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  • Writer's picturePatricia Ullman

Retreat Instructions Part 2: Caring for Our Minds & Spirits

Updated: Apr 20, 2020

There was an article in Mother Jones last week about a man named Keith who has spent 27 years in solitary confinement. In a supermax prison in Ohio, he is isolated for 23 hours a day in a very small space with just a high slit of a window. It's an amazing interview about how he has managed to stay sane in such inhumane conditions, and he sums it up by saying, “You have to learn to live with yourself.”

We generally do whatever we can to avoid facing ourselves, and it’s much harder to keep this up when we’re cut off from our usual sources of entertainment. “Entertainment” here means any of the ways we use to distract ourselves from ourselves. As Keith says, “Being in solitary confinement is really just being thrown upon yourself.” This can be terrifying when we’re not used to it, and a natural response is to do anything we can to fill the empty time and space with whatever is available, like internet or t.v., food, alcohol/drugs, and even just negative thoughts. I knew someone who went to prison in the ’80’s and said that for the first six months of his years-long sentence all he could was eat and watch t.v., until he finally realized he couldn’t live that way forever and turned his prison life around by meditating and helping in the hospice section of the prison.

In other words, we have to make a friendly relationship with the boredom we usually try to avoid. In a solitary retreat, we're faced with this kind of boredom, which meditation practice intensifies. We sit there all day looking at our own minds in various ways, and this can be both refreshing and shattering, tedious and terrifying, peaceful and unsettling. I think that for many in this sudden physical distancing we're all going through, it's a new and very difficult experience to be alone day after day, week after week, with the accompanying uncertainty about how long it will last and how bad it will get, for ourselves, for those we know and care about, and for the whole world.

The general instruction for meditation and retreats is “not too tight, not too loose.” This gentle balance of patience and exertion is like the strings on a musical instrument, which will break if we tighten them too much, but also won’t play music if they are too loose. So just the right amount of tautness is how we can be gentle and steady, both relaxed and alert. A sense of humor is essential, not being so serious about how we ‘should’ be.

Think about what you can do in this strange and stressful new world to help yourself not only get through each day but actually shift your habits (which are shifting whether we want them to or not). Here are a few thoughts:

*Set up your space to encourage yourself to do things that nourish you, like art, talking with friends, or watching movies. If you’re working at home, try to create a sense of separation between where you work and where you do other things. (See my previous Blog, Retreat Instructions Part 1.)

*Bring awareness to how you’re feeling, just stopping to breathe and check in. (See my Blog, Love in the Time of Corona.) Practice mindfulness (or other kinds) of meditation if you’re able to do that.

*Do something for someone else – a phone call, email, or card, shopping, or whatever you’re able to do. As one of my teachers said, “If you want to be miserable, think of yourself. If you want to be happy, think of others.”

*Bring intentionality and awareness to how you eat, sleep, move, and relax, without expecting yourself to be perfect. Treat yourself as you would treat someone you really love and care about.

*Most importantly, don’t judge yourself for anything, because there will be good days and moments, and days when you may just need to curl up and binge-watch something, or eat a little too much, or not feel like exercising. (Etc.) Every day is different.

*Don’t hesitate to seek out a friend or therapist if you feel overwhelmed. We’re all in this together.

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