So as regular readers know, as part of the efforts to really transform my life these days into something radically different than it was before, I've been starting to add a bunch of things to my life in the last year and a half that we in American might call "New Agey" in nature -- yoga, for one example, and a daily "gratitude journal" (in which you examine each crappy thing that happened to you over the course of a day and see if you can instead frame it was a virtue you're actually glad happened -- so if your car broke down while out running errands, for example, you might say, "I'm grateful I'm healthy enough that I could walk to the gas station and get help," or "I'm grateful I have enough money to easily get the car fixed," or "I'm grateful I'm in a position to own a car in the first place").
One of the the most impactful New Agey things I've been doing in the last year, though, is starting to practice Buddhist-style breathing meditation, something I was required to dabble in last summer while I was attending DevBootcamp, but that I started getting more serious about at the beginning of this year, and that I've been practicing something like three to five times a week since last spring. I've actually had a bunch of experience with certain parts of meditation for a long time now, which has definitely helped the process; I've been interested in self-hypnosis ever since I was a teenager, so have already spent decades practicing the act of loosening and relaxing my body one set of muscle groups at a time from my head to my toes, even though admittedly the goal most of the time back then was to achieve a state of trance-like bliss so that I could fall asleep easier, because insomnia was a notorious problem for me when I was younger.
[Oh, and a semantics note -- I call what I do "Buddhist-style breathing meditation" to differentiate it from other styles of meditation out there -- there's a type of meditation where you concentrate on a particular word or "mantra," for example (where the famous "ohm" from New Age stereotypes comes from); a type of meditation you do in conjunction with movement (typically done during tai chi or yoga); the David-Lynch-famous transcendental meditation, where the goal is to reach a higher state of consciousness; and many others. But now that I've explained all that, I'm just going to be referring to my type of meditation simply as "meditation" for the remainder of this essay.]
Meditation kinda has to do with the practices of self-hypnosis, in that the goal is to reach a calm and still physical state; but instead of doing so to reach a hypnotic-like trance that slowly shuts down your consciousness, the goal of meditation is to actually maintain a hyper-awareness over everything going on around you. The term for it among Buddhists is to achieve a state of "mindfulness," which is exactly what it sounds like -- where the only thing you're thinking about are the actual physical and sensory things that are going on around you right that moment, things like the sensation of your breath going in and out of your body, the sound of a fan running in the corner of a room, the warmth of the sun shining against your skin through a window, etc. And by extension -- and this is the really important part -- it means shutting down the other ten thousand thoughts your brain has at any given moment; what you did that morning, what you're doing that night, that assignment due at work next week, that barista who pissed you off the other day, your opinion of Trump, your opinion of Clinton, thoughts about what you'll cook at your next dinner party, that one joke on last week's Simpsons that you thought was so funny, and all the other random thoughts that usually make up the unending inner dialogue going on in our brains every single waking moment of our entire lives.
And hey, guess what? Turns out it's incredibly difficult to turn off that inner dialogue, because that's what makes us human; among other things, it's that constant chatter that keeps us alert to our surroundings and able to react quickly to threats, just to name one good reason we have it. But to turn off this chatter for controlled periods is to also turn off your constant judgments of every situation you come across; it's to turn off constant worrying about what's coming ahead in your life; it's to turn off obsessive replays of the things in your life that's already happened. And that gets us into what the Buddhists call "detachment from suffering," which is perhaps not the best choice of words anymore for our 2016 American vernacular; for what the Buddhists call "suffering" is what you and I might instead call "the ups the downs of life;" not just the terrible things but also the simply annoying ones, the boring ones, even the ones that cause us too much joy. (Think about the rush of adrenaline you get after winning a hard-won game of basketball, or coming in first in your class on a test.)
What causes so much emotional unhappiness in our lives is that we most often equate the way we're feeling about ourselves at any given moment with whatever random good or bad thing that's happening to us on any given day; and as anyone who's lived into adulthood knows, it truly is a random series of ups and downs that we all go through, sometimes lasting longer and sometimes lasting shorter but always with the opposite coming just around the next bend. The purpose of meditation, the purpose of spending periods of your day simply being mindful of the sensations of that particular moment, is to teach yourself to separate your moment-to-moment emotions from whatever bad or good things have been happening to you recently. When all is said and done, you're just you, a human being who has their good points and bad points, who's capable of great kindness and great evil, and who sometimes has good days and sometimes has bad days. Whichever one of those is true on any given random Tuesday doesn't erase that other side of you; and that's been the great benefit of meditation to my life this year, that it acts like a powerful mood stabilizer without needing to take any mood-stabilizing drugs; and that's why I've been making a habit of practicing meditation this year sometimes every day, sometime every other day or so.
It was while doing online research on meditation, in fact, that I discovered the existence of something that's been growing in popularity in the US in the last several years; namely, one-person self-directed home-based weekend meditation retreats. We're all of course familiar with the idea of a meditation retreat, whether we practice meditation or not; a weekend out in the wilderness, typically, where you spend a couple of days literally living like a monk, having a chance to do hours upon hours of meditation instead of your usual 30 or 60 minutes a day, and meanwhile having the chance to shrug of the modern world altogether, leave your endless emails and phone calls behind, and spend a blessed few days doing nothing but being at one with nature and at one with yourself.
A home-based meditation retreat is kind of like this, although of course it's not in some exotic new environment like a beach or the middle of the woods; and so, I've discovered, a lot of people who do home-based retreats treat it as a sort of hybrid of monastic experience combined with a weekend at a spa, a chance to both be radically mindful while getting in touch with yourself over a 48-hour period and a chance to kind of pamper yourself a little, or at least try some things you've never done before, and to take your usual routines (like making dinner) and do something special (like make a gourmet dinner). It's not quite the severe experience of an externally-run meditation retreat by, say, a bunch of Buddhist monks, where you're sitting in a lotus position for three hours at a time and getting smacked with hickory sticks when your attention drifts off; but it's also not as self-indulgent as a "staycation" either, the point being to legitimately push yourself with your meditation practice to a radical point you usually don't achieve in your normal daily life, but to also enjoy yourself during your downtimes, not necessarily to eat plain rice and sleep on a bamboo mat, as a kind of makeup benefit for not getting to out of town and have your opportunity to commune with nature.
I thought this sounded like a swell idea, especially after a summer when I've legitimately been working very hard -- I'm now getting out a new job application every single day, spending at least an hour or two every day practicing coding or taking an online class, have been throwing dinner parties at least once a month (and typically more), and go out to an average of two or three live tech events every week, all while continuing to volunteer at CoderDojo, spend time with my friend Carrie and her sons, and practice a lot of "radical empathy" towards all the random people I've been meeting this year, which is not an easy thing for a judgmental asshole like me. And if I want to take a couple of days off from the world at large three or four times a year, to do nothing but luxuriate in the wonder which is Jason Pettus, then damnit, I have earned that luxury.
So, that's what I'm doing this weekend that I'm wrtiing this, having my first of what I plan to be four meditation retreats a year, one every three months at the end of every season; this particular one is happening Labor Day weekend, the unofficial end of summer, which I thought was a nice symbolic time to do it, with the next coming the weekend of December 17th, one week after I get back from visiting my brother and sister-in-law in New Orleans but one week before heading to my parents' place in St. Louis for Christmas. And in fact part of my schedule for this weekend's retreat is two hours altogether set aside to do nothing but write a journal entry about the retreat -- how meta, I know -- so here below is an hour-by-hour look at how the weekend went, what I decided to do with my time, why I decided to do those things, and what tips I might give to people who want to try one of these at-home meditation retreats themselves.
SATURDAY, 8 AM: SITTING MEDITATION. The core activity of this weekend, of course, is traditional Buddhist-style breathing-oriented sitting meditation sessions; I'm doing eight of them over the course of two days, a half-hour apiece for four hours total, coming right after I wake up, lunchtime, dinnertime, and one right before bed. I admit, the two hours a day of meditation I'm doing this weekend is about an hour and forty minutes more than the most meditation I've ever attempted in a single day before, and I'm not sure exactly how it's going to go.
This first meditation, right after I woke up, actually went pretty well; it's a time that I don't usually do meditation (my typical time for doing it is at dinner, as a way of unwinding from the day's stresses and to get me relaxed for the evening), and it was kind of interesting to do this kind of mental centering right when my mind was loose and blank to begin with. Like many others, I typically start my mornings with caffeine and the news, rapidly warming my brain up into the busy state it will be in for the rest of the day, so there was something nice about doing the opposite instead, and to try to stretch that sleepy, happy state after waking up for just a bit longer.
8:30 AM: YOGA. This is something I've been doing pretty regularly since DevBootcamp last year, which we were actually required to do twice a week as students. As a middle-ager, I find something very appealing about the gentle stretching and limbering that yoga entails*; and as someone who has lived with chronic low-level pain in my left hip for seven years now, because of a bad bicycle accident I was in back in 2009, I've discovered that the right kind of yoga poses (Google the subject for a lot more details) literally lessen that pain and result in me being more limber than at any other time since the original accident. Yoga is a great form of mindful meditation for those who are too antsy to sit quietly in a chair for a half-hour; since you're really required to concentrate on each of the poses you're creating, and forced to do slow counts to yourself as you hold them, it naturally brings about the kind of hyper-awareness of your surroundings and the drifting-off of your other distractions that comes with more traditional forms of meditation as well.
[*Now, that said, the kind of yoga I like is the very slow, very gentle, mostly contemplative kind, that's basically one step above stretching and where the goal is to never do anything that feels too physically strenuous. This being America, a lot of yoga practitioners here have turned the discipline into this high-energy, Pilates-like workout that actively makes you sweat; when I was doing yoga at DevBootcamp, for example, and we would have random instructors come in every Tuesday and Thursday, some of them would literally play fast-tempo hiphop and work us out so hard that I would feel sore and exhausted by the end. That's not the type of yoga I like; the kind I do by myself can barely be called "exercise," and should better be thought of as "quiet meditation but where you happen to move around while you're doing it."]
9 AM: BREAKFAST. The goal with everything I'm doing this weekend is two-fold: it must be something that allows me to be mindful and to really concentrate on the literal physical steps that go into that activity; and as much as possible, I want it to be something I don't usually do, a weekend full of new experiences that truly justifies taking the time and money to make happen. So I've decided with my breakfasts this weekend to make really fancy, labor-intensive ones, the really indulgent kind that you can only have a few times a year unless you want diabetes, and that require a lot of steps that force you to really pay attention. Today -- Eggs Florentine with homemade Hollandaise sauce. Oh, so good.
9:30 AM: WORKING MEDITATION. One of the first things you discover when planning an at-home meditation retreat is that there's more hours in the day than there is amount of meditation you can do without going crazy, an excess of time that's typically filled at third-party meditation retreats with things like long walks in the woods, group activities, etc. I've decided instead to fill some of this time by doing a kind of "work" much like Medieval monks did, where they would spend all day hand-copying books which requires a person to be very mindful.
Thankfully there's already an activity in my life that's very similar to that -- I've been handmaking books since 2011, which originally was the way that all of CCLaP's books were made, until we finally switched over to paperbacks in 2014. Even though we stopped active production at that point, I'm constantly behind on old handmade books that I owe to people like their authors, plus I'm still to this day making handmade blank notebooks to sell at Etsy; so I thought this would be a good thing to enfold into my meditation retreats all year, four hours per weekend of bookbinding. The only big difference this time is that I didn't watch a movie at Netflix like I usually do; I instead tried to be very mindful and "in the moment," concentrating just on the actual physical steps of the bookbinding process as I made my way through them. An interesting experience, but it makes you understand why only monks used to do things like copy books out by hand; it's a tedious process that will quickly drive you crazy if you don't exercise some mindful discipline to it.
11:30 AM: WRITING. The first of my four writing sessions of the weekend. Technically the one thing of the retreat that's farthest away from "being mindful of your surroundings in the moment;" but, eh, sue me.
12 NOON: SITTING MEDITATION. I'm surprised by how easily an extended period of meditation is so far coming this weekend, which I thought instead was going to be a slog to get through. 30 minutes at a time is not actually as bad as I was expecting; and by spacing them out a few hours apiece, they feel like separate experiences instead of one long piece of drudgery.
12:30 PM: SNACK AND PREP FOR DINNER. Spoiler alert -- for dinner tonight I'm going to try to make my own sushi, the first time in my life I've ever attempted such a thing; and it turns out that merely preparing the rice is this long, convoluted process that involves all these labor-intensive steps. I thought I'd go ahead and do this a few hours in advance, especially considering the surprise about dinner that I'll be divulging in a bit.
1 PM: MOVEMENT MEDITATION. Since I can't do a walk through the woods or a stroll on the beach during my particular retreat, I decided to devote my movement meditations to typical urban activities -- biking on Saturday, pedestrian sightseeing on Sunday -- with the catch being the same as before, to do something each time that I've so far never done in the city. In today's case, that meant biking up near Chicago's northern city limits and finally traveling down the "Little India" neighborhood on Devon Avenue for the first time in my life, something I've literally wanted to do for decades now.
Unfortunately the trip wasn't as interesting as I thought it was going to be; unlike other ethnic neighborhoods like Chinatown or Little Vietnam, not even the single tiniest bit of tourism has invaded the shopping district along Devon, and so it's nothing but grimy, ugly little stores selling the actual things that poor immigrant families might need for their daily existence (cellphones tricked out for international calling, cheap baby clothes, Sharia-approved butcher shops, etc). Certainly, though, it was interesting to see how much the neighborhood reminded me of my time in Europe; and that's because I travel around Europe by train when I go, as the good little Romantic American I am, and the rundown areas surrounding European train stations tend to be where all the immigrants from Africa and the Middle East live, their shopping districts looking nearly exactly like this one along Devon. (Also interesting -- what's been traditionally called "Little India" over the years turns out should better be called "The Little Subcontinent," and as a white dude from Missouri it was interesting to see so many traditional Muslims from places like Pakistan and Afghanistan walking around in their fully robed clothing.)
Then after that, a jaunt around the corner to Indian Boundary Park, my favorite public neighborhood park in the whole city. Named after the literal territorial boundary that the city of Chicago "negotiated" (i.e. forced on) local Native Americans in the early 1800s, after the messy Fort Dearborn Massacre and resulting bloodbath retribution, this has actually been a citizen-maintained neighborhood park for much longer than Chicago has even had a city park district. It includes such strange random things as its own nature preserve where you can spy turtles and beavers living untamed; the largest children's jungle gym I've ever seen in my life; the doorway decoration stone that used to hang over the Washington Street entrance to the massive old City Hall (and how it ended up in Indian Boundary Park, I'll never know); and unbelievably, up to just a few years ago its own public zoo, the only other one in Chicago besides Lincoln Park Zoo, which was this weird and sad place full of torturous-looking steel cages holding a variety of very unhappy-looking goats, chickens, and other petting-zoo-type creatures. (As you can see in these photos, the collective guilt over this sad outdated place must've finally spurred the park into action recently; the cages and animals have been removed since the last time I visited, and it's now an "unstructured children's nature play area," nicely done but a place not a single kid wanted to visit while I was there.)
Then for the ride home, a trip down Ridge Avenue, something else I've been wanting to do for years. Containing the one and only hill in the entire city of Chicago, this raised area came about literally from it being the edge of where a glacier retreated back at the end of the last ice age; and the "ridge" it formed became the de facto walkway for Native Americans when they first settled here thousands of years ago, which then became the official trail for European fur traders and military personnel starting in the late 1700s.
For a long time, this trail was the only road leading north from downtown Chicago up into Wisconsin (to Green Bay, to be precise -- it and Chicago were the towns where the US's first two military forts of the Great Lakes area were located); and there's something special about bicycling on it to this day, knowing that it's the exact same route that people have been using for literally thousands of years. And then to cap off my adventure, a cafe mocha at a coffeehouse I had never been to before, The Coffee Studio in the Edgewater neighborhood, before finally heading home again.
4 PM: SITTING MEDITATION AND YOGA. I have to admit, this third meditation session of the day didn't go nearly as well as the first two, mainly because I was occupied by my coming dinner for reasons that will become clear in a moment, and I found it difficult to stop thinking about what still needed to be done before dinner would be ready. The same happened with my second yoga session of the day at 4:30, and I ended up turning in a truncated session that was more like extended stretching than yoga in full.
5 PM: DINNER. And now for the big surprise I mentioned -- my friend Carrie and her twin sons came over for dinner too! This of course would normally be a big no-no during a typical meditation retreat; but we hadn't gotten to see each other in a long time, and they were heading out of town the next weekend, plus sushi-making is by definition just a lot more fun when it's a whole group of people doing it together. So that's what we did, and we absolutely had a lot of fun, although it blew right through the rest of the activities I had planned for that evening; Carrie brought over wine, and we all hung around until nearly 9 pm, so not only did I miss the reading meditation I was going to do at 7 pm, but then I was too tipsy to do my 9 pm sitting meditation and last writing session of the night at 9:30. So, a lesson learned -- that people do meditation retreats in isolation for a good reason, because it's way too easy to get distracted off your schedule otherwise.
10 PM: BATH AND BED. Like everything else with this retreat, I wanted to do something for my evening bath that I don't usually do, and the original plan was to buy some of those fancy bath bombs that are so expensive and middle-class-indulgent; but I couldn't find a single store in the neighborhoods around where I live that sold them, so I said "fuck it" and instead bought a bottle of Grand Marnier for my bathtime indulgence. This is something I've been intensely curious about ever since starting to make my own liqueurs earlier this year; one of the types I make is orange liqueur, and I've been really interested in knowing how mine stacks up against Grand Marnier, the most famous (and one of the most expensive) types of orange liqueur out there. And the answer? Well, the Grand Marnier is definitely tastier than mine, but that's mostly because they use cognac and I use sweetened vodka; but I'm pretty sure that if I started brewing mine half-and-half with vodka and brandy, as well as tweaking the ingredients slightly (less vanilla, more cloves, I think), I could make orange liqueur that tastes exactly like Grand Marnier, which is $35 a bottle versus the two or three bucks my homemade version costs. A new winter goal!
And then Sunday went pretty much exactly like Saturday, except that for breakfast I had banana french toast instead of Eggs Florentine; for my movement meditation I did a walking architectural tour of my neighborhood, starting in the Hutchinson Street historic district and ending in the Hawthorne Place one; instead of ending my movement meditation at a cafe on Sunday, I actually attended a massage therapy session, down at a student clinic in River North that costs half as much as a full-time independent masseuse (one of the best deals you'll ever find on middle-class luxuries); and then for dinner on Sunday, instead of making sushi from scratch I made pizza from scratch for the very first time in my life, which was once again a highly labor-intensive process (it was the first time I had ever made dough from scratch in any form, which was exactly the messy and long process that I suspected it was going to be), but one that came out surprisingly great and that I'll definitely be doing again in the near future.
There's more I could tell you about it all; but ugh, this report has gone on so fucking long already, so I think I'll just finally end it here with at least all the generalities covered. I hope this is of some help to all of you who came across it in the future while googling "home meditation retreats;" and I strongly strongly suggest trying one of these yourself sometime soon, in that mine was certainly an invigorating, soul-awakening experience, a recharging of my batteries that left me excited about getting back into my daily routines again this fall. Thanks for sticking in there with this ridiculously long entry, and I'll talk with you again very soon.
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