Monday, February 1, 2016

Three Days of Silence and Self-Befriending

Photo by Dream Designs,
When we hear the word "adventure," most of us would think of something thrillingly unusual, some outdoor activity that requires a certain amount of tenacity, or a perilous act verging on being deadly. Well, my 3-day silent retreat didn't involve any bizarre ritual; it was conducted indoors from beginning to end; and no matter how ineptly I did it, death wasn't one of the probable results. But let me tell you this: I had a much harder time getting through it than the 100-day Pilates challenge I accomplished last year.

I did it at my own home, which was both good and bad. On one hand, I felt completely at ease in my familiar environment. On the flip side, I had to fight the incessant seduction of the internet and TV. There was no Zen monk to watch over me, no spiritual guru to keep me from dozing off. My two-bedroom apartment conveniently allowed the temporary segregation between me and my husband. The only contact we had was when he knocked on my bedroom door in the evening to signal that my dinner was right outside. When he was at work, I fended for myself. I tossed up some basic salad, boiled rice in ready-made broth, poured cereal and milk into a bowl, and also microwaved Safeway Select soup. Why didn't I cook something more complicated? Even mundane activities, such as cooking and cleaning, could be too distracting, someone who had undergone a silent retreat before advised me. So yes, I tried to stick to simple preparation when it came to food.

Here's what my 3-day silent retreat entailed.

-   I woke up at 6 am and went to bed at 9 pm.
-   No internet. No TV. Not even music. Well, actually, I did listen to some meditation music, but certainly not Lady Gaga or Black Eyed Peas.
-   No communication with another living soul. No writing. No pantomiming. No conversing with myself or an imaginary friend.
-   6 hours of Zen meditation a day--the one where you sit cross-legged on a cushion, in silence and with your eyes closed. It was by far the toughest part of my retreat even though I broke it into 3 sessions, 2 hours each.
-   2 hours of guided meditation a day. Compared to Zen meditation, this was child's play. I simply lied down on my bed with my headphone on, listening to a soothing voice guiding me through the process of mindfulness with a peaceful background music and the sound of ocean waves.
-   1 hour of gentle yoga a day--30 minutes in the morning and another 30 minutes in the evening. With all that cross-legged sitting, some good stretching was a necessity.
-   I spent the rest of each day reading Shunryu Suzuki's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind as well as keeping a diary of whatever thoughts that occurred during my meditation and throughout the day. And well, I also took a short blissful siesta.

But why?

Why did I do this? Couldn't I just de-stress by taking a long walk, getting a full-body massage, or shopping for shoes? What drove me to be non-communicative with the world for three whole days wasn't mainly stress but rather a lifelong bad habit I hoped to overcome. Not sure how or when it exactly began. But ever since I was a kid, I took daydreaming to a whole other level. I did it for hours on end, sometimes even almost the entire day. The stories I constructed in my head were extremely detailed, flew seamlessly from one to another, and felt even more real than reality, although I was fully aware that they were fantasies. Sometimes I paced back and forth while doing it. Sometimes I inadvertently smiled or laughed out loud because my imaginary friend must have said something funny. Then my grandma would notice it and ask, "What the heck are you doing?"

It wasn't something I could easily stop like closing a book or turning off a TV. This compulsive habit, I learned much later, is called maladaptive daydreaming, which has been linked to ADHD and OCD. Back then, though, I simply considered it my quirky trait. It didn't bother me much. Having self-esteem issues just like many other kids my age, escaping from reality made sense to me. It was my favorite pastime. Some of my teachers brought up my lack of attention in class to my mom a few times, but since my grades were always good, she just took it as me being flippant. I grew up in Thailand. Over there people don't take their children to see a psychiatrist unless they've done something alarmingly disturbing, such as stabbing their teacher, trying to kill themselves, or raping their neighbor's cat.

As an adult, however, I find my excessive daydreaming to be troublesome. I don't have self-esteem issues anymore; I no longer need daydreaming as my coping mechanism; I have so many creative projects I'd love to finish; I hate to daydream my life away. And yet, on an hourly basis, I have to fight my own brain, trying again and again to rein it back to reality and the task at hand. At the end of each day, I often feel shamefully unproductive.

Why don't I consult a shrink then? Well, if I do that, the options they offer me would likely be to undergo a series of pricey therapy sessions, or take some kind of psychiatric medication, or maybe both. While I'm not against these types of treatment, I know they're not for me. My disorder isn't something severe like bipolar or clinical depression. It might not even be a disorder at all but a deeply ingrained habit. A few years back, I conquered my anxiety and stage fright with hypnotherapy. I've witnessed first-hand how the mind can be trained to heal itself. So this three-day silent retreat is the beginning of my healing process or my "habit rehab." It surely isn't a quick fix, though.

Did it work?

Yes, yes, yes! But like I said, it's only the beginning, not a quick fix. During those 3 days of meditation, I did not once attain utter stillness. My mind was never empty for even a second. It went on doing its things. I tried to focus on my breathing and not to get frustrated when my mind wandered. I simply observed my meandering thoughts, without trying to control or eliminate them. It was tough, of course, not to mention the discomfort of cross-legged sitting. But that's exactly the point of this practice. To accept pain and difficulties as an inevitable part of life. To befriend myself. To not freak out when trouble arises. To not lose heart and chastise myself when my mind is disobedient. My brain used to be like raging white water; there were crashing waves, whirlpools and a waterfall on the horizon. After my meditation retreat, it has become more like a flowing river, still full of waves but overall much more serene. My retreat is over, but my meditation practice will continue indefinitely. At least 30 minutes a day but preferably longer. It's a necessity, not an option. In a few months or so, maybe I'll have another silent retreat. I may never develop a razor-sharp focus or completely rid myself of "mind weeds," but this calmness I've cultivated so far is quite satisfying. 

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