Hospital Chaos To Silent Retreat

The four-door sedan pulls up to the hospital where I await with my luggage. This stranger named Erin has offered me a ride to the silent retreat that I will soon be participating in. We are headed to an alternate reality; quite a radical change from my previous eight hours at the hospital. My 22-year-old patient was experiencing her own trip through the hazy veil of the effects of the Magnesium drip, necessary to prevent seizures.

It’s hard enough to push a little person out of the body, but add a bit of Magnesium to the mix (which relaxes the smooth muscles) and it can leave the patient completely exhausted. Yet the doctor and I were asking her to push every three minutes, while her team cheered her on. My amygdala was fired up on high alert because her platelets, (essential for clotting) were dangerously low and she was at high risk for hemorrhage.

At 22, she was single and the baby daddy was not at the bedside. Fortunately she had a supportive team of extended family who stepped up to the plate and were true patient advocates. Baby and mom were healthy and stable. I reported off and was out the door.

I guided Erin to the Golden Gate Bridge, which was loaded with holiday tourists to see the views of San Francisco under crystal clear blue skies. As we sat in traffic, I was happy to be “not doing” after my hectic day. Erin and I were joining 90 other strangers to bring in 2015 during an 8 night silent retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. I’ve been going on retreats for over ten years, but it still leaves people stumped with questions like these:

Can you bring books to read?

Can you use your phone or iPad?

Can you journal?

Nope, nope and strongly discouraged.

I remember my first retreat. My boyfriend at the time was an experienced retreat participant and he told me not to bring a book. I brought a book. I brought knitting too, which my warped mind, thought would be more spiritual than reading. I wasn't ready to be that spiritual! I only knitted in the secrecy of my room for thirty minutes a day. It was controlled cheating.

Over the years as I’ve deepened my meditation practice, I’ve grown to not only tolerate, but relish the solitude. Eight days was a solid chunk of time to literally do “nothing” but I had gone much longer. A couple of years ago I went on retreat for a month. It was remarkably effortless. This time the retreat managers offered to phone sit our smart phones, which I was happy to be free of. Key people in my life received the phone number to reach me for emergencies and my email was set to vacation auto-reply. Everything else would have to wait. When I came off retreat I realized once again that I really didn’t miss anything and my world as I knew it went on just fine without me. It’s humbling and freeing all at once.

Without the phones, the books or the journals, there was nothing to pull me away from my thoughts, emotions or pain when they visited. It’s only natural for us to turn away from the unpleasant and turned toward the pleasant – or at least something different. On retreat we have the opportunity to hang out in these places we don’t like so much and learn to be OK with it.

Each evening we received a dharma talk or lecture. The talks often left me touched and inspired. A teacher read this poem by Dogen:

Realization is effort without desire.

I wondered how I could have effort without desire. Is that even possible? I am a list maker extraordinaire. I enjoy effort with desire. How would one even be motivated without desire? Then I heard the rest of the poem.

Clear water all the way to the bottom; a fish swims like a fish.

Vast sky transparent throughout; a bird flies like a bird.

he next morning after breakfast, I hiked to the top of the hill as the low-lying clouds gently erased themselves from the sky below me to reveal just that - a bird simply flies like a bird.