by Dhi Good //

What’s the best thing you’ve ever given yourself? For me, the most precious and meaningful gift is time. Time away from the day-to-day fray of life, time to be with myself, time to move and be still and listen and just be. Time to eat mindfully, get plenty of rest and get away from those devices that buzz and beep for attention throughout the day. We all need time to reset, let go of habits that don’t serve us well, and get back to who we truly are deep down.

We plan for holidays and trips to see the relatives, but when it comes to planning for our own health and wellbeing, our longing to reconnect with one’s self tends to fall to the bottom of the list. For 2023, why not try making your retreat(s) a priority?

Whether you go for a yoga retreat or a silent meditation intensive, you will be taking a step toward wholeness and restoration. For me, I find that after several days on retreat I’m often surprised at how relaxed I feel. And by contrast, I notice how tightly wound up I had been and didn’t even realize it. In a group retreat, you’re surrounded by people with similar aspirations. You have the guidance of a seasoned instructor. And the environment supports you.

Healthy meals are prepared for you. The schedule supports your body and mind, offering structure throughout the day. At the end of the day, you reflect and rest. Take a walk, perhaps. You sleep, you dream, you wake up… refreshed, and looking forward to the day.

My first meditation retreat was sesshin (a week-long silent retreat) at the Denver Zen Center. I was nervous and excited. I wasn’t sure what to expect, and I was afraid I might not be about to hack it. The morning bell rings at 3:45am, 15 minutes before the first meditation session of the day. A few hours later, breakfast is served in formal oryoki style. I stare at the bowl of hot oatmeal before me while 20 other people are served. Then meal chants begin. By the time you get to eat, the food is usually cold; but it tastes… amazing! Every taste and texture is a revelation. Every sip of tea is divine.

It’s been more than 20 years since my first retreat, but I still remember the rigor and the rhythm of that week in October. The eyes are always lowered and the voice is silent. The only time I spoke was for chanting and dokusan, meditation interview with the teacher. The chants that seemed so strange at first began to seep into my bones, my pores. The words reverberated during long sits, transmitting secret wisdom that I longed to understand. Long-forgotten memories arose, and I cried. I felt emotions I hadn’t allowed myself to feel, always keeping them at bay with distractions. I fell ill with a mild flu and cried tears of self pity. I felt as though my heart had become an over-ripe watermelon — huge and tender and mushy — that had burst inside my chest.

I sat next to Frank, a very old man whose rheumatoid arthritis had curled his feet and fingers into twisted lumps. I was dismayed with the seating arrangement and wanted to get away from him. Sure, the Buddha found enlightenment after confronting old age, sickness and death, but I didn’t want to sit next to this living reminder for 7 days. His mottled skin and misshapen hands offended me. During closing chants when everyone held their hands in gassho, palms together at the heart, Frank’s fingers splayed awkwardly and refused to meet in symmetry. During walking meditation, he shuffled in front of me on his twisted feet.

After a few days, I noticed how Frank carried his burdens with such dignity. He was there for me as my swollen heart pumped hot tears down my cheeks. When I wanted to scream from the pain in my knees and hips from holding half-lotus position, Frank sat stoically next to me in his chair. Did he long to sit on a zafu in half lotus? Did he envy my slender fingers and flexible feet? I cried for his disfigurement and I cried tears of gratitude for his silent strength. One day, Frank didn’t come. I felt alone at the sight of his empty chair, ashamed for wanting to get away from him. Late the next afternoon, he took his seat next to me once again. My heart swelled with joy and relief.

When at last the week came to an end, I felt transformed. It was one of the most difficult things I had done, and just finishing felt like a huge accomplishment. I overcame my aversion to Frank’s suffering — and my own. Outside in the fresh air with eyes wide open, I looked around me and found the world itself had transformed. The trees glowed with orange, red and yellow leaves against the blue sky. Everything shimmered with life. I felt so alive and happy.

Not all meditation retreats are as rigorous and demanding as that October sesshin was for me. You can do retreats focused on yoga, running, tai chi or meditation, or some combination of them all. Body, mind and heart grow accustomed to the practice, and it gets easier over time. Part of me yearns for retreat, especially when the days grow short and the air turns cool.

What will you give yourself this year?

About the Author:

Dhi Good is a senior teacher in Shambhala, who studied Zen intensively for 10 years. In addition to Shambhala path programs, she teaches mindfulness at work for non-meditators. She earned a masters in Future Studies from University of Houston, and is co-author of Trendbenders: Building Healthy and Vital Communities (2002). Dhi lives in Denver and works as Director of Business Development for DMC.

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