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A vacation from distractions

I recently decided to spend the holidays away from my life. I packed my things and drove three and a half hours to Esalen to join Noah Levine and Vinny Ferraro on one of their seven-day mindfulness retreats. We all ate and slept there without leaving the property and embarked on a seven-day commitment to meditation and mindfulness. Esalen’s environment is a perfect one for looking at ourselves.

What do I mean by looking at yourself? I mean removing all your daily distractions: Netflix, Facebook, traffic, work, friends, enemies, food and more. We don’t even realize it, but we most often are paying attention to these things so we don’t have to look at ourselves.

Looking at ourselves is the most valuable thing we can do in this life, yet we spend 99 percent of our time staying busy instead.

Why do we do this? Because it’s scary to look at ourselves!

Whether it’s subtle or intense, all the anxiety, fear and heartache that we’ve acquired through our DNA or life experience is there under our daily routines. Our tendency is to ignore our pain, including deep emotional pain or even a headache. However, what the universe intended is quite the contrary. Pain wants to be seen, felt and heard.

Giving mindful attention to pain

When I was a child, I’d come to my father complaining of a headache. He’d ask me, “Where is it? What colour is it? How big is it?”

I’d struggle at first, but begin to answer his questions. “It’s here, it’s red and it’s as big as a baseball,” I’d say. He’d ask those three questions over and over, and before I knew it, I could no longer tell him the answers.

What I learned from him is that if I gave attention to the pain, it would gradually dissipate. We can apply this same technique to our deeper pains of heartache, fear or anxiety via mindfulness. No, you probably won’t be able to remove all of it within a few minutes like you would a headache, but over your lifetime, you’ll be able to soften its effect on you.

Through mindfulness, you’ll allow yourself space and time to be with your pain and your noisy brain that randomly fires thoughts at you.

By being with your pain, you’ll develop a deeper relationship with it. You’ll become more familiar with your feelings and welcome them with a friendly and loving demeanour. The genuine willingness to be with our pain with a loving, caring heart is an example of compassion.

Opening up my heart

Our seven days at Esalen, in an intimate group, essentially involved exercising this ability to be with our pain and our happiness. Both arise, back and forth, like the ebb and flow of the ocean.

I was surprised to see how quickly I could open my normally “shelled” heart during this week. We’re all guilty of closing our heart’s doors as a survival mechanism to get us through our days and even our lives. I realized, though, that if I just welcomed my sorrows, anxieties and fears with a warm, accepting heart, then I could build an intimate relationship with them.

It’s quite ironic. When we have a problem that needs to be solved or a question that needs to be answered in our lives, we tend to believe that thinking about it and analyzing the situation is how we’ll find answers. Yet, through my experiences with mindfulness, I’ve come to see that the opposite is true.

I’ve found that the most grand answers and pieces of wisdom come to me when I stop thinking. It’s as if the universe rewards me for being present and quieting my ego by speaking to me.

I would’ve loved to have had a notepad throughout all my years of Yoga classes. I can regularly access acquired wisdom and resolve obstacles in my life when I’m lying peacefully in savasana (the final lying-down pose at the end of my Hatha Yoga practice).

Why mindfulness isn’t always easy

You might be wondering why our ego controls our lives with constant loops of the same thoughts and anxieties, over and over in our heads, day in and day out. If this isn’t what Mother Nature intended, why aren’t we more naturally able to live mindfully by default?

The answer to this is quite simple. Our brains have vastly evolved since we developed our primitive fight-or-flight mechanism. Our ego isn’t hurting us intentionally; it simply believes that it’s doing its job to protect us. The problem is, since our brain is so much more advanced, our ego is unconsciously working overtime.

We actually are born into this world as naturally mindful beings. Kids naturally live in the moment, spending little time regretting their past. Have you ever watched a little kid’s response to a negative situation? They cry it out, but 10 minutes later, they don’t even think of it again.

Your next holiday?

The next time you have a week’s holiday, I suggest you explore the option of spending seven days away from your life at a mindfulness retreat. I look forward to hearing about the wisdom you’ve gained from your experience!

If you’ve been on a spiritual retreat recently, or even in the distant past, and would like to share anything you’ve learned, please leave your insights in the Comments section below.

image: Sarah Stierch via Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons BY 4.0)

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