Read my article recommendations for COVID-safe vacation to take in 2021!
I’ve just come out of a weekend-long silent meditation retreat, and I yearn now for more silence. There is something about silence that is relieving. You don’t have to worry if you are likeable, or if what you said to the person next to you was the right/wrong thing. There is no awkward silence because silence is the norm. It is amazing and agonizing all at once. The journey is bone-shaking and uncomfortable. At times you feel elated, other times, you yearn to be stimulated and distracted. It’s a constant battle of confronting every feeling, thought and emotion you have with dynamic awareness.
Time can go slow when you are meditating. This retreat was held at a mission centered around a beautiful old cathedral in the hills of Southern California’s city of Oceanside. The bells of the church would tell our time, ringing every 15 minutes; one for ¼ past the hour, two for half hour, and three for 45 past, and 4 times plus the number of hours to tell us the time on the hour. Sometimes, when the bell would ring, I would be surprised and disappointed that time had passed so slowly. Other times, I would hear the church bells and wish I had more time because I was just then settling into a sense of stillness. And then it was gone. We would sit, then walk, sit again, then walk again. The day was broken up by silent meals where I would try to break the habit of shoveling food in my mouth to move on to my next task, and mindfully taste every bite. Then we would sit and walk again. Occasionally, our teacher, Matthew Brensilver, would share wisdom through dharma talks. And they resonated. Sleep was speckled with intense dreams and deep, catatonic rest. All of it in an attempt to surrender.
At times, we retreat to seek refuge in the suffering that is inherent in every life, even among the most fortunate. There is courage in the willingness to look within and evolve. It is just about mustering the courage. Sit-walk-sit-walk-sit-walk. Isn’t that what we are doing in our daily lives? But in the case of retreat, maybe living in that life just a little more mindfully.
The year started on hospital wards for me. On January 1st, 2019 at 6am, I arrived to work on that dark, winter morning and sat down in excited anticipation of 5 months remaining in my formal medical training. I logged into the EMR with quiet reverence that I will be independently performing this exact job later this same year with no formal supervision. It was a sobering thought. This month, the way in which I practiced medicine changed. Or maybe I just acknowledged how I have matured as a caregiver and physician. This last month, I had so many end of life discussions with patients, held their hands as they shared their wishes for their last few days/weeks. I have so many stories to share. From the daughter who embraced me before her mother was discharged home, tears rolling over her cheeks, and thanking me over and over again for making her mom better (thinking about this still makes tears well in my eyes). To the husband that broke down in sobs and gasps of overwhelming sorrow as his wife of 51 years was dying of metastatic cancer. To the family that yelled at me at the top of their lungs because they had no other way of expressing their fear over their father’s terminal diagnosis. It was a month of devastating heartache, inspiring hope and true humanity. Human suffering is so real. At times, it is overwhelmingly so… But there is no doubt that being privy and witness to it in such an intimate manner has made me a more patient, compassionate, thoughtful, generous human. What a privilege it is to serve my fellow humans. To be let in it with them like this. It has given me the opportunity to be truly present in my life, and to ask: How can we live in the moment and take everything we can out of the goodness it can hold for us?
Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time waiting. Waiting for business emails, waiting for responses on job opportunities (I graduate in 6 months from residency! yikes!), waiting for patients to make time-sensitive decisions, waiting for vacation to arrive… it has been a strange season of waiting. And for someone who is used to getting things done the minute they are put on my plate, this has been an interesting exercise of letting go. This waiting has pushed me to let the outcome and response unfold as it will, without trying to influence the outcome. My best analogy is waiting for that wave. When I am surfing, I truly have no idea what will come at me next. It could be the sweetest, smoothest wave I’ve ever tasted… it could come at me with it’s jagged edge to remind me it is my master… it could peter out before it even meets the nose of my board…. Whatever it throws at me, it is an opportunity to let it be exactly what it is, and let the wave roll out the way it’s going to. I can’t control it, for goodness sakes; it’s the ocean! Do you know any surfer that has been able to control the wave coming at him? So I paddle out, I take in a deep breath of clean ocean air, and I wait. It has been so interesting these last few months watching each and everything in my life manifest into that wave that melts away before I am able to meet it. When I took a step back to examine my swelling frustration, I realized that the universe is sending me a message. This is my season of The Wait. My anticipation when sending out the energy, the hope, that this will be the wave I will ride into the beach… that has been replaced with a sense of acceptance, letting go, and contentment in the present moment. Rather than trying to force my timeline, I’ll let the outcome unfold the way it should when it’s ready for me. Because what’s the worse that could happen if I wait? In the wait, still in the ocean, on my board, breathing in the sea air, watching the sunset, and waiting. Sounds pretty good to me. How can you infuse a little more patience in your life and wait for the right things to unfold when the energy is right?
There is a story of these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” They nod politely, and the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and asks “What the hell is water?”
These two fish, so innocent and unknowing merely show ya that the obvious, most important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see, and as a result, we miss simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of us and inside us. This very esoteric idea of being present is constantly bombarding us, but what it means really is learning how to think and learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. So today, I encourage you to make the choice to be here and present in the exact space you are in right now. Knowing that the choice is yours. And whatever it is that you are feeling whether it is with fear or inadequacy or joy and elation; it is your job to be present with it. Be here now.