Category Archives: Newcomer Tips

Excruciating, and Wonderful – A Meditation Student’s Description

A few weeks ago, as people were arriving for a 9-week meditation workshop I’m leading, a handful of students started telling their classmates that they were both nervous and excited about joining me at an upcoming 5-day meditation retreat I was getting ready to offer in Romney, WV.

More specifically, those who were new to retreat were asking those who had done it before what they might expect.

Suddenly, the whole room became silent, and one student answered, “It’s excruciating,” – which prompted an explosion of laughter, and I’m guessing even more nervousness!

When the laughter had died down, this same student added, “And … it’s wonderful.”

And I thought: just perfect; exactly – it can really be both.

But here’s the thing: the hard part isn’t usually about any arduous logistical difficulties – we’re almost always retreating in a beautiful, quiet setting in nature, and offered comfortable beds, hot meals, and warm showers. Plus, we’re given the opportunity to spend ample time with ourselves in the silence, and asked to set down all the distractions that come with our lengthy “to-do” lists, relationships, and even our phones.

And yet, this is often exactly why it can sometimes feel difficult, or even “excruciating.”

Because at some point during retreat, it suddenly dawns on us that we can’t escape ourselves. In the silence, we find ourselves faced very intimately with our own thoughts, judgments, and opinions – along with all those pesky emotions that we may have been avoiding, too.

And this is also just perfect – because being willing to sit, or “stay” with these difficult thoughts, judgments, and feelings is essentially what our meditation practice is urging us to do.

The beauty of this is that, when we can train ourselves to not look away, and to bravely confront and investigate all those things that we’ve been avoiding, or distracting ourselves from – this is the time when retreat can suddenly become “wonderful.”

In fact, more than wonderful:

After each retreat ends, almost every student I speak with seems to be glowing with emotion and gratitude as they recall what they’ve discovered about themselves in the silence, and along with “wonderful,” tend to offer words like “life-changing,” “transformative,” and simply, “I have no words.”

Regularly, people tell me that their hearts have opened “like a dam breaking,” and that they feel like something fundamental has forever shifted in them – all due to their own willingness to stay with themselves, and their hearts, when at times it felt difficult.

So, if you’ve never been on a meditation retreat before, please know that it’s truly a mix: there can absolutely be times of intense peace, gratitude, and joy … alongside times of grief, frustration, and sadness … and, in the end, a sense of incredible release, relief, and growth.

I hope you might join me! 🙏🏽💕

METTA: A Reminder to Be Kind

About 14 years ago now, when I first moved back to Virginia from New York City, one of the first things I needed to do was to go out and buy a car – something I hadn’t needed in the city.

And to my great surprise and delight, I was able to choose the ancient Pali word “Metta” as my license plate.

I was thrilled, actually, because I knew that attaching that word directly to my car would essentially serve as a daily reminder for me, to practice what it preaches.

The most basic definition of this incredibly complex and important word, metta – a verb – involves the practice of offering our loving-kindness (or goodwill) out to others, to all the situations we find ourselves in, and especially, to ourselves.  

And again, it’s a practice – because as we all know, this isn’t at all easy.

In fact, particularly for those of us who grew up in the West, studies have shown that we seem to do the exact opposite – which is to give ourselves an unnecessarily hard time.

Sadly, unfortunately, we tend to do this especially during those times when our own kindness and compassion is what’s most needed.

For me, I often like to recall a great example of this kind of Western mindset, which showed up very vividly during one of the first international Buddhist teacher meetings about 30 years ago, where the Dalai Lama was the main speaker.

During a q&a session with this great Tibetan spiritual leader, a group of western teachers asked him how they might help their students work with feelings of un-kindness towards themselves, which manifested in various forms of unworthiness, self-criticism, shame, and self-hatred.

But apparently, the Dalai Lama was totally confused about this; he just couldn’t comprehend words like self-hatred. He was so baffled, in fact, he spent a full 10 minutes conferring with his translator, trying to understand.

Eventually, he asked this large group of teachers if any of them had experienced these same feelings themselves, personally, and was shocked when each one of them nodded.

“But that’s a mistake,” he told them. “Every being is precious!”

That story never fails to remind me: I am not alone in suffering sometimes from my own lack of self-kindness; it’s just the water that we’re swimming in, if you will.

It also reminds me that, again, metta is a practice, not a perfection.

And because of this, it can be really beneficial for us to have some sort of daily or ongoing reminder, one that can help us to actually offer it out – not only to others, but especially to ourselves.

🙏🏽 (If you’re interested, on Sept. 16, I’ll be offering a daylong meditation retreat on the practice of metta in The Plains, VA. I hope you might join me!) 💕

What’s The Best Time to Meditate?

Whether I’m leading a meditation workshop or a longer retreat, one of the first questions I tend to receive from newcomers during any q&a session is: what is the best time to meditate?

And my answer is always: whatever time is set in stone on your daily schedule.

Because the hard truth is that, no matter our preference for this, if we haven’t already chosen a very particular time slot dedicated to our meditation practice, we’re not likely to ever get around to it.

It’s very similar how we can often make a commitment to ourselves to exercise “some time” during the day.

For many of us, if we’re honest, this rarely ever works.

This is because, if we don’t have something firm written into our day calendar, even mentally, we tend to fill up our day with our regular busy-ness until bedtime rolls around, and by then, it’s too late.

So, if you are struggling to commit to a daily practice, I encourage you to first pick what you believe might be a good time period for yourself, then add it directly to your calendar. You might even set an alarm or reminder, to prompt you to remember.

After you’ve done this, you can then experiment, and decide what time slot works best for you.

As a lifelong night owl, I prefer to start my sits at 10:30 in the evening, since it’s when I tend to feel the most calm, and clear. I also find that it helps me to fall asleep easier.

If you’re an early bird, you might try getting up 15 minutes – an hour earlier than usual, so that you can roll out of bed, and practice during those more quiet hours, before you go to work, or before others in your household begin to rise.

If you can’t seem to find any quiet time during the day, you might try meditating during a lunch break at work, in places you may not have considered … like, maybe your car, or some other quiet space outdoors.

And if you can only get in 5 or 10 minutes of practice – perfect. You can always choose to increase this over time.

The important thing is to make sure you do it every. day, at the same time, so that eventually, it becomes a solid and reliable pattern, one that feels as easy and matter of course as brushing your teeth.