nurture the seeds that had been planted that weekend and care for them forever. I took a vow to love myself in all my messy, crazy, imperfect ways through sickness and health. I took a vow to put myself first, to practice self-care regularly, so that I could connect to the people I love in a more authentic, fully present way. And finally I vowed to never go back, to never let myself become unrecognizable, to never stop growing and unfolding, to never let myself feel uncomfortable in the stillness again – until death do us part!
And so it began…
Thanks for reading!
I want to share with you that going to a retreat isn’t necessary to begin the journey of finding your true essence, of undergoing deep introspection. It just so happened to be a resource for me, as I was so oblivious to the very need for it in my life. There are many resources out there, some of which I hope to discuss in future posts.
I also wanted to include this 8 minute audio piece from Sarah Blondin. I discovered her after the retreat and her work has become close to my heart. This particular one is about surrendering. Somewhat of a theme I experienced on the retreat. Enjoy!
Live Awake – Learning to Surrender by Sarah Blondin