Jennifer Howd had been building a mindfulness practice for a few years before taking on the challenge of her first nine-day silent meditation retreat. In this debut memoir, SIT, WALK, DON’T TALK: How I Survived a Silent Meditation Retreat, she chronicles the humorous–and often harrowing–adventures of the dueling inner voices that emerge in the silence: one intent on focusing on the seemingly negative aspects of her experiences, and the other on helping her see the positivity that can come from them. This is an excerpt from the book, now available from Parallax Press.
by Jennifer Howd
Saturday, May 4
The high-pitched sound of a bell rings, and my eyes flutter open to see a figure slowly walking outside the window, gently tapping a cymbal-shaped pair of brass bells (known as “tingsha”) together.
I barely register this as our 5:30 a.m. wake-up call before noticing something’s horribly wrong. Wincing in pain as I swallow, it feels like tiny shards of glass are lacerating my throat. My nose is completely stuffed up, and the back of my head feels like someone slammed a two-by- four against it. It’s excruciating.
OH MY GOD, I’M SICK. I’M SO TOTALLY FUCKED.
Stumbling out of bed, I feel around in the dark and make it over to the bathroom, where I notice a small spot of blood in my underwear and sense the familiar dull ache in my lower belly.
AND I JUST GOT MY PERIOD. FOUR DAYS EARLY. AWESOME!
I zip open my toiletry bag, frantically searching for the bottle of Advil I was so sure I had remembered to pack.
REALLY? I FORGOT TO PACK PAIN RELIEVER? FUUUUCK! HOW THE HELL AM I GOING TO MAKE IT THROUGH NINE DAYS OF SITTING WITH ALL THIS PAIN?
(Beating myself up. Beating myself up.)
But something suddenly shifts within me after labeling my Shit and gaining a moment of distance from it. Because it then occurs to me…
Maybe learning how to sit with pain is the reason I’m here.
The next sixteen hours are, quite literally, hell—a crippling mixture of diabolical cramps and what feels like razor blades cutting the inside of my throat. Every. Time. I. Swallow.
I can’t see or feel anything past the agony.
And, of course, my Shit continues to shout at me full force, berating me for all the things I didn’t do to take care of myself when I had the chance. I’m buried beneath an avalanche of aversions. And there’s no letting anything go. The kinder, gentler me remains silent, lying trapped under it all. Nothing—and I mean NOTHING—feels good.
From 5:30 a.m. until 9:30 p.m. I do nothing but sit with misery. Walk with misery. And eat with misery. I notice I’m struggling with struggling—but I’m completely incapable of finding a way to focus on anything but the pain. And, to top it all off, “Sari Woman” sitting next to me keeps zipping and unzipping her damn bag and scooting her beanbag cushions left and then right. Left and then right. Over and over again.
During EVERY sit.
Just when I think she’s settling in and I finally start to find some semblance of peace with my pain, she makes yet another loud noise, and I break my concentration. I keep noticing that I’m judging her (Judging. Judging.), but I’m so miserable, I don’t even care.
REALLY? DOES SHE HAVE TO MOVE EVERY OTHER MINUTE? JESUS, WHY CAN’T SHE SETTLE THE EFF DOWN? DOESN’T SHE KNOW SHE’S SUPPOSED TO BE SITTING STILL? HOW THE HELL AM I SUPPOSED TO RELAX SITTING NEXT TO THIS?
The judgments gallop through my head, momentarily carrying my attention away from the physical pain in my body. But the second the pain eases up, my body reminds me, yet again, how much agony it’s in.
Between all the pain—and my mind’s incessant judgments—I’m caught in a whirlwind of suffering. I just want to jump up and run the hell out of there. I have no idea how I’m going to make it through the week.
Then it occurs to me that maybe I could switch positions, find some floor space in the back of the room away from this woman. The only problem with the idea is that I don’t know proper retreat “etiquette,” i.e., if it’s “OK” to move once I’ve claimed my spot or not. So I continue to sit with this (and my neighbor’s incessant fidgeting) for a few more meditations before finally getting so fed up that I decide to take action and post a note asking for advice.
To: Any of the Teachers –
The woman sitting next to me is making so much noise during the meditations. I can understand my “working” with this annoyance/distraction to a certain extent—but nine days of it seems extreme. Thoughts on how I should handle this?
This is the response I get back:
Hi Jennifer –
Wow. Slow down! It’s still early in the retreat, and she’s probably still getting settled. Give her some time. AND, feel free to move to another spot where you might feel more settled.
Featured photo credit: Nina
“Excerpted from Sit, Walk, Don’t Talk by Jennifer Howd © 2017. Excerpted with permission of Parallax Press.”
Order the book here.
Jennifer Howd is an author, editor, and a certified mindfulness facilitator through UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center. She writes about mindful living and secular spirituality for The Huffington Post and on her blog, and she is the co-creator of The Eastside Mindfulness Collective. For more information about Jennifer, visit www.JenniferHowd.com.