Sixteen years ago, I went on my first mindfulness retreat with Shinzen Young. My life was at a low point. I was in an unhappy relationship, struggling with chronic anxiety and depression and my professional life as a singer songwriter was at a standstill. A therapist had recommended meditation for anxiety, and I'd been practicing diligently on my own for a couple of years. I found meditation incredibly helpful, but the issues I struggled with were deeply entrenched.
Around that time, I had a few interesting experiences while meditating. I'd gotten into meditation for practical reasons, but I was never a “spiritual seeker,” so these experiences caught me off guard. I realized I needed a teacher for guidance, but it had to be someone I could relate to. Back then, if a teacher had mentioned crystals or chakras, I would have thrown my whole practice out the window, and I didn’t want to do that. For once in my life, I discovered a sense of calm about the matter and trusted that “when the student is ready...”
Within a month, a friend’s dad gave me Shinzen’s series, The Science of Enlightenment. As soon as I started listening, I knew this was my guy. When I was done with the series, I called his organization, VSI, to get more material. The woman I spoke with told me he was leading a retreat a few weeks later, just 15 minutes from where I lived. She encouraged me to go.
I couldn’t imagine the transition from sitting for a half hour a day to sitting all day, every day — for six whole days! I was petrified, but just desperate enough to agree. I was also completely determined. Sits were optional, so I figured if I participated in every sit, I could achieve Nirvana by the end of the week.
When I arrived, I remember thinking “what a bunch of freaks.” No one looked at me or smiled. That’s part of what’s known as Noble Silence. The retreat environment helps you turn towards what’s happening inside by removing common distractions from the outside. It wasn’t comfortable at first, but ultimately I found Noble Silence very helpful. I grew to appreciate a place where social niceties are not an automatic obligation. It gave me room for a more authentic experience.
The first three days were complete torture. I questioned what I was doing there, why I was wasting my time and where I thought sitting still would get me. In fact, 16 years and around 60 retreats later, questions like that still surface sometimes! But now, I’m less identified with the “me” having those thoughts. And that has made all the difference.
By the third day, the momentum of the environment and steady practice kicked in. I was sitting at lunch and found myself bathed in a pleasant energy which was wholly unfamiliar to me. Every move I made felt intrinsically connected to this deeply pleasant energy I was discovering for the very first time.
On mindfulness retreats it’s common to slow your activities down as a way to meditate in action. I picked up a radish and examined it. As I crunched on the radish and chewed slowly, I maintained my full attention on the process of chewing. I could feel the spicy heat from the radish. I followed the wave of heat as it moved along my jaw. The heat from the radish spread and blended with the deeply pleasant energy I'd already been noticing. The next thing I knew, a geyser of ecstatic energy was shooting out the top of my head. Radish love.
That moment was a revelation on many levels. It was a powerful message that my body and mind were capable of far more bliss than I had ever imagined. I realized that by improving my mindfulness skills I could experience bliss more consistently. I recognized that my habitual way of being in the world was just that: a habit I could change. And I had found a new internal compass pointing me toward a richness I had never known before. That was my first real insight into the power of mindfulness, and it shaped my entire future.
My advice to you? Eat your veggies!