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alone together in silence

Dreading heading straight into autumn and darkness again after what we in Norway call a “skipped summer”, I desperately searched the net for an escape from where I was. Endless listings of affordable vacations swam across my view. After searching my thoughts a bit longer, all I could feel about taking myself somewhere else a bit sunnier was empty. The pessimistic-sounding phrase “Wherever you go, there you are” felt like it was following me.

My partner came up with the idea of a meditation retreat, and I am grateful they did or else I never would have found myself in Karuna. I booked the retreat only a few days ahead of the event - it felt fated that there was a slot left for me.

The 8-day silent retreat hurled me straight into a stormy sea within the deep reaches of my being. During meditation I confronted countless emotions; the past became my present, the future also became my present many times. I found myself trying to escape the present with “productive” thoughts quite often. There were precious fleeting moments when I suddenly was fully present with my body and mind. Early in the week I had strange sensation experiences in my body during those periods of stillness: once I felt as though my nervous system had expanded outside of my body into everything, which was fascinating. In the last days of the retreat, those sensations disappeared and all I knew was peace in those moments in a way I had never felt before.

Being in the meditation hall with people I knew nothing about but could feel they too were in their own personal struggle beside me was indescribably meaningful. Over the week I also came to understand fully a fact I’ve heard repeated many times but never really believed: that 90% of human communication is non-verbal. When you cannot speak to one another, you cannot immediately create mental images about people based on experience of each other.  Being somewhat an outsider my whole life, it was incomprehensible that this could be so. All that was conveyed between us silent people was respect, and often humor, and joy.

The first few days challenged my mind in adjusting to the silence. I would sit across from someone in the mess hall and have entire fake conversations with them in my head because it felt so strange not to talk together with the person across from me. Sometimes, when it was very quiet out there in the desert mountains, the silence was simply unfathomable for my brain and it would form white noise to make up for it. This faded after a few days.

The food and the people who prepared it were absolutely beautiful. I had been mainly vegetarian before my arrival in Karuna but now I think I do not want to give it up. I passed a note to the staff before the end of my stay asking if I could come back and learn to cook with them!

As a scientist I naturally shy away from the metaphysical or anything that smacks of pseudoscience. I had hardly read anything about Zen at all before coming to the retreat, so I told myself I would just take away from the experience the parts I could be convinced of. But I have to say Zen Buddhist thought aligns quite well with the current scientific understanding of the universe. This was a pleasant surprise, and to me it is amazing that these concepts were conceived thousands of years ago.

The retreat facilitator Hamid’s gentle, approachable way of expressing himself was an inspiration. Although he stated that he was not acting as our Zen teacher, but rather as a facilitator, he is a teacher through example. His nightly teachings were moving without being sensational. It somehow consistently felt like he had reached inside my mind to know what I could benefit from hearing at that point in the evolution of my meditation practice. Helen’s yoga classes similarly kept me afloat during my journey. I’m not sure I could have done as many sits per day without her Yin yoga to refurbish my body.

In all my takeaway from my retreat experience is that “wherever you go, there you are” was maybe never meant to be a gloomy statement. What I thought over and over during the last days of the retreat is that it should be instead “wherever you go, there Existence is”. If you think that sounds like a mysterious invitation into the unknown, come to a retreat in Karuna. You could come out of it with an invaluable appreciation for our world and the multitudes we all hold within us.

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