So quiet outside; so loud inside: My retreat recap

It’s been a while since I’ve written, so I’ll catch up on everything soon—our trip to Baja, family camp, my inner life and more—but first, the meditation retreat…

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Paramahansa Yogananda’s hermitage in Encinitas, Calif. This is the window near which he wrote “Autobiography of a Yogi,” the most formative book I’ve read. My guru’s hermitage holds a definitive magic for me.

Two months ago, I went on a three-day silent retreat at the Self-Realization Fellowship ashram in Encinitas, Calif. Ever since, I’ve been telling friends who ask about it: “It was great. Intense, but awesome. I’ll share more about it later.”

I keep waiting for fascinating words of inspiring profundity, but they haven’t come. This business of leading a spiritual life can be so personal, so gritty, so impossible to explain.

As such, instead of my typical long-form essay, here’s a stream-of-consciousness re-cap on what it was like to keep silence, meditate way more than is normal for me and be alone with God for three days, in chronological order, with several parts missing:

  • Excitement
  • Aw, I look super cute today. This is just the perfect outfit for meditation.
  • I’m kinda nervous. What might come up when I get quiet?
  • Silence now? I thought the retreat didn’t officially start until tomorrow?
  • It’s weird not talking at the dinner table
  • Substitute smiles and eye contact for words. Hmm. I kinda like this.
  • Nature Gardens Wildlife Waves Hummingbirds Euphoria
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View from my favorite meditation bench in the gardens. Sitting there, I was surrounded by jasmine, hummingbirds, jackrabbits, giant jade bushes, koi ponds, palms, birds of paradise and the massive Pacific.

  • Breathing
  • Quiet
  • Soundest sleep I’ve had in months
  • Wake up. I choose to shower instead of meditate. Again, I find the perfect outfit and lip gloss for the occasion.
  • Meet up for energization exercises and group meditation
  • Darkened chapel, sit down, straight spine, woo! Here we go!
  • Peace, quiet, gratitude for the time to do this
  • Here comes the back pain
  • Break. Sneak off during the break to get a massage in Encinitas. The back pain is unbearable.
  • Return for more meditation.
  • This chapel is so peaceful.
  • I would like to feel as peaceful as that woman sitting over there smiling.
  • I talk too much in real life.
  • So quiet outside; so loud inside
  • Get distracted while meditating, draw myself back (repeat times a billion)
  • Feel an inner storm rising, shudder at the thought, tell myself that’s why I’m here, and try to trust that I’ll be ok no matter what comes up for me.
  • Feel ridiculous for even thinking about clothes and lipgloss
  • Breakfast is delicious
  • Loooong period of meditation (2.5 hours)
  • Stabbing upper back pain
  • Inner storm hits
  • Frustration
  • Gurus, could you take away this back pain so I can concentrate better?
  • Cool. Thanks!
  • Dang. It’s back again. Mother effer! This is so hard.
  • Despair
  • Tears
  • Please, God, make this easier, I want to hear You.
  • #$%&!!!
  • Resignation to the fact I’m going to be here a while.
  • Keep dragging my mind back to the techniques.
  • Relief! It’s finally over. And now we chant.
  • Can I go home now? I’m sure Marina will let me stay with her the next couple nights…
meditation bench

I passed a few hours in meditation and general reverie on this bench overlooking the Pacific. This spot was like salve for the stings that came up during my chapel meditations. Being outside is always what soothes me.

  • Another meditation
  • I can’t effing believe I’m going back for more. Not fun. I should’ve booked a beach vacation with girlfriends…
  • Straight spine, open heart, aching back
  • Praying, praying, praying for help
  • Kriya-o-rama
  • Light across the Christ Center (third eye)
  • Joy

Sister Yogamahi—my fave nun—pulls me aside because she feels like I could use a counseling session. OMG! She’s like a rockstar nun! And she’s going to talk with ME about MY problems! Squee! I break silence to chat with Sister Yogamahi

Me: blah blah blah, bunch of majorly un-spiritual admissions I can’t believe I tell a nun. Vent, vent, vent. What would Master say about this? Cry, cry, cry. Do you have any advice?

Sister Yogamahi: Warm smile, gleaming eyes, doles out real-deal wisdom, offers perspective, cracks some jokes, makes me laugh, gives me support with zero judgment, promises to pray for me and it feels like I’ve just hooked up with God Himself, tells me stuff that comforts me, puts me back in touch with my own ability to feel God’s presence, makes me wonder if she’s not actually on the line with Jesus and Paramahansa Yogananda as she’s talking with me.

Me: “Wow. Thanks. Can I hug you? Wait, do nuns hug?” (It occurs to me she might prefer to connect with the heart than with the body, or her vibration might be so high from meditating like a boss all these years that touching a mere mortal might send my nervous system reeling.)

Sister Yogamahi: Only when no one is looking. And I think we’re being watched. She laughs.

Me: Etheric hug, then! (I clasp my hands at my heart and bow my head in gratitude to her.)

Sister Yogamahi: Smiles with a bazillion watts of God’s love, then swishes away in her ochre robes.

Me: 80 pounds lighter and heaps clearer than moments before.

meditation gardens

Amazing how so much soul gunk can find its way up in a place bursting with this much beauty.

  • Another long period of meditation. I approach sans dread.
  • Breathing
  • No more back pain
  • No more caring about what I’m wearing, or how cute I look for this
  • Kriya-o-rama
  • Depth
  • Clarity
  • Peace
  • Happiness
  • Melancholy about leaving, about returning to the noisy world
  • Missing my family, but loving the peace that’s finally settled. It’s a bittersweet farewell
  • Fly back home

That’s that. Someday maybe stories of substance will emerge, but this was my experience. If any of you have ever gone within for several days, I’d love to hear of your experience. What went down for you when you went inward?

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Spiritual bootcamp, here I come (ready or not.)

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This is wee Charlie and me a few years ago. Fast forward to now. This weekend, during my free time, I’ll find a nice spot on the grass and park myself here to meditate. Wish me luck.

I’ve just left behind my dogs, kids and husband, along with lists, labels and a logistical labyrinth of childcare arrangements to hop a plane to San Diego.

I’ve also just read 116 pages of a book without stopping—I don’t recall the last time I read 100 pages straight—and I got to hit the town for a late dinner with Marinita, an honest-to-God soul sister. Tomorrow I will see more beloved friends, including a beautiful new baby. I also get to see flowers, the color green and the Pacific Ocean. I should feel light and airy, ready to party, right?

But no. In the back of my mind is the real reason I’m on this plane right now: I’m here to meditate. Deeply, devotedly and for extended periods of time. Starting Friday afternoon, I’ll join other like-minded yogis and submit to the gentle guidance of the monks and nuns who will conduct the retreat I booked a couple months ago.

Sounds good, right? Meditation retreat. I mean, duh, yeah, it’ll be freaking awesome. When I leave. From the time I check into the retreat to the time I check out, though, it’s spiritual bootcamp.

Ok, I’ll say it: I’m straight-up anxious about this thing. I did it once before six years ago when I was pregnant with Charlie, so I know. There’s no spa, no yoga classes, no massage therapists and no champagne cocktails. There’s not even any talking. It’s potent and it’s wonderful. I’m equal parts apprehension and knowing. This is something I need to do. Like a tune-up for the soul.

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So…the last time I did a retreat like this was at the Lake Shrine in LA, and I was seven months pregnant. I booked some extra time with pals before checking into the retreat. At the time, Melissa, college roomie and friend extraordinaire, was studying the art of DJ-ness. She took me to Scratch DJ Academy, where she was taking classes, and showed me the art of the turntable. We treated Baby Charlie to a little scratching. Unfortunately, I retained no knowledge about DJ-ing that could possibly have made me heaps cooler today.

However it unfolds, it will be powerful, beautiful, restorative, energizing and essential. But it might suck.

Like a deep-tissue massage or a grueling myofascial session with my chiropractor, Dr. Dan Mossell, it’s not a pleasurable experience when I’m in it, but I keep going back for more because of how I feel when I leave. That’s kinda how a silent meditation retreat is. Hard-ass work, at least for a girl like me, to get quiet enough to tap into the Godforce, but once you’re in the flow, there’s no better feeling on the planet.

And so, with that lit-up, billion-watt soul high in my sights, I’ll check into a modest room on the grounds of the hermitage where my guru wrote Autobiography of a Yogi. The hermitage and gardens, which are glorious enough to beckon the immaculate Johnny Depp (my friend Joanie ran into him there once), are situated on a cliff overlooking the ocean and Swamis, an aptly named surf break. I’ll be served delicious Indian vegetarian meals three times a day, sleep in a simple dorm room, possibly share a bathroom with a stranger and follow a strict program of meditation that begins at 6:30 a.m. and continues till bedtime, with a couple breaks thrown in, all in silence.

I’m agreeing to forego the use of words, unplug the treadmill of my thoughts, still my body for loooong periods of time, turn my consciousness over to God and welcome whatever comes up without judgment or attachment.

Holy crap, that’s scary.

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When I get sick of meditating here, I can just hop up and snuggle a dog or grab a snack in the kitchen. At the  retreat, the only option is to stay put till the bell rings.

In theory, I do this on a daily basis. I sit on the bench in my little meditation nook and I do the practices I’ve learned from the teachings that resonate with me. I sit for anywhere from two minutes to an hour doing the techniques, including Kriya yoga. However, I get up whenever the heck I feel like it. If my mind wanders, I let it wander instead of guiding it back to the practices. If my head gets flooded with thoughts and to-dos, I take a break and write them down. If my body feels restless, I get up and do something else. When it comes to meditating, discipline is not my best party trick.

At the retreat, I’ll stay at the party no matter how badly I may want to leave. Either that or face the awkwardness of storming out of the low-lit chapel five minutes into a two-hour session struggling to breathe because I’m so exasperated by my own restlessness. (the last time I did one of these retreats, this is exactly what almost happened.)

Not that anyone would judge me for freaking out in the wilderness of an overactive mind—all sincere spiritual seekers have been there—but I’d just rather not make a scene, mmkay?

Say a little prayer for me as I go into this retreat? If you’re so inclined, send me good thoughts as I attempt to ride into the superconscious this weekend. If you would, pray that I experience the lasting peace that comes from deep, prolonged meditation and that I may emerge saturated in the ever-new joy of God’s love, with plenty of overflow to share with all my dear ones. Which includes you, obvi.

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I love this. Paramahansa Yogananda depicted on the wall of a local cafe in Encinitas. Surfing Swamis and superconsciousness.