I set off for my first monthlong meditation retreat with little idea of what to expect. Even though I'd studied Shambhala Buddhism for five years and regular weekends of meditation were part of my Buddhist practice, two days is nothing compared with the endless parade of hours on an intensive retreat. I was ready to go deeper—my practice had changed my life for the better—but could I handle it for weeks at a time? What if some long-buried dark memory surfaced? What if I died of pure boredom?
But sitting cross-legged for weeks wasn't as mysterious as I had imagined: Most of those 45-minute intervals were spent noticing how utterly mundane my thought patterns were, often revolving around sexual reveries and long-dead arguments. At some point, something clicked—and I was able to just sit, without constantly managing my future or revising my past.
Even with its celebrity proponents and scientific backing, meditation is still dismissed as a navel-gazing luxury. But committing to ostensibly doing nothing is one of the bravest things I've ever done: It's taught me to sit with painful feelings instead of trying to outrace them. It might look like a passive activity, but it's led to some hard-core inner strength.
WANT TO MEDITATE?
Sitting 101: Different traditions (Zen, insight, etc.) teach different techniques. Here's mine: Sit in a chair or cross-legged on a cushion. Keep your eyes slightly open. Place your attention on your inhale and exhale. When you notice thoughts, come back to the breath. Just five minutes daily is enough.
Go on a retreat at: Shambhala Mountain Center (shambhalamountain.org) in northern Colorado.
Sit at home: The Insight Timer app allows you to time your sessions.
Also check out: Sakyong Mipham's Turning the Mind Into an Ally.
My No. 1 piece of advice: If you're going on retreat, bring an eye mask and earplugs. You need your rest!