I Sat in Silence for a Week - Here's What I Found (Pt. 1)
Pt. 1 of My Journey with Buddhism, Depression, Meditation, and Healing
Happy fourth week of 2022! The discerning of you may have noticed that, yes, it only took me one week to break my new year’s intention of sending this newsletter weekly. Ahem, from… let’s see… 🧐 January 4th’s newsletter 🧐
But, but, I have a good excuse!
A couple weeks ago, I participated my first week-long silent meditation (Vipassana) retreat. That’s right, seven days of no speaking and no cell phones, only meditating from 5:45a - 9:30p. Sounds like heaven, right? 😌 If we’re being honest, sounds like hell, too.
Helpful context for the backdrop against which we are speaking:
“Since ancient times all wise cultures have known the value of retreat. Time in retreat allows us to step out of the complexity of our life, to listen deeply to our body, heart, and mind. For 2,600 years, meditation retreats have been a central part of the Buddhist path of awakening. Meditation retreats offer practical instruction and group support for discovering inner understanding and freedom. Spirit Rock retreats combine the fertile atmosphere of silence with extensive time for meditation and walks in nature, supported by systematic Buddhist teachings. Careful guidance and training is offered in meditation. Most retreats are suitable for both new and more experienced students of meditation.”
Well that’s certainly something… so let’s start from the beginning. As a note, this is Part 1 of this piece; Part 2 will be e-mailed out on Saturday 1/29.
My Journey to Meditation
I’ve been interested in attending a Vipassana retreat for a few years now. I first encountered meditation and Buddhism in high school through my World Religions and Prayer and Meditation classes. I was in Catholic school, but I was also in a wealthy suburb in the San Francisco Bay Area, so our curriculum, as you can see, was quite progressive. I was raised in a devoutly Catholic Filipino family and always struggled with Catholic teaching, often finding myself thinking - “Eternal DAMNATION? Just for missing church on a Sunday?! That can’t be right, right?” Even as a child, blind belief was never present; from the beginning, resistance seemed to take the place of reverence.
In contrast, I immediately felt a deep resonance with Buddhism. I remember being in class at 15 and knowing the answers to some of the questions, despite never having been taught the teachings before. Call it what you will — I’ve been told it was a past life hunch or that I am an old soul, but I think the easiest to swallow explanation was that, even in adolescence, I was already anxious and internally wild, already seeking a way to placate my swirling mind, desperately terrorized by “the point” of it all and already just trying to find peace (spoiler alert: still at it) — all of which was explicitly or implicitly addressed in Buddhist teachings.
What resonated with me about Buddhism was its teachings on suffering (that it is a reality of life) and attachment (that it is one, if not the only, cause of suffering). With acknowledgement that I am about to drastically oversimplify a major world religion, the gist of it goes: your attachment to things being a certain way, whether it is your desire for a person to behave a certain way, or an outcome to be a certain way, or even your hair looking a certain way in the morning, is the cause of your suffering, because it implies that if it is not that way, you will be disappointed (i.e. suffer).
Said differently, in having preferences, you have created a situation in which your happiness is predicated by the outcomes of your life being the way you want: you winning the award, getting the promotion, your hair growing longer, that person being your partner. In extreme, this implies that in order to be ‘fully’ happy, you need to be able to control every part of your life: everything must go your way. But, we are humans with free will (debatable 😉 but for the sake of discussion, we’ll take it), interacting with other humans with free will, so total control is impossible. And thus, we suffer - unless we are able to let go of our preferences.
Tall (…Grande, Venti) fucking order, right?
Of course. That is the simultaneous blessing and curse of human existence: to be attached, to be overjoyed, to be delighted by this wonderful thing we call life while simultaneously being destroyed, disillusioned, and distraught by it.
The path to ‘letting go’ is through, amongst other things, meditation. All the world’s religions have some sort of meditative practice. They might call it prayer or chanting, but the aim is the same: to achieve clarity via the quieting of the over-active mind in order that one might reach a resting state of deep peace. Religion and meditation aside, we’ve all experienced this in some way. You might call it flow state, the clarity you get from nature, or even the overwhelming calm you have when a few days into vacation, you finally feel yourself forgetting the to dos of the workplace. There is a letting go of what seems to be in front of you and instead, just an observation of what is. For most of us this feeling is as heavenly as it is fleeting. 😕 Despite the goodness of that primary experience, for most (all) of us, the active thought of letting go of all attachment immediately raises resistance. What about my work, and my relationships, and even my health - my desire to be, literally living, in this life?
And that my friends, is the proverbial rub. It is all but unrealistic to let go of our attachments and so, as the Buddhist teachings go, we spend literal lifetimes on that quest, eventually to be greeted by its end: actual nirvana. Our quest for enlightenment, then, is our quest for peace.
This is exactly where Buddhism loses most people: ‘is that quest not impossible? Is the ask not too much? Is it not against the very essence of our nature?’ And that is exactly where it hooked me: ‘You mean to tell me, my nature - our nature - this anxiety-inducing existential tornado that I, at 15, already find myself swirling uncontrollably around in, is controllable, if not changeable? You mean there is a way out?’
Bingo. I wish I could tell you that at that point I dedicated myself to the Noble Eightfold Path and carried my petite body upon it, only to find you here at 32 with the most recent half of my life spent stress-free. But what kind of heroine’s journey would that be, right?
(TW: depression, suicidal thoughts)
Instead, I promptly filed Buddhism away as an interest for a later time. Fast-forward to my twenties and I found myself diagnosed with clinical depression (mixed with my familiar cocktail existential dread and anxiety, who can relate?!) and deep into my talk therapy journey. The tornado I had described above had only picked up speed and now had the dark winds of depression dominating it — taking me mentally to a place I feared I would never come back from. Eventually, I will write extensively about my therapy journey but for the purposes of this topic I will focus on mindfulness as it relates to my experience with depression, which is ultimately at the core of my ‘healing.’
The essence of meditation is to watch our thoughts, i.e. to practice mindfulness. For many, the ‘a-ha’ moment comes when they realize they are both thinking thoughts and then also, observing themselves thinking those thoughts. Who is the thinker observing the thinker (observing the doer)? How many conscious beings live inside my brain? Realizing there is someone sitting behind thoughts and that there is, as they say, ‘the space between thoughts,’ is the first step in starting to meditate. A favorite definition comes from meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn, who writes, “Mindfulness is paying attention to the present moment in a non-judgmental way.” In other words, you (1) must be able to observe thoughts and (2) observe them non-judgmentally, i.e. without attachment or opinion to what they are. For me, that highly-developed (1) skill and immature (2) skill were gale-force winds that contributed to the tornado of my depression.
Stepping back for a moment, I cannot really remember a time when I wasn’t aware of both my thoughts and my own live observations about my thoughts. In my head I knew there was External Alex who was moving physically about the world and Internal Alex who was commenting on what was happening. Then a third Alex, ‘the Alex Behind the Alexs,’ who was observing the two non-judgmentally. Kabat-Zinn’s ‘non-judgment’ was not so much a state to achieve, but a state or version of myself that already existed, if I could quiet the other two enough to let her speak and lead.
The former two Alexs were in constant conversation, each one influencing the other and which one ruling depending on the day, as the third watched neutrally, often falling into the background quietly as she was drowned out by the chatter of the External and Internal. For the most part the Internal and External felt like independent and contrasting beings, a yin and a yang (mostly) peacefully trading off the power of who defined what happened and what our experience of that happening was. In balance, the two were in lock step, effectively merging into the third to create a single aligned Alex who lived in a state of flow. In practice, that coherence was almost never the case. For you psychology nerds, the closest concept I’ve found to this is Jung’s views on the human psyche: External Alex aligns roughly to the concept of the Persona, Internal Alex to the Shadow, and the third to the Self (…roughly).
A simplified version of my complex experience of depression was that Internal Alex completely lost control. Her commentary that was, in its light, mostly non-judgmental and objective turned dark. Depression was a lens through which everything I saw in the world changed. The most nondescript of occurrences from how a barista looked at me to a friend’s text (or lack thereof) took on dark and negative meaning, reinforcing Internal Alex’s ever-growing fears and paranoia.
Depression takes no prisoners and has no sympathy to what your external life looks like. To paint the picture, External Alex was 24, living in NYC, with a loving family, access to healthcare, a great group of friends and well-paying job. By most measures, my life looked perfect. And you know what? None of that fucking mattered because I ceased to be able to see it.
Depression had taken control and Internal Alex lost all objectivity; despite things being good on paper, everything External Alex saw served to confirm that fact that we were not safe, that everything was falling apart, and that perhaps we should no longer be here. Internal Alex saw how things were good on paper, and proceeded to pile on the self-flagellation: “I am ungrateful, unworthy, and entitled for feeling this way in the context of my current life.” As if only certain people were entitled to the torture that is depression. As if depression is a privilege for the chosen few.
Internal Alex created a tornado of fear and pain, piled on fear about tornado itself, plus a healthy dose of judgement of both of those fears. It was a mess; it was a massacre. The third Alex, ‘the Alex Behind the Alex’s’ watched in terror, with a hyperawareness of Internal Alex’s thoughts but no control over how she was observing them. The (2) part of Kabat-Zinn’s definition on non-judgment was, definitively, not true. I had the experience of feeling like I was losing my mind combined with the extra terrifying experience of watching myself lose my mind. It was like viewing a TV show where the main character was speeding into a head-on collision — but the main character was me.
I know what you’re thinking. My mindfulness totally fucked me.
Non-judgment, Mindfulness, and Healing
As you can imagine, my journey to healing has primarily been a journey towards the destination of non-judgment and alignment: the quest to quiet Internal Alex, align her with External Alex (who believe me, has had her own problems), and in that harmony allow the truly non-judgmental Alex Behind to take the lead so that we ~~may all live in peace and flow~~ My work in the therapy room was focused on externalizing what Internal Alex was feeling. Via talking with a trained professional, I was able to voice the things that made me feel unsafe in a safe place. The experience of voicing them, first to my therapist, then to my trusted friends, and years lately more publicly (like this) gave them less power over me and slowly but surely, Internal Alex gained back her control.
I’ve often described depression as a dark smoke that clouds the room of your mind. Left unchecked, the smoke begins to obscure all you can see. And when you sit in that darkness for long enough, you begin to forget that light exists at all... The experience of talking about it is akin to opening a window. Sharing via therapy and eventually finding my external voice around it was how I began to heal.
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All of that came to a head in 2013 and nine years later, I am still on that same path. While I still experience mild depression (as recently as this past fall), it has been nearly three years since I had a serious episode. My healing takes active effort everyday; it is often hard, confronting, and scary (not to mention expensive), but it is always, always worth it. Along with talk therapy, and in recent years guided plant medicine ceremonies, meditation and mindfulness have been two of my most dependable tools for healing. Their power is generally subtle and always consistent, but also occasionally explosive, as it was on my recent retreat.
How I came to be on a 1-week Meditation Retreat
My quality of life in the past couple years has been, for the most part, as high as it has ever been. Despite making the least amount financially I’ve ever made due to my career change to art, living through a global pandemic, and the accompanying and overarching uncertainty that both bring, I generally find myself feeling tethered, aligned, and able to handle whatever waves the ocean of life brings. The last piece is what I’ve found really predates peace and highly aligned with the Buddhist way of thinking. Peace is not determined by nothing bad happening to you, because again, so much of life is not in our control. It is instead being unphased by life’s inevitable waves. Like a boat on the ocean, the ability to sail both the high highs and low lows with less and less attachment to either state. Like a literal boat, accepting whatever weather is thrust upon us, being comfortable with what simply is versus what ‘should’ be.
That all being said, I felt my peace began to wither over the past few months and take my quality of life with it. In the back half of 2021, I found myself thrust into some difficult interpersonal relationships, in-person and online. I experienced bullying and harassment and struggled to make sense of why individuals I didn’t really know seemed out to get me. The experiences I had made me feel truly unsafe (don’t worry, I was - at least physically) and then, truly angry. I watched with horror as that anger morphed into a very ugly version of an emotion I hadn’t felt in a long-time: hatred.
Hatred in my Heart
Truthfully I find myself extremely self-conscious about owning my own feeling of hatred, because I’ve seen so little these days in explicit discussion of it. But I share because implicitly, it feels like one of the overarching emotions of our time. One look at the news and the current political divide in America, not to mention racial tension, and nothing else needs to be said. That being said… more on this later. 🙃
During the retreat, one of teachers said, “holding a grudge is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” What a damn truth bomb that is. As my hatred for these individuals emerged, I found myself getting lost in a new tornado. Internal Alex was increasingly swept into a hatred spiral at the mere thought of the situation. I found myself occasionally bursting into tears and throwing accusations at loved ones and second-guessing myself and my moves, both career and location-wise. My hatred began to poison me, coloring my experience of my new life. I spoke about it in therapy, alluded to it on social media, attempted to paint it into submission and pulled on every tool, from daily yoga to mindfulness, that I had. My self-awareness around the situation was strong as was, relatively speaking, my ability to observe and manage it. While the feeling never completely overtook my life the way depression had, the frequency and intensity was enough to deeply concern me and make me seek a new tactic.
I had looked into doing silent meditation retreats in the past, but the timing never worked out. I started to poke around and found that Spirit Rock was having a Metta, or loving kindness, retreat at the beginning of January 2022. I had heard amazing things about Spirit Rock, the timing felt right and I was intrigued by Metta, a topic my favorite meditation teacher Tara Brach often lectured on, so I put my name in for a lottery spot.
May All Beings Be At Ease (…yeah, right)
In order to spare your eyes, Part 2 of this piece will be released separately, on Saturday 1/29. If you’re a subscriber it will be in your inbox. If you’re not, thanks for getting all the way down here :) You can subscribe by « hitting the big orange button below!!! »
Thanks for being here. I truly appreciate you. ❤️
Quick Links ✨
If you’re already intrigued by meditation retreats, one of my teachers is hosting a one-day virtual Metta (loving kindness) retreat this Saturday 1/29. It is great way to start in the comfort of your own home! Register here.
If that’s still too much, Tara Brach has a recent, fantastic 50m lecture on many of the topics above called, “Compass of Our Heart.” Listen here.
What? Like you actually thought I’d get through a newsletter without talking about NFTs? 😉 I’m running a giveaway on Twitter and would love to gift a Desert Mini to 5 new womxn! Drop a line to nominate yourself or a friend today (Thu 1/27). If you’re new to NFTs and you’re chosen, I’ll help you set-up your wallet, walk you through and the process and everything.
And with that, see you for the rest of the ~truly thrilling~ story of my meditation journey on Saturday!
May you, and all beings, be at ease until then :)