Meditate on

My silent meditation retreat

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in Features • Illustrated by Marguerita Cruz-Urbanc

Life is perfect . . . and so are you

There is a veil of distraction blanketing our day-to-day experience of the world and interactions with each other often framed by its two-dimensional, muted, black-and-white mediums. When the corner of this skirt is lifted, even for a moment, there illuminates from behind a sparkling array of cascading color and dimensionality so vast and gravitational, one cannot help tumbling into its network of supportive structure. In this regard, I have had an experience so profound, few words are available to describe it accurately but for this — I have been seduced by the power and depth of my conscious mind. An influence, not from any inborn intellectual ability, but from intimately paying close attention to the present moment.

Warm wooden floors, scattered pillows and chairs carefully arranged around a slightly raised tier. Over 70 of us, with eyes closed deliberately, listening attentively, and breathing noticeably, sit for minutes, becoming increasingly aware of the changing nature of our conscious thoughts. Within this temple of wood, windows, and sunlight subsists an inexplicable heaviness; a deep and gentle vortex carrying and supporting us inward. In this state of rare equanimity, I find myself simply observing and experiencing the instantiation and the effortlessly natural unfolding of existence itself.

Attending a five-day silent meditation retreat was not without some personal trepidation. In addition to keeping silent for the entire week, we were not allowed any electronic devices, reading material of any kind and were strongly discouraged to journal. We were to be “mindful” during every waking hour of the retreat.

A year prior to this venture, based on a podcast about mindfulness to which I had listened, I began the practice of meditation intermittently. Within a few months, I was practicing daily. This is when a growing transformation began within, and then one day . . . I woke up. What was no longer elusive was the insidious and heartbreaking end to my 21-year marriage. Allowing years of repressed emotions of fear, frustration, and sadness surface and be recognized, I believed, was important to the arduous process of healing, and this retreat seemed like the perfect complement to my developing practice. This pivotal focus, however, eventually faded under the bright lights of an undeniable and, often, inscrutable internal insight.

As I sat in the main meditation hall with all the other guests the first night, receiving instructions and a basic outline for the week, there was a perceivable aura of weight in the room. The air was not damp or musky. This was simply a heaviness felt deeper within me. It was as though I was being, ever so gently, drawn inward. I remember closing my eyes, finding it very easy just to be still and present. I thought this odd but believed it a phenomenon of being in a meditation hall for the first time until one of the teachers remarked that a three-month intensive silent retreat had just concluded that morning, and she could still feel the “heaviness” in the room. Chills traversed my skin. How could I or anyone possibly “feel” the essence of others especially since they were physically no longer here? As a skeptic and principled student of science, the utter perplexity of this process bewildered me for minutes. However, I simply could not deny its manifestation.

Much of the retreat continued this way for me — unfolding patterns of ephemeral intuitions accompanied with raw emotion. Conditions like joy, envy, anxiety, fear, or any other reactive emotion had no vocabularic meaning and were simply not applicable. Yet, this challenging act of sustained attention and stillness exposed one summit of deep expression within me: an intense level of compassion and empathy so powerful and transformative, all life was recognized as precious and interconnected.

Never before had I felt so supported by 70 strangers. But here we were, all sitting quietly within the confines of our searching intellects and bodies, allowing personal challenges to rise and be noticed. Still, we stretched ourselves out psychosomatically across deceptive social barriers, holding each other in some kind of transformative collective. This was not the kind of sentiment one extends toward a stranger in need or the kind of universality of giving one exhibit during the holidays. This was a perspicacity of strength I had never felt, and an internal journey of profound understanding and deep learning.

My ineffability to describe the experience accurately is analogous to that of struggling to describe the color blue to one who has been blind her entire life. The brilliance and attraction from, say, the radiant blue morpho butterfly would be impossible to describe with words alone. The color variations and shades of blue on each delicate wing, with its soft, blended tones, simply cannot be appreciated without the visual cortex. So, too, are the yawning depths of individual awe and humility of this refulgent realm not experienced without the aid of a concerted meditative process. The continual tsunami of mindless distraction present during our normal waking moments becomes accepted as routine. Without an awareness that only the experience of the present moment is real, and all other moments are either memory or some fabrication of a possible future, we can become held captive within a river of perpetuating self-deception and suffering.

For five days, I wandered and explored my conscious reflections in silence. Every meal, every trip to and from the meditation hall, cafeteria, and sleeping quarters was a deliberate exercise in contemplative awareness. See, feel the texture, and taste the complexity of each bite of food. Notice the muscles of the leg involved with each stepping movement, and sense each part of the foot making contact with the earth. Allow the sounds of birds, wind, and rain to appear without any conscious intention or directed effort. Feel the cool morning air whispering through the inner nostrils and the warm flow across the upper lip with each breath. For glimpses of time, my awareness became open without any anchored condition.

Suddenly, as though waking from a dream, I found myself no longer thinking, becoming acutely aware that everything is exactly as it should be — perfect and without any preconceived judgment of good or bad. And in this state of extraordinary profundity, I no longer felt self-regard, anxiety, or worry about . . . anything. I remember staring out at the thin branches of a nearby birch tree gently dancing in the breeze to some silent song and at once understanding the magnificent emptiness and pureness of life’s essence. This was not the reactive reflex from some inspired belief about a loving God etched out through tradition or ceremony, but a deeper, more simple, primitive intuition that merely jettisoned any preconceived notions of learned beliefs and indoctrinated cultural conditions. Never before had I felt more alive, present, and unencumbered. I felt a lightness in being, from which the weight from all things human simply disappeared. This state of clear awareness lasted perhaps 12 seconds, but in those few moments of discovery, I caught a glimpse of the infinite preciousness and splendor in life that only a poet might be able to describe.

In the last 36 hours of the retreat, we were offered instructions on “Metta” which is from the Pali Canon in Theravada Buddhism and is often described as a meditative practice focused on the development of unconditional love for all beings. It was in the context of this practice that emerged some of the most sensitive and compassionate feelings toward others I had ever experienced. Unexpectedly, we were no longer strangers sitting in an unfamiliar room together in awkward silence. We were a family sharing with each other an intimate extension of our deeper nature. The sentiment of complete acceptance of each other was so moving and powerful, I was painfully distracted by my continued attempt at concealing my reactive emotions from this ethereal wonder.

Driving away from the center on the last day of the retreat generated feelings of apprehension. We were advised to avoid boisterous crowds within the first 24 hours of our return to our respective homes, and I was concerned about my reemergence into a world with which I had just fallen in love. How would I be perceived as I reached out to strangers, coworkers, and friends with these newly found unconditional feelings of compassion? I passionately and enthusiastically wanted to stand on the nearest mountaintop and exclaim this discovery to everyone I could reach. However, I worried that the veneer of the daily ebb and flow would eventually telescope back down, obscure my attention, and interrupt this newly found insight.

I had not had a cup of coffee in five days and so after a few miles pulled into a small town close to the retreat center in search of a café. At the counter of the small coffee bar, I was greeted by a pleasant-appearing young man with dreadlocks partially concealed by a wool woven cap. As we were communicating my order, I could not help feeling utter adoration and concern for him. It was as though he was, and had always been, my friend. I remember feeling intense gratitude for his help from which came a desire to simply embrace him. As I walked away from the café, feelings of outward compassion seemed to emanate toward everyone I saw on the street and passing drivers. Climbing into the seat of my car to begin my long drive home, I was overcome with so much emotion, I could not fight back the tears that just began to stream down my face. For over 45 minutes, I wept with a clear understanding that we are all beautiful and worth so much compassion, tenderness, and love.

From this intimate experience surfaces a deeply personal wish: that every human being experiences the reverence and wonderment which comes from the vivacity of this hidden landscape, and to recognize that the true beauty on this planet is life itself and that every one of us is exquisitely unique and worthy of love.

In just one realized breath, there can be clear awareness of the present moment. In just one moment of clear insight, an individual’s entire conscious perspective might forever be changed. With our evolutionary filters of social suspicion removed, we can find each other and connect with genuine purpose and meaning that asserts we are not alone and that we desperately need each other. If we can just bypass our incessant mindful chatter long enough to peer around the wall of our self-regard, egocentricity, and cultural phobias, we will see the brilliant splendor of a world colored by the lucidity of the human spirit. •

Matthew Kurowski has worked as a physician’s assistant for twenty-two years and currently works for a large HMO in the dept of general surgery. He graduated from San Francisco State University with a BA in biology and a minor in music, and from George Washington University with a BS in Health Sciences. When not working at the hospital, he enjoys reading, writing, and composing music for the piano. He is an avid meditator who has spent time on silent retreats. He lives in Northern California with his oldest daughter while his youngest daughter is away at University

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