On a damp and foggy morning, I showed up for an all-day silent retreat at a glass-enclosed structure in the woods. I was three-quarters of the way through a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course. A small group of us had been meeting with two facilitators weekly in a time slot no one could make excuses for skipping: Sunday afternoons from 4:00 to 6:30. A lapsed meditator, I was trying to get back to a regular practice and incorporate some mindfulness techniques into my life.
“It’s so foggy!” I chirped to one of our facilitators, who emerged from her car in the parking lot at the same moment I did. She put a finger to her lips. Oh, it’s that silent, I said to myself, and walked into the building with no idea what to expect over the next seven hours.
I sat on the floor, then moved to a chair, finally settling on the floor again in a corner of the room. Yoga mats and blankets had been spread out for us. I glanced furtively at my fellow attendees, but most were getting coffee or already in the introspective state the day called for.
A careful agenda had been planned for us. We would move through sitting and standing guided meditations, a few gentle yoga poses, and a lunch break where we were to practice mindful eating. I grew more deeply relaxed as the hours passed. I had feared the day might drag and I might be disappointed with my impatience, but exactly the opposite happened. Especially when it came time for a walking meditation outdoors.
There were tiered walkways at varying heights, and I could barely make out the other participants moving in the extraordinarily dense fog. My mind both focused and expanded while I walked, and soon I had the vivid sensation that these cloaked silhouettes in the distance were figures of people I had loved who had died.
I made my way slowly along the frozen paths, amid trees and branches that had been lopped off in the recent hurricane. There were tiered walkways at varying heights, and I could barely make out the other participants moving in the extraordinarily dense fog. My mind both focused and expanded while I walked, and soon I had the vivid sensation that these cloaked silhouettes in the distance were figures of people I had loved who had died. They floated nearby to reassure me. Here was my mother on a path above me, telling me she was okay, that she would be there when my time came to join her. A beloved aunt was saying that everything would be all right; there was nothing to be afraid of. My best friend, who’d been killed in a plane crash in 1979, sent calming thoughts. We will be here, they were saying. Don’t worry. There was nothing in life worth getting worked up over. There was nothing in death to fear.
The figures glided like ghosts through the misty air. I was one of those figures, too. A memory was dislodged of the Grand March I had participated in years ago at a mountain resort—part parade, part snake dance—where hundreds of us were led through the main room of a lodge, crisscrossing back and forth at increasing speeds, heading outdoors and then back in, somehow never stumbling or losing our way. Amid the festivity I noticed on the walls some old black-and-white photos of guests who had stayed there decades before. They had sped and laughed their way through the exhilarating Grand March before me, and they had experienced death before me. They had done one and then the other; so could I.
I had no idea how much time had passed when I heard the gentle chime signaling the end of the walking meditation. I wiped my tears as I returned to my blanketed corner of the room. Until you stop breathing, there’s more right with you than wrong with you, I reminded myself, according to the tenets of mindfulness. But, oh, it had taught me so much more that day.