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Most of the time, my life feels like it’s moving at warp speed. With everything that needs to be done each day,  I struggle to find time for myself and the things I want to do. I know this pattern is at best, unfulfilling, and at worst, keeping me only a few steps ahead of burnout—it’s neither nourishing nor sustainable. However, I’ve had trouble shifting the status quo. So when I had the opportunity recently to attend a five-day, silent meditation retreat, I couldn’t wait to sign up. At last, I thought, I can slow down and spend some quality time reconnecting with myself. And perhaps stop the constant activity in my mind that has grown more and more exhausting.

After arriving at the retreat center and receiving initial instructions, the official meditation practice and obligatory silence began.

The daily schedule included ten hours of meditation in the meditation hall, with breaks only for meals and two short Dhamma talks (Dhamma talks are instruction on meditation philosophy and procedure, with room for questions, given by the supervising Buddhist monks). I was nervous—I wasn’t sure how well I would manage the schedule. I’d never meditated much less refrained from speaking for that long a stretch of time.

It was not easy at all, at first. The type of meditation we practiced, Mahasati, is a style of Vipassana or “insight” meditation.

To practice, you keep your eyes open and remain conscious of your body, as well as all objects and activity around you, while simultaneously observing the activity of your mind. This takes some focus: it doesn’t come naturally because we are used to the constant busy-ness and distraction of modern life. The intent is to pull ourselves out of thought by observing—but not judging—what is happening in the present moment, which builds self-awareness. With self-awareness, the drama created by the mind recedes, and in its absence, peace and equanimity emerge.

The longer I sat, the more I found this worked: the lack of distraction combined with nonjudgmental observation supercharged my awareness and focus. All my senses sharpened exponentially. I noticed every single little detail in that room over those five days, and even though I thought I’d noticed it all, each day I found something new and interesting that I hadn’t noticed in the days before.

The more I sat, the more details emerged.

Everything around me grew more vibrant, expansive, and interesting within my growing calm awareness. Everything, including the people in meditation with me. Most of them had been strangers. I’d met some previously at our home meditation center, and one had become a good friend. Spending all day with people I didn’t know well (or at all) and not being able to communicate with them piqued my curiosity.

Who are they? Why are they here? What is their story? What are their likes, dislikes, wants, needs, opinions? Since I could not speak to them, my awareness gravitated towards anything distinctive or unusual about them, to try to gather more information. Among the details I noticed:

  • One person wearing sparkly wedge sandals, an unusual choice for January. Those sandals sure stood out when we lined our shoes against the wall in the meditation hall. I also noticed that this person showed up for morning practice each day with makeup fully and carefully applied.
  • One person wearing what I initially thought were black sweatpants, but later in the day I realized was actually long underwear. The giveaway was a telltale flap in the front.
  • One person wearing fuzzy pink Birkenstocks who consistently scuffed them across the floor rather than pick their feet up when they walked. I also noticed how this person crowded people at the buffet line, giving off an impatient and hurried energy. I could feel a charge in the air when this person was nearby.
  • One person who carried their notebook everywhere, scribbling. They scribbled four full pages during one short Dhamma talk. I could only wonder what they were scribbling about; they left the retreat early, before I could ask.
  • One person who consistently wore soft, thick wool socks, comfy leggings, and long, knee-length hooded cardigans. They looked cozy, like they might be someone who enjoys curling up with a good book in front of a fire.
  • One person who, during a Dhamma talk, anxiously asked the monks how they could possibly eat meat when Buddhist philosophy prohibits intentionally causing suffering. This generated an impromptu, unorthodox, and somewhat heated discussion that altered the energy in the room. I was intrigued by the shift in energy as well as my own reaction to the situation. It took a while for that energy to burn off and settle back down.
  • One person who ate meals with their head down, hunched over their plate, chewing hard, as though to finish as fast as possible. I also noticed how this person used the (supposed) anonymity of the stairwells to clear mucus from their throat. This created a reverberating echo, reminding me of my mother and how, in situations like that, she would suggest I remove myself to the privacy of the restroom.
  • Each person, including me, who became overwhelmingly restless at one point or another. When you sit that long your mind eventually rebels, and the mental turbulence and resistance this creates is uncomfortable. I noticed who hit the wall and when, and how they coped with the discomfort. Some people—actually, a fair number of people—broke the silence, whispering to each other in the halls or even escaping to walk outside on the grounds and use their normal voice. What was happening for them? Watching their behavior made me curious.

The more I observed, the more I noticed. The more I noticed, the more I wanted to observe.

The quiet observation itself was not difficult; I’m a natural introvert and prefer not to speak unless I have something I feel is worth saying. What was most difficult for me was not the lack of interaction, but pulling back from the activity of thinking. I started to understand how my mind runs constantly, creating narratives about what is going on around me.

To truly observe mindfully, it became clear to me that I needed to examine, accept and release something I don’t like about myself: my habit of categorizing and labeling people. Yep: I’m judgmental. More, anyway, than I’d like to be.

To be fair, this is not an uncommon behavior, and it often occurs beneath our conscious awareness. In terms of myself, I discovered that my habit is to examine all the little details of people and use that information to separate them into categories: who is like me and who is not like me. The people who fall into the “who is like me” category tend to be people I want to get to know better or with whom I’d be interested in developing a relationship. My habit is to try to find things in common with people and develop alliances over those things.

The dark side of this, and where I often get into trouble, is that I also become aware of “otherness”—who is not like me.

When I find myself thinking this way, I need to be careful not to dismiss or exclude people based on this otherness. When I do this, my mind closes and I miss out on experiences that could help me grow, expand and learn more about myself and the world around me.

When the retreat finished, when the silence finally ended and we all enjoyed one last meal together before departing, this lesson crystallized. As I talked to these former strangers I realized that, even though on the surface we had little in common, we had plenty to connect about and I was very interested in what they had to say.

I left with the new understanding that my habitual, judging mind is merely my conditioning and not a hard-wired part of me.

It’s not permanent; therefore, it’s something I can change. How liberating (and humbling) to realize I don’t actually need to have anything in common with people to find them interesting and valuable to connect with and listen to. Embracing “otherness” brings me fresh perspectives, fresh ideas, a fresh outlook on the world. If more people cultivate this skill, it’s more likely we can build bridges across divides and work better together, enabling the creation of a brighter, kinder, friendlier, and more peaceful future together.

With this thought, I left the retreat not only refreshed, but energized and hopeful. Hope is a precious thing these days when so much seems to be crumbling around us, and hopefulness ever more scarce.

Heather Shaff

Heather Shaff is a cyclist, writer, and mom based in Boston. She's fascinated by all things growth, motivation, and learning... and will drop everything for chocolate ice cream.

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