I Sat in Silence for a Week - Here's What I Found (Pt. 2)
Pain, Love, and Being a Better Person (ugh)
This is Part 2 of ‘I Sat in Silence for a Week - Here is What I Found.’ Before continuing, read Part 1 here.
May All Beings Be At Ease (…yeah, right)
In the last episode of amac screaming into the endless void of the internet… we left off with my acknowledgement of the *shudder* hatred I had begun to feel due to the harassment I was facing in the 2nd half of last year. While I have a pretty deep awareness of my emotions now, I’ll start by sharing that that was not always the case. In my first go at therapy (2013), much of what my therapist explicitly or implicitly helped me to do was make the mind(emotion)-body connection - how did my depression feel in the body? How did my body feel in general? When I was first depressed, I had a constant sharp pain in my side abdomen and a whole host of digestive issues, aches, and pains. In later seasons I’d have very specific migraines or even asthma flair ups. Our psychological state has a very real impact on our physical state and often times, our body will let us know what’s wrong before our mind allows itself to acknowledge it. As they say, the body keeps the score.
In addition to starting to listen to my body, throughout my twenties I learned to correlate certain behaviors with certain mental states — certain occurrences (e.g., crying at the slightest thing or snapping at a friend) tended to be signals for an underlying problem that I might not yet be consciously aware of. I’m sure this will resonate with many of you, but as someone who is a life-long overachiever I didn’t always know (or allow myself to recognize) that I was stressed, let alone depressed, until either state got to the extreme. In many ways this is the super power of any achiever who punches above their weight: we always, always, push through. And don’t get me wrong, certain types of stress are positive (really! even psychologically/medically speaking - look up eustress) but being a sustained state of stress is akin to your body constantly being in fight or flight mode - always on edge, always hyperaware, pumped full of adrenaline and never able to relax into rest and digest. What in doses is evolutionarily good is in a constant drip, seriously medically and physically bad for you.
I digress, but I share that context to let you know I was both seeing the signs of how hate was affecting me (snapping at loved ones, questioning every life decision) but also that I could feel the hatred in my body. My whole upper torso felt tight constantly. I quite literally felt a constriction in and around my heart. It was similar to the feeling you have when you brace yourself - it felt tight, concentrated on my upper left-hand side. Additionally, after a year or so of breathing very well, my asthma came back with a vengeance during this time. I literally found it hard to breathe and was taking my inhaler multiple times a day. Let us revisit my teacher’s quote, shall we?
“Holding a grudge is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”
Ahem. My negative emotions were overwhelming me and my quality of life and health were decreasing as a result, but I felt a lack of control around being able to stop, forget, change or dare I say even, transmute them.
And so I found myself arriving at a 1-week silent Metta retreat on January 10th.
The Logistics of The Retreat
The retreat was seven nights, Monday to Monday, with the daily schedule above. Spirit Rock is a beautiful meditation center situated in a valley in Marin County with hiking trails and nature all around it. The retreat was residential and completely silent. All 80 or so participants remained silent except for two, 10m 1:1 meetings with teachers on Day 3 and Day 5 of the retreat. We were also not supposed to make eye contact with one another unnecessarily, so there was no winking across the table or anything like that. ;) You were very much in your own space, despite sharing physical space with a large amount of people.
For the most part, the meditations were done all together in a giant hall and were all done without guidance. No teachers telling us how to breathe or what to envision, just us literally sitting for 45m in silence, guiding ourselves through the below metta practice. A couple times a day there were lectures by the teachers on Buddhist concepts with some short Q&A. As you can see from the above, the day for the most part was broken up into 45m chunks, so you were never really meditating for more than 45m at a time. Still, if you’ve tried to meditate, 45m is a long time!! On top of that, you were not allowed to read or have music or be on your phone. During breaks, more meditation. Total technological cleanse.
I’ve been asked if it felt intimidating to sit in silence for a week. Truthfully, I couldn’t wait. Being completely offline for a week with no one contacting me sounded amazing. Despite being very online, I would generally say my resting state is closer to, “everyone needs to STFU” than, “please engage with me.” Then again, maybe that’s because I’m very online… The thing I was most intimidated by was the physical sitting, which is surprisingly taxing on your back, hips, and legs. Luckily, they had ample back rests and pillows so that didn’t end up being an issue. For the most part, I eagerly welcomed the opportunity for a hard reset and the boundary a week-long, no phone retreat afforded me.
Metta, or Loving Kindness
[Insert necessary disclaimer and apologies for my over-simplification of Buddhist concepts here]. The theme of the retreat was metta; the entire teaching plan and meditations were focused around exploring and cultivating this feeling of loving kindness.
Metta is one of the four brahmiviharas, roughly translated as ‘divine abodes’ or (in my understanding) the highest virtues of Buddhism: compassion, empathetic joy, equanimity, and loving kindness. Through the cultivation of these four things, it is said that one may achieve a god-like mind, a still mind, i.e. peace. Ok - sign me up!!
Metta (yes sports fans, like Metta World Peace) is the practice of loving kindness or the feeling of sending positive intentions to all beings, without exception. When you think of your pet or your partner or your favorite family member and the feeling of, “I love you so much” comes up, or when you meet a little baby and think, “life has so much to offer you,” that is similar to metta. It is not love as obsession, or love as control, but love as is a pure feeling kindness and goodwill. It is the feeling of truly wishing someone the best, no caveats, no holds barred. As opposed to my feeling of hatred, which literally contracted my chest, the feeling of metta feels expansive. Even just writing this makes me sit up taller, like something is rising in my chest and expanding outwards. I feel myself smiling. Metta is an amazing feeling that enhances the lives of both the receiver and the giver. Because of this, metta is sometimes also described as, ‘the radiant heart.’
Metta sayings or mantras are those familiar ones which many of us have come to somewhat skeptically observe via inspirational quotes on Instagram: “May all beings be safe. May all beings be free from suffering. May all beings be at ease. May all beings find peace.” Those may induce an eye roll but I am sure you can picture someone (probably your pet ❤️) that you truly wish the best for. Now imagine a crazy world where you might be able to feel that for everyone. I was skeptical but I was also increasingly desperate. I heard that notion and thought, “that sounds like freedom.”
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The idea was that for one week, with fifteen-hour days, one would meditate on the feeling of metta and work on cultivating it (i.e. wishing it upon) those closest to them, then people emotionally farther away, until they reach the ability to wish it for everyone, without exception. Tall order I know and thankfully we were told very quickly that we shouldn’t expect to get to the ‘all beings’ part in just a week. But still, as a recovering Type A, I love a challenge. 😈
A traditional metta meditation goes as follows:
Begin by finding the mantras, like above, that most resonate with you. These are the phrases you will repeat in your head for the meditation. The intention of each phrase should be fully good-willed, i.e. not charged with expectation of others. After a day or so, I found the ones that stuck with me were: “May all beings be happy. May all beings be at ease. May all beings be safe. May all beings find peace.”
Next, send metta to whichever being feels closest or most easy to. This means to think of the being, picture them if you like, and literally wish these good things for them. Very interestingly, traditionally the first being you focused on was yourself. You would say mantras like, ‘May I be happy, May I be at ease…’ but in modern times, with the rampant self-hatred and self-judgment (ahem, guilty) many practitioners find this to be the most difficult. Regardless of where you stand, begin with whoever is easiest. Many find this being to be their pet, one of my teachers said he always starts with baby goats. Animals, especially the ones that love us, can be our purest and most uncomplicated experiences of love. I spent an immense amount of time sending metta to my dog, Minion, who I imagined licking my face as I wished her well. 🥺
You then move from self to benefactor. Traditionally, benefactor is your guru, or teacher, or something for whom you feel reverence for and guidance from. Obviously every relationship is multi-faceted, but pick the person you feel almost purely positive towards - a being that feels uncomplicated. If you started with yourself, this again, could be your pet! You can imagine the being sitting in front of you or in a happy place as you wish them well: “May you be happy, may you be at ease…” or even use their name if that feels more natural. As you practice, you can switch between your first and this second one in the same sitting session.
Next, you do the same for a close friend or family member. Someone slightly more complicated, but still overwhelming positive. “May my sister be happy, may my sister be at ease…”
Then, a neutral person - some call this the ‘friendly stranger.’ Someone with which you have a loose, but uncomplicated connection to. Perhaps the barista at your local coffee place or your mailman.
At every point, you should practice until the metta starts to flow. This feels like the warmth I described above. If you’ve ever had authentic happiness for a friend’s success or growth, it’s just like that. When it starts to feel easy and the love you have for each individual begins to grow, then it is time to move onto the next one. The idea is that you are ‘growing’ your metta, growing your ability to feel loving kindness towards ever-expanding circles of beings.
Then, the hot topic - a difficult being. The guidance I received was not necessarily your enemy (especially if you’re just starting), but someone who sits maybe a 5 or 6 out of 10 on the difficulty scale. Perhaps someone you have a grudge with or a lost friend. Even that sounds hard at first, but once you get going, it gets easier.
Eventually, you progress to all beings. Thinking of individuals you know and don’t know, animals and plants, and so on. Cultivating a love for all beings, without exception.
My Week with Metta
I found myself able to begin with myself and then used both Minion and my partner as the next two beings. With myself, it felt easiest to begin by imagining myself as a child. With each phrase, I imagined my own hand on a part of my body, “may I be happy” was accompanied by a hand on my right shoulder, “may I be at ease” was accompanied by a hand on my left, “may I be safe” a hand on my heart, “may I find peace” a pat on the head. It was very sweet, honestly, and you can imagine this started to flow quite easily… but hatred, of course, continued to insert its ugly head.
Very quickly, within the first session or two, I had intrusive thoughts about my situation and the people I resented for it. Every time I said a positive mantra, I found myself saying, “but I will never be able to wish them happiness.” That angry thought was quickly followed by a stream of other thoughts about what happened, feelings of deep resentment, and even sometimes silent tears. I struggled through the first few days attempting to focus, often calling in the image of my dog licking my face which gave me temporary respite, but still finding myself returning back to hatred when I was supposed to be cultivating love. Ugh. There was a voice in my head that was constantly demanding revenge, questioning why I was attempting transmutation when they didn’t deserve it. Why did I have to be the better person, again? The voice was very loud and you know what? She wasn’t wrong. It was as frustrating as it was alluring. As I attempted to sit silent and achieve balance, I felt caught in the battle between the angel and devil versions inside of me.
On the afternoon of Day 3 I couldn’t take it anymore. The negative voice had fallen into fantasizing about ways to get revenge on these people, the tornado of hatred was strong and surprisingly at this point, focused. I terrifyingly was thinking about how to ruin someone’s career. I might regret putting that in writing one day but hey, I know you’ve probably thought of it too. So finally, in the middle of meditation, I turned towards that voice. I turned towards Hateful Alex and said, “OK fine. what’s the plan?” I thought, well she clearly has something to say so let’s hear it. She was startled that she had finally lured me out of my metta but happy to finally have the exchange. She said, proudly,
“We’re going to make them pay.”
“We’re going to publicly humiliate them.”
(thinking: wow this metta thing is going really well for me huh) “And then?”
“And ruin their careers!!!”
(internal monologue: you crazy ass bitch!!) “…And then what will happen?”
“And then they will be sorry, and they will repent. They will publicly apologize to us and say what they did wrong. And then they will change.”
“And then they won’t hurt us anymore.”
And then they won’t hurt us anymore… hearing that, I began to cry. As this conversation carried out in my head, I saw the tornado winds calm with every line until I could see who was in the center of the storm, creating the chaos that I was feeling. It was me, but I was small. Probably 12 years old. All those months of hatred were coming from a younger version of me that was deeply hurt and scared for her safety. Under all that hatred was pain and a desperate desire to feel safe.
If you’ve gone through therapy, chances are you’ve encountered inner child work. The central idea is that much of the pain we experience as adults stems from unresolved issues from our childhood. We will sometimes have outsized reactions to occurrences, especially in romantic relationships, that stem from triggers from earlier in our lives. This is certainly what was happening here. Our parents tend to take the brunt of the blame for this, but it can be from anything - like for me, bullying in middle school. In this ‘modality’ of healing, the idea goes that to ‘fix’ whatever is coming up for you in present-day, you actually have to go to the source wound, the experience from your earlier life that you never fully dealt with. You have to tend to your inner child, sometimes called reparenting, so that they might feel safe and so that your older self can move on and thrive.
My healing journey has constantly humbled me. As much work as I’ve done, there is always more to do (ugh) and this was no exception. Sitting in the meditation hall, I came face to face with my own pain. I realized I was in so, so much pain around this situation. Present-day Alex had spent the prior months mostly whisking it away. I rationalized the situation, mentally knew this type of thing wasn’t actually personal, that it reflected more on them than me, etc., etc., and so on and so forth. But I had never stopped to ask myself: “how are you doing, really?” I once again had used my rationality to negate my own, very real, feelings. The harassment had brought up memories of being bullied, especially the cyberbullying I experienced in college. Cyberbullying, amongst other things, left me with the knowledge that if someone is really out to get you on the internet, there is truly no way to stop them. You can only block so many accounts or receive so many anonymous messages. This is dark underbelly of the pseudonymous internet (an upcoming article); the freedom that comes from interacting as avatars and screen names also applies to a freedom from consequence of your actions in the real world.
As I acknowledged my own pain, I felt so much compassion for every past and present version of myself. I found myself repeating the phrase, “may you be safe, may you be safe,” over and over for hours. If there was a Maslow’s hierarchy of emotional needs, safety would be the base. For the following days, and still now, every time an intrusive thought would enter I would start saying to myself, “may you be safe.” I came to understand that so much of what we react to stems from a deep fear for our own safety (psychological, physical, or otherwise). Other people’s success, from a scarcity mindset, can trigger our fear that we will not be successful, that people will judge us as a result, and ultimately that we are emotionally unsafe because of it. When we feel unsafe in our relationships, members of the same sex (or opposite sex) become seen as threats to our partnership. I have yet been able to think of an example of a negative feeling that at its core does not relate to a fear of safety in some way.
So back to pain. As I began to feel more safe, I felt able to examine my pain from an arm’s length distance. In addition to safety, I was desperately demanding a reason for my pain. I wanted to know why it existed and who to blame for it. I blamed the individuals that wronged me. I even blamed my partner, who I believed should have protected me. But I realized, those individuals were in pain too. And they also wanted a reason. Just like I wanted someone to blame for my pain, they also wanted someone to blame for their pain, and the someone they happened to pick was me. As much as I felt that was unfair, I finally began to understand why did they did it. We all want respite from our individual pains and having a reason or a person to blame feels like something that will help us achieve it. I thought about the people who had previously wronged them to ‘create’ their pain. And how those people had their own pain, ‘created’ by someone else. And backwards and backwards in an ever-long pain chain. Then I returned to myself and saw my pain. And the pain I had already created from it, and the pain I could potentially create from it if left unchecked, in an ever-long pain chain going forward…
Here’s the thing: pain proliferates endlessly, until someone is able to transmute it. Hurt people, hurt people. I feel wronged by you and so I wrong the next person as a reaction. They feel wronged by me and wrong another person. It’s endless and it never stops, if left unchecked. I began to feel extremely overwhelmed by this, the pain I saw in the world. But, I also recognized what was happening within myself. My pain was subsiding due to my own love (“may I be safe”) for myself. Individuals who I hadn’t seen as human days before, were starting to be in my eyes, deserving of empathy. I certainly still could do without them, but the storm had subsidized enough for me to see that perhaps they were small, scared children too. Without being too trite, I realized, that truly the only way to transmute pain is through love. But what hard work that is.
Transmuting Pain Through Love
Throughout the past decade or so of doing ‘the work,’ a feeling that has come up for me often is the resentment for what feels like constantly having to be the bigger person. Whether that means being the one to find myself on a meditation retreat or just to “take something” without complaining, this feeling definitely has at least some roots in the societal expectations around how women, especially asian women, should behave. I used to really resist this. I felt angry that it was me in the therapy room and not a family member, or partner, friend or frenemy, who I often felt was the one who really needed therapy. Why must I constantly, constantly be the one who is self-improving? Why not everyone else? It wasn’t “fair.”
I share that not to complain but to voice what I know for a fact many of you also feel (because you’ve told me as much). It is similar to the feeling many of us people of color have felt in the past couple years, bearing the brunt of education around diversity and our experiences — some of us, especially African-American women — more than others. And here’s the thing, we’re not obligated to teach everyone. We’re not obligated to teach anyone. And we’re certainly not obligated to constantly forgive. I don’t think we are even really obligated to do the work of healing. And we shouldn’t be. That work takes energy, effort, and a deep sense of safety that most of us don’t have. And I truthfully don’t think that life demands that ‘bigness’ of us, at least not in every moment. A quote from the late Joan Didion comes to mind:
“I'm not telling you to make the world better, because I don't think that progress is necessarily part of the package. I'm just telling you to live in it. Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live in it.”
We’re obligated to just live in it, the best many of us can do is just make our way through. But, I do believe that the process of living in it is the process of deeply feeling all of our experiences, all of our emotions, both positive and negative, and increasingly being curious about them. The Buddhist concept of non-attachment is not a negation of emotions but a lack of preference around them — it is a fundamental embrace of all parts of the human experience, it is metta for every moment of our life, without exception. It is an understanding of human life that acknowledges that all emotions are real and valid and that our lived experience in this realm results from them. While Joan does not implore you to make the world better, I do think that the experience of really living will eventually bring most of us into deep curiosity about these emotions: how they function, how they affect us, and ultimately how they are created, destroyed, or transmuted. We eventually all get curious, in this life or a future one, about healing.
One of the things that has come through in my work in the past couple years, especially via experiences with plant medicine (another article for another time 🌵), is that I am, increasingly, uniquely equipped to do the work of ‘being the bigger person,’ which is better said, the work of constantly aiming to be a better version of myself. This work includes both the active striving for self-improvement in a number of ways combined crucially with an acceptance that I am also deeply worthy right now, just the way I am. The same teacher who dropped the bomb about a grudge as poison, half-jokingly asked, “is self-improvement, self-violence?” and I find there to be much truth in that question as well. Like anything, there is a dark side to self-improvement, which I would argue is often (1) having it stem from the belief that you are not already worthy of being, right now or more often, (2) having it stem from the desire to prove your worthiness and better-ness over others because of your work. I am constantly watching these two things in myself. I think especially in new age communities, number 2 is rampant and unfortunately puts off many people from very beneficial healing modalities because of the ‘holier than thou’ personas that come with them. Those ‘holier than though’ people need to (respectfully) fuck off. *oof, immediately signs up for another metta retreat*
Practically speaking, I have years more of therapy under my belt than the average person, two years professionally in the mental health space, and a long-term curiosity around all things psychology, religion, and esoteric healing that makes me particularly well-quipped for the journey of exploring healing and the human condition. Just as some people are born with a greater aptitude to be professional athletes, I think some people are born with a greater aptitude to be, for lack of a better word, healers. Believe me I know that this reads as a bit cringey — it’s new language even to me — but the more I move about the world, the more I feel this desire and active movement towards healing is truly what humanity needs at this time.
Pain proliferates until it can be transmuted into love. Our ability to love ourselves, in our most painful moments, acts like a balm for our anger and our fear, and in that makes our pain a little more bearable. As it subsides, we are able to see clearly — eventually seeing the source of our pain as another being, in pain too. I didn't quite get to the point where I was meditating on those individuals with metta, but I did get to the point where I was able to say, “the pain stops with me.” The ever-long pain chain can stop with just one person deciding not to continue it. Pain does not demand love for the perpetrator, just love for oneself. Anyone of us can be the cycle breaker.
Heal Yourself, Heal the World
There is a saying in some circles, “heal yourself, heal the world,” and the above concept illustrates it beautifully. We move through life constantly interacting and acting, with and at and against, each other. There is so much pain in the world and so many opportunities to feel wronged — by systems, by individuals, by global pandemics… Both sides of the aisle fear a change in their way of living based on constituents of the other side. I fear you and you fear me and we wage war on one another, and the cycle continues. Intergenerational trauma. A complex web of pain.
But just as there can be intergenerational trauma, there can be intergenerational healing. Or even just inter-community healing. We cannot stop pain or suffering, it is a reality of life (and in fact, the first Noble Truth of Buddhism), but we can do our best to stop contributing to it. When we feel able and resourced, we can make the effort to say it stops with us. And when we see that possibility in our future, we can make the changes to our lives now to get to that place. In that way, our healing becomes the world’s healing, because the work we do creates slow ripples to the people around us, who could create the same ripples to the people around them, and on and on…
I cannot emphasize this enough, but the work I have done in the therapy room has fundamentally changed my relationships for the better. I am not perfect (dUhHhH) but I am able to show up as a better friend, partner, family member and coworker to everyone I interact with because of my healing/self-improvement work I do. I know that my openness (which to be fair, took >5y to emerge) around therapy and depression has created space for multiple individuals around me to find their own mental health support. I was extremely touched by the notes I received back from Part 1, especially from those of you who saw your own dark experiences validated in mine. Hatred is real people, give it room to breathe so that it may dissipate. Already, my healing has become your healing — are you seeing that? And in that same way, your healing will become my healing. Healing for everyone! 😛
Wrapping up the Retreat
There were additional interesting things that came up for me during the retreat, but seeing as I have committed to a weekly newsletter, perhaps I will save those for another time. :) Did I leave feeling like I had healed all my hatred? Not really, but I left with a dull, slight bruise in the place of what was once a blinding pain. In the couple weeks that followed, I have turned back most often to my wish for my own safety, in the broadest sense of the world. As things come up that I feel reactive to, I find myself constantly asking, “what about this makes me feel unsafe?” and then diving deep into that place and examining it.
I find myself saying not, “it must end with me,” but rather, “perhaps it can end with me.” I am constantly aware that my often unrealistically high standards can be to the detriment of my self-improvement, so much of my journey has been pushing myself to my growth edge, then proverbially softening. A push/pull of growth and self-compassion, a constant reminder that to be of service to others you first must be in deep service to yourself. It took me years to accept that self-care wasn’t selfish, but I find myself now returning to that concept. To be explicit about what I saw illustrated in this experience is the truly negative and outsized effects of our lack of true self-care; we lash out, we proliferate our pain. Popular media has bastardized self-care into being bubble baths and glasses of wine, but I am talking about the necessary pause and deep acknowledgement and space we must give to our buried pains. Without that, we will continue to react. Without that, we will continue to contribute to the world’s pain.
Suffering is a reality of life. It is the result of a complex web of emotions, reactions and decisions humans have made for generations, for lifetimes. The path to negation of suffering via non-attachment is a large order, but the path to the negation of pain via love is a medium one — one that starts first with taking care of ourselves. One that can begin with the smallest of steps, the purest of intentions. One that starts with a wish of genuine goodwill:
May I be happy.
May I be at ease.
May I be safe.
May I find peace.
Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this newsletter, write me a note, post about it on social, or forward it to a friend. I love hearing from you! ❤️
Resources for meditation and some quick further readings on healing:
Spirit Rock is the retreat center I went to, they have numerous online and in-person retreats, silent and not, throughout the year.
Tara Brach is my favorite meditation teacher, I highly recommend her 50m lectures on Buddhist topics which you can find on Spotify
How to Do the Work by Dr. Nicole LePera is the best starter book I’ve found that touches on many cross-discipline psychological and holistic healing topics in approachable way.
What Happened to You? by Oprah Winfrey and Bruce Perry is a very approachable book on trauma and psychological resilience
If you’re deep into your healing journey and curious about plant medicine and other natural and/or indigenous healing modalities, I recommend looking into 1Heart’s retreats.
Until next time!