I want to share an experience with you that I had when I went on a silent meditation retreat last September.
But before I begin, I must warn you that this story involves me crying…And I’m not just talking about a single dramatic tear rolling down my cheek; I’m talking about ugly crying. The type of crying you do when no one is around. The kind of crying that seems to come from your whole body.
So with that in mind, proceed with caution!
For those of you who haven’t been on a silent meditation retreat, I highly recommend that you GO as soon as you can!! It’s one of the few instances in our lives where we can truly spend time to get to know ourselves. The conditions are structured to encourage your introspection. You can’t speak to anyone, you can’t look at anyone and your day consists of a mixture of sitting meditation, walking meditation, eating mediation and working meditation.
These conditions are specifically designed to reduced external distraction and leave you with nothing left but you, and your mind. When you’re on retreat your goals is to get to know yourself better and see all the crazy mental mind patterns that make up your psychological framework.
During the second or third day of the retreat, us students gathered in the meditation hall for our first round of metta, or as some people call it, loving-kindness meditation.
If you’re new to meditation and mindfulness, metta is simply a form of meditation where you begin by extending love and kindness to yourself and gradually increase your circle of compassion to include someone you love, followed by someone you are indifferent towards (like the cashier at your local grocery store) and lastly, someone for whom you’ve recently struggled (like someone at work).
In Pali, metta translates to “friendship” and ultimately, the practice of loving-kindness meditation cultivates a kind and friendly heart towards others and most importantly, yourself.
As we piled into the meditation hall to receive instruction on our first session of metta, I couldn’t help but feel a little skeptical of what might happen. Based on what I read, I knew analytically that metta can be a powerful and life changing practice but the whole idea of sending out good vibes to people seemed a little too woo-woo for me.
Nonetheless, I sat with the other students and closed my eyes for my very first loving kindness meditation. As expected, I didn’t feel much after my first session ended. Instead, I noticed the session was actually rather difficult. Difficult in the sense that it didn’t make me feel any better and I didn’t feel any different at all towards the people in the room—let alone myself.
Later that day, we were allowed to participate in a group discussion with the meditation teachers which provided us with our first opportunity to speak and ask question since the retreat began a few days prior. I mentioned to one of the teachers that I didn’t feel much during our first metta session and she advised the group that if we find metta challenging, we should try placing our hand over our heart and see if that increase the connection between the practitioner and the practice.
Determined to give it another shot, we set off for another 40 minute sitting of loving-kindness meditation. This time, I placed my hand over my heart, and again, I didn’t feel anything.
I decided to keep on and continued to repeat the phrases of loving-kindness to myself and others: “may you be happy, may you be safe, may you be healthy, may you be at peace, may you be free from suffering.”
Still, something was missing…
After the session ended, we were asked to head outside for a 45 minute walking meditation.
As we shuffled out of the meditation hall I felt slightly dejected. I figured if anyone could use some loving-kindness towards themselves it was me! But for some reason I couldn’t connect with the practice.
Before I knew it, I could hear the sounds of the meditation bells which meant we were to begin our walking meditation. I found myself on a beautiful walking trail atop a hill that overlooked the entire Spirit Rock campus. I began to pace back and forth for roughly 20 yards.
Each time, at the end of my 20-yard loop I paused, place my hand over my heart and repeating the loving-kindness phrases to myself. As I repeated each phrase of kindness I began to feel more warmth trickling through my body. I could actually FEEL what I was saying.
And then, it happened…
I lost it!
Without any warning I started to cry uncontrollably. My body could no longer hold back the feelings I had kept in the darkness for decades and everything came pouring out all at once. I remember repeating the phrases and giving my heart slight squeezes and suddenly it was as if my emotions burst through me.
I realized in that moment, just how big of an asshole I’ve been to myself my whole life. I realized how little love I actually extend towards myself and ultimately, how much pain and suffering I’ve created for myself and the people I love.
The vail had been lifted and for the first time in my 29 years I could actually see my mind!!
Unfortunately, once I saw it with clarity, I realized that my mind was kind of a dick! In fact, I remember thinking to myself, “If my thoughts were a person, I would want to kick his ass for all the shit he put me through.”
As I continued to cry uncontrollably it dawned on me that people could probably hear me. Really, there was no way they couldn’t hear me because when you ugly cry like that at a silent retreat, it’s literally the only noise people can hear for hundreds of yards.
But you know what?
I didn’t care because I was being kind to myself and for the first time in my life, I didn’t care what others thought about me! I was holding myself with compassion and in doing so, realized that if I show myself kindness it doesn’t matter what people think of me. If I’m okay with what I see in the mirror, then no one can take away my happiness!
This was news to me because I’ve always been my own worst critic. I have accomplished many great things in life but I never give myself credit. In my head, my achievements are just another thing to check off life’s list of things to do.
On the contrary, when I messed up in life as I inevitably did, the stories were completely different. I’d spend weeks kicking myself for my failures. I’d bully myself and believe my mind when it told me I wasn’t good enough.
So there I was, crying like a baby on top of a hill in beautiful Marin, California with nothing but the sound of birds chirping and me sobbing. It was truly a beautiful moment in my life and felt somewhat cathartic and invigorating at the same time.
The lesson I learned by crying my way to clarity has been a complete game changer for me. When I notice my mind is trying to beat me up I can simply say, “I see you” and it instantly loses its grip on me.
The more I’ve practiced loving-kindness the more I see that my mind isn’t the enemy. In fact, it doesn’t know any better because its sole purpose is to keep me alert and alive. For this reason, when I see my mind I hold it with compassion and see the thought for what it is…. Just a thought! ,
It’s like they say when you fly on an airline: “in the case of an emergency, oxygen masks will be deployed. You must first put on your mask before you helping the people around you.”
For me, I suppose the practice of metta is the same thing. It’s my way of putting on my own oxygen mask so I can be better to the people I love in my life.
In order for me to be the best husband, co-worker, or friend, I must first put on my own mask.
Thank you as always for reading. Let us know if you can relate to my experience with loving-kindnesses or if you would like to share an experience you’ve had showing kindness to yourself.
What does that look like for you? What hurdles have you had to overcome in order to show yourself the love you deserve?
Until next time, many many blessings.