by Laurel Cay
1. The importance of listening
As an online college student, I spend quite a lot of time working from home in silence. But, as I discovered, it is an entirely different experience to be mindfully silent while in a group. Non-verbal cues serve as communication as well, so at the beginning of the retreat, Esther encouraged us to go inwards with no obligation even to make eye contact with our fellow students. She wanted us to investigate what is here and now, accept it (if we can), and give ourselves what we truly need (love and kindness).
A week in silence brought me to a deeper understanding of human interactions. Even a quiet person like me is guilty of mindless chatter. Not that I’m saying there’s anything wrong with small talk, but am I present for it? Can I listen without interrupting? Can I listen without drafting a premature response?
Silence taught me that what I say is less important than how much I listen, make eye contact, and genuinely engage with other people. Doing this requires an act of selflessness, openness and bravery.
Since the retreat, I’ve been more present and I’ve developed meditation habits that stick, while also finding my own balance regarding social interactions. Learning my own limits and boundaries has helped me give all of myself sometimes, rather than giving some of myself always.
2. I never missed my phone
Going into week-long silence also meant unplugging and surrendering our personal electronic devices, such as cell phones and tablets. Esther also suggested that we did not journal or even read.
I thought being without my phone would be the hardest part of the retreat but, as it turned out, it was probably the most therapeutic and easiest task of the whole week. Following my week of no contact, I found that in my absence, the world didn’t miss a beat. No one was angry that I didn’t get back to them sooner and my job was waiting for me, right where I left off.
Of course, most modern yoga teachers, including Esther, don’t advocate that we drop out of life altogether or that electronics are evil, but they do have a time and place. They are useful so long as they don’t rule our lives.
3. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again
Meditation and mindfulness have gained a lot of mainstream traction lately, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that the benefits, while authentic, sometimes take time to develop.
I once believed that I would sit down to meditate and achieve perfection and bliss immediately, but then (gasp), that peaceful tranquility didn’t arrive. Meditation made me feel anxious, frustrated, even furious. For a long time, I didn’t meditate because no matter how hard I tried, my anxiety only got worse. If this is you, please know that you are not the only one and that there is absolutely nothing wrong with you.
Esther taught me to accept the ‘madness’, that it was okay to dislike meditation for a while. It was okay to do something else instead. Eventually, I found that I could settle down and sit with it. As frustrated as I was, the only way to the other side was to sit through it. Acceptance ultimately found a place in my heart but it was not immediate or automatic. It took work, dedication, and patience but was never an excuse to beat myself up when I missed a day, was too tired, or for whatever reason, just couldn’t do it.
Through purposeful practice, I’m enjoying where I am today. Through all of it, I have come to know that no matter how I feel – it is ALL okay. When I’m feeling my worst and even my best, I know that deep down, the best thing I can do for myself is to feel and allow it fully; to show up for my feelings and myself again, and again.
4. I am the tree. The tree is me
Esther gave us an assignment to meditate for 20 minutes while in the presence of, or in my case, physically touching a plant or tree. On day three, I met my tree and met myself in the process. This poem reflects what I experienced and learned that day:
Silly me; Sitting by a tree
Allowed to BE; Yet, can’t find the key
Stuck in my head; So full of dread
Words I said; Or was it something I read?
Never surprised; Only chastised
My own ill-will devised; If only, it could be revised
And so, I sit; To this tree I submit
Feeling misfit; I do hope my punishments are remit
Instead, I feel a breeze; Which fills me with ease
Hearing the buzzing of bees; Can I stay here please?
No sooner I thought; An end hath wrought
Still I fought; Remembering what the tree taught
“I am just living, and so should you”; In my heart, these words grew
Feeling anew; Goodness shown through
Because I am the tree; The tree is me
All at once we are free; No song left to plea
5. Self-care is not laziness, and equanimity does not mean apathy
At the retreat, we focused a lot on self-compassion and self-love. In the past I might have defined self-care in terms of turning off my brain, like spending a day on the couch after a hard week at work or rewarding myself with a sweet treat after something difficult. With Esther’s help, I learned that I don’t need to renounce my indulgences (no need to beat myself up), but instead to cultivate a practice that helps me recognise when a behaviour or choice no longer serves me.
Over time, meditation helped me become mindful of my body, to know what it needs not just what my mind thinks it wants – or for that matter, what other people say it should want. For me, meditation is a practice of investigating what my body needs, today and right now. It is a process of checking in every day (okay, most days), to figure out what will serve me.
Ultimately, I’ve learned that what my body truly wants is balance and equanimity. The idea of equanimity is that all things are truly equal. It is an acceptance of the self and the world, as they are, without feeling the need to change them. It also comes from within and is not dependent on external circumstances.
I once worried that if I found some equanimity, that I would lose my edge or that I’d give up on my plans. After all, if everything is perfect right here and now, what incentive is there to strive for anything else? Ironically finding equanimity, every so often, is like a super power. It’s like turning on a real-life, battery-saving mode. When I’m not worrying about all the minutiae, my mental energy can re-focus on things that really matter, such as calling my mother, holding a door, smiling at someone who needs it, and showing up for those who count on me for support.
6. Meditation is for anyone, but it might not be for everyone
As the retreat week was winding down, we made a circle and talked about going home. It’s common to leave a retreat immediately wanting to share insights with loved ones at home. After all, we just want to help, right? However, even though our motives might be pure and full of love, they can often come across in the wrong way.
Some people might receive your ‘advice’ lovingly but others may feel attacked or get scared that the person they thought they knew has changed. I’ve experienced some difficult days following yoga-related trips, but not this one. I followed Esther’s advice and really let it settle within me rather than trying to immediately apply it to everything and everyone else in my life (particularly my husband).
While meditation is an accessible practice for most people, it might not be what they want or need. Silence helped me to accept myself on my path, and to accept those around me that want nothing to do with it. Teaching yoga gives me the opportunity to share what I’ve learned with my students, but beyond that, my personal practice is for me.
My yoga and meditation are not meant to change others, they are to help me see the world in more colours, to co-exist, to create my own meaning in life. To give love, to feel loved, and to share it with others; if not with words, then through my actions.
About the author:
Laurel Cay is an EkhartYoga member and yoga teacher who earned her 200-hr yoga teaching certification with Esther Ekhart. She is pursuing a degree in nutrition and teaches yoga classes at the military base in her area. Find Laurel on Facebook: @LaurelCayYoga