Before I begin, I want to be clear on what I did and did not do. I spent five nights and six days at a yoga retreat center in Thailand, where I maintained silence for almost the entire time (more on this later). I did three yoga classes a day and stayed in a nice but simple beach banda facing the ocean. My meals were taken in silence, even though you could talk in the cafe if you wanted to. Some people at the retreat kept silence, others didn't. Although I didn't talk, my yoga instructors did during the classes, so it wasn't complete silence.
I didn't do a full vipassana retreat, where talking is usually strictly prohibited, as are writing and reading, and where attendees stick to a grueling daily meditation schedule, in complete stillness. Although I'm a certified yoga teacher, I still consider myself a meditation novice. Without doing yoga first, my mind tends to wander to the last time I had cheese and wondering when the next time I'll eat cheese again will be. Anyways....
I wasn't there for crystal healing, juice fasting, waking up at 3 am to chant to a guru (actually, waking at 3 am for any reason whatsoever). If that's you're thing, more power to you, but it's not what I was there to do. I knew that as a Mama with a young son being babysat by GrandMom and GrandDad, I would probably want to talk to them at some point and didn't want to choose a place that would kick me out for doing so. I chose the yoga retreat center that I did because it offered a lot of flexibility: I could go to as many as six yoga or meditation classes every day if I wanted to, or none. If I decided this whole silence thing was way over my head, I could talk to other people up in the cafeteria.
So why was I there?I came to clear my mind and reset at the beginning of a new year.
I came to think about some big life decisions and hard questions.
I came to listen. I'm not a super great listener, and it's something that I'm really trying to work on. Complete silence was a way to tune out all the noise and realize how I use my voice.
I came to write. In between drinking wine and watching movies on my long flights to Thailand, I'd drafted a list of 33 things I needed to write about: past, present, and future. Yes, need. Let me explain.
When I think of my own mind, I almost never think of it as a brain, as a physical organ in my body. I usually picture it in one of two ways. The first is a galaxy in Star Wars (#nerdalert). As an introvert, I can travel in any direction on lightspeed for hours on end and never reach the edges of the galaxy. There are endless planets to explore, cute fuzzy looking creatures, places that are both weird and wondrous, and a few dark parts that are best avoided in my mind. I'm almost never bored, even when I'm alone, because there's always new and exciting thoughts to think about, pleasant memories to remember, and ideas to ponder.
The second way I picture my own mind is a giant ball of yarn. Each day that I live is a small segment of yarn that enters through my ears and wraps around the ball of yarn, getting bigger and bigger. The ball of yarn continues winding day by day, until pressure starts to build up in my head.
From the time I was perhaps seven or eight, the only way that I've found of unravelling that pressure is to write. As I write, it feels like I'm pulling that giant spool of yarn out through my pen and onto my journal page, and I have room in my head to start afresh and collect new memories.
(To my friends who have asked me why I don't write a book, the honest answer is that 99.9% of my diaries, from around the second grade till now, are essentially pages upon pages of "omg so I have a crush on this boy" or chapters and chapters of "WHAT AM I DOING WITH MY LIFE?!?").
I came for self-knowledge. I wanted to gaze inward, to look equally at the parts of myself that I like and the flaws that I want to change.
I came to set goals and resolutions for 2018, as I try to be the best version of myself that I can be: the best sister, mother, daughter, friend, neighbor, colleague, human being.
* * *
I arrived at the yoga retreat center in Thailand early on a Saturday morning, tired and hungry after an overnight flight from Hong Kong and sweating from head to toe in the island humidity, still wearing pants, a black jacket, and a scarf to stay warm on the plane.
I was excited and nervous all at the same time. Could I really do this? Would I break halfway through, desperate for human connection? Would I drive myself crazy with nothing but my own thoughts for the next six days?
I ate breakfast overlooking the ocean as I pondered what I was about to do, and my mind began to fill with fantasies about ditching this whole plan and just having an awesome vacation in Thailand for a week. In the taxi on the way to the retreat, I'd passed delicious looking street food stalls that I wanted to eat at, beautiful beaches where I wanted to swim, and golden temples I wanted to explore. Couples on colorful motor scooters dipped in and out of the traffic from the airport and I visualized myself exploring the island on one (never mind the fact that I've never tried to drive a scooter or motorcycle in my life and would probably seriously injure myself trying). I pictured myself going on one of the rock-climbing adventures advertised back at the last bend, devouring platefuls of pad thai, trying out Muay Thai boxing, and sampling a margarita or three at that beachside bar blasting Shakira.
I sipped my smoothie and I reminded myself that I'd already paid for the week at the yoga retreat in full in advance. There was no backing out now. Maybe someday I'll head back to Thailand and do all those things; in fact, I really I hope I do. But it wouldn't be this week.
I had a few hours to kill before I could check into my room, so I changed into my swimsuit and headed down to the small hidden beach at the retreat center. I decided to celebrate my dwindling hours of freedom by getting my tan on (okay, sunburn), having a couple cold beers on the beach before my week of sobriety, exploring the expansive grounds, and doing a couple laps in the infinity pool. I allowed myself to take a few pictures of the yoga center, had lunch, and then a bit after noon, I locked my phone and computer away for the week and got changed for my first yoga class.
* * *I had a difficult time keeping my mind from wandering in that first class. I wondered what other people's reasons for coming to the yoga retreat were. Where were they from? Who were they? What were their stories? A couple people had visible physical injuries; one girl came on crutches to the yoga class and modified the postures ("See?! That would have been you if you'd tried out that motor scooter like you wanted to," my mind told myself smugly). Others had other things they were dealing with that I could only guess at; I heard sobs in at least a couple of my classes that week.
After just a day or two at the retreat center, I quickly adjusted to the routine. I'd wake up with no alarm around 6:45 am, head to a two-hour 7 am yoga class, eat breakfast at the cafeteria overlooking the ocean, and then start journaling around 10 am each day. I'd write for awhile and take swimming breaks when my hand would start cramping up, then take a mid-day class or a later afternoon one, write some more, take an evening yoga class, eat dinner and write more, and then go to bed around 10 pm.
There was a small thatched hut right next to the water on the retreat center's beach that provided me necessary shade and welcome ocean breezes, and I chose it as my primary writing spot. I wrote, and wrote, and wrote, slowly conquering my list of 33 things from the past, the present, and the future.
Writing about the past took me much longer than I expected. In my previous childless life, I journaled much more regularly, but I find that it's quite difficult to find the time now. I had a lot to catch up on from 2017: vacations, work, friends, family, relationships, D'Assise, life changes, memories that were pleasant, and a few recollections that were painful. I try not to have a lot of regrets; the past has passed and there's not much we can do about it. But as I found my footing last year as a single working Mama managing a team of nearly 1,000 people, 2017 definitely taught me a lot of lessons.
I was journalling about a particularly difficult memory from last year, and I felt the tears welling up in my eyes. I stopped writing and stared out at the waves slowly lapping against the shore and the beautiful bay before me. But the sobs kept coming, quickly turning from a couple tears running down my cheek to full-out ugly crying.
There was an older woman taking a nap in the small thatched hut laying a few feet away from me. She had a floppy straw hat protecting her face as I had climbed the extremely rickety ladder into the open-air seaside hut earlier that day; I could only tell her age from her lightly wrinkled pale skin. I must have woken her with my sobbing, because she soon turned over, took off her hat, and my jaw dropped.
It was the spitting image of my paternal grandmother, minus twenty or thirty years. Rather than the elegant wispy bun my Grandma usually wears, this woman had short white hair that framed her face and had every-so-slightly sunburned cheeks. She whispered something in German to me, and then realizing that I didn't understand, she kindly asked in heavily accented English, "Are you okay?"
I nodded, not wanting to break silence, and she gave me a hug. The resemblance was so striking, I almost asked if she was related to any Eischeids, my German-American grandmother's maiden name, but I just smiled and hugged her back.
I took it as a sign that I was going to be able to make it through the week. When times would get tough, there would be a sweet, slightly more sunburned version of my grandmother who would appear out of nowhere and embrace me.
To be continued...