[Howd Media, 136 pages]
When you ask most women how they’re going to celebrate their 40th birthdays, they’re unlikely to say, “I’m going to meditate.” However, that’s how Jennifer Howd decided to spend the big 4-0. Her recently released book, The Mindfulness Diaries, chronicles how she managed to survive a nine-day silent meditation retreat, with her patience being tried by a sore throat and various other aches and pains throughout. Howd had attended a five-day retreat the year before, and was enrolled in a mindfulness program at UCLA, but was still fairly new to the practice of mindfulness meditation. The birthday retreat was an eye-opening experience for her, from which she came away with not only a sense of peace, but with several life lessons that helped her become a happier, more genuine person.
Once Howd arrived at the Joshua Tree Retreat Center, she had to—brace yourself—turn off her cell phone. This meant no email, either. Until the tail end of the retreat, students were asked not to speak unless talking to meditation teachers or asking questions at the dharma talks (evening talks given by the teachers). The idea behind this custom is to cut participants off from all the stressors of the typical daily rat race, including the expectation that people must be available for constant communication, so they can truly relax and get in touch with their minds.
The silence period proved beneficial for Jennifer. Throughout the first two-thirds of the program, she learned to let go of control by relaxing her adherence to a fixed schedule, freely express emotions such as appreciation and gratitude (she even shed a few tears!), and focus on the beautiful things she witnessed each day, not the ugly ones. She also learned that she must pay attention to her needs and cater to them when possible, but without raising them above the needs of others. Her learning process had peaks and valleys—sometimes she slipped backward into maladaptive habits, such as trying to control her body and the day’s events, and judging both herself and others, but usually a particular incident would snap her back to mindful behaviour and a healthier mindset.
Despite the slight ups and downs, there was a marked difference between Jennifer when she arrived, and Jennifer when she left. The woman who showed up was almost controlled by her “shit,” a term she used to describe her unnecessary emotional freak-outs over minor happenings and irritations. She was annoyed that she was sick, and also found it difficult to withstand the noise and movement of another retreat participant beside her in the meditation hall. On the other hand, the woman who prepared to leave Joshua Tree after just over a week’s time had stopped freaking out, and had learned to accept that she can’t control everything that goes on in her body. When she was able to speak again, she slowly extended friendship to other participants in a peaceful, genuine manner that stood in sharp contrast to the frenetic people-seeking many of us from the “outside world” engage in. In an especially potent visualization scene taking place on the seventh day, Jennifer forgave her past self for all transgressions, and embraced her future self.
Even those of us who don’t formally practice meditation, and have never attended a retreat, can relate to Jennifer’s journey. Wherever we are, most of us try to grow personally and become better people day by day, as Jennifer did at Joshua Tree, and likely in her previous travels through life as well. If we could, all of us would probably choose to immediately dump our own “shit” and live in complete bliss. However, because we’re human, we too have to experience the struggle between positivity and negativity within. We all have days when optimism, acceptance, and kindness win out, and we have other days when we find it difficult to stop being negative, mean-spirited, and judgmental. Life’s an up-and-down learning experience with peaks and valleys for everyone to cross, which is one reason why it’s so interesting.
You could say that Jennifer took a fast track to learning some major life lessons by attending the silent retreat, but we don’t necessarily need to travel away from our daily lives in order to grow—we can incorporate the same values into our activities of daily living; for example, by not watching the clock so often, making sure we turn off our cell phones and computers for at least a couple of hours each day, respecting the needs of the animals we encounter, and finding at least one nice thing to say about our least favourite classmate or co-worker. While this won’t change the world in nine days, it’ll certainly be a good start.