Finally, I get it.
I am not Pema Chodron. I am not Elizabeth Gilbert. I am not Cheryl Strayed.
I am Nancy Colasurdo.
But let me back up …
I recently signed up to go on a retreat with a group of local women. The destination was a Zen Buddhist monastery in the Catskills. A large part of the appeal was the promise of no cell signal, no Wi-Fi, no modern-day distractions. Another aspect of it that really attracted me was the spiritual setting and the opportunity to partake in as much of the ritual as I chose. Plus, it would offer a sense of community, but also a chance for solitude – the perfect combo in the world of me.
Upon arrival there (about three hours from my home in Hoboken, N.J.) our group was greeted by a young monk who took us through the removal of our shoes, the selection of a robe to be worn for much of our stay, and then to our respective rooms. I chose a navy blue frock and followed him down a darkened, dank hall to my room. I expected modest. It was austere.
The bunk beds (I had requested my own room because I snore) were low to the ground, linens neatly folded on top. I was slightly taken aback, but moved through my thoughts quickly and decided not to dwell on if I’d be able to sleep on what appeared to be a very thin futon inside the bed frame. I donned my robe and joined the others for orientation in the meditation room.
An amiable woman took us through the paces for the morning meditation, or what they call the morning “sit.” It would be 45 minutes long. We were encouraged to make our spot – which would be ours for the entire stay – as comfortable as possible. She took us through the ceremonial aspects – when to bow, where to put our prayer books, etc. The bell would ring in the morning at 5:30 a.m. and we were to be ready to “sit” by 5:50.
I had decided before my arrival that despite not being a morning person, I would partake in at least one of these. I wanted to expand my daily meditation practice and I saw this as a chance for an authentic jump start.
As part of our instructions, the woman mentioned that we were to be still during the sit. We weren’t to move even if a mouse skittered by or a chipmunk ran through. My openness turned into a moment of panic. What??? A creature might come through here? It didn’t seem to faze anyone else.
Nancy, chill out. It probably happens rarely, if ever. I even made a joke about it later to the other women who had traveled there from Hoboken.
“I’m just warning you right now that if a creature runs by while I’m meditating, I’ll be screeching,” I said to hearty laughter.
Having received our instructions for the morning sit, we moved to the dining room with our hostess. She took us through the reason we were each carrying three bowls nested in each other, a set of chopsticks, a napkin and a little towel. We were to bring those same items to every meal.
Each piece was to be taken and placed in a special way and order. I like the meaningful aspect of things and found this fascinating. The bowls were to be set before us in order from biggest to smallest, the chopsticks placed with points facing us. As the large bowl of food came down the table with two ladles, we were told to only take what we would definitely eat, as nothing can be left in our bowls at the end of the meal.
Later, at dinner when this was put into practice, I understood more fully what this meant. The first bowl contained scallion pancakes, which were delicious. I took one with pleasure. The second bowl appeared to be pureed carrot soup. I carefully avoided the tofu floating in it and put a small amount in my second bowl. The third bowl was a green salad.
I set to eating. Since there are no spoons, we were to drink the soup right from the bowl. I tasted it and instantly realized it was spicy on my palate. I didn’t like it at all. Uh oh. I finished the rest of my food and didn’t know what to do with the rest of the soup. Did I mention that meals are silent? So, hmmmmm, how to respectfully deal with this?
The young monk sitting across from me motioned to the monk sitting next to me that I had leftover food. I whispered to him that I couldn’t eat it. He graciously took the bowl and poured the contents into his and promptly drank it. I felt the love in the moment. I was trying to stay respectfully silent and thank him profusely at the same time.
Then the kettle of hot water came down the table. We had been instructed that this would be to clean our bowls. It was done in an orderly way. You put some water in, swish the bottom of the bowl with your chopsticks and keep doing that until all of the water is in one bowl. Then you drink it so there’s no waste. That’s right, drink it.
So, to be clear, the remnants of the soup I didn’t like were now in this hot water along with salad bits and crumbs from the pancake. I controlled my gag reflex and respectfully drank. And wondered how in the world I would do this for every meal for three more days. I decided to stop fretting and stay in the moment. That meal was done and I was fine.
It was time for our little group of women to go to a nearby cabin and congregate for a session with a life coach. I loved this. I shared my story of the monk being so kind and drinking my soup and of my challenge with drinking the hot water. They laughed. Clearly I was going to be the irreverent one on this retreat.
When I saw a sign near the entrance of the cabin suggesting we check ourselves for ticks after a walk, I started for a moment and then calmly asked about that. At a friend’s suggestion I had packed bug repellent, so I wondered if I should always be wearing it. I was told it was only a real concern after long walks. I was already pretty sure I wouldn’t be taking one of those.
Still, I was rolling with things.
I enjoyed the exercises the life coach took us through. As we drank tea and looked out the window at a gorgeous lake view, she asked us to write about a ‘first’ from our childhood, a memory. This was mine:
I am writing a book with a main character named Leslie Carter. She is modeled after Nancy Drew. I am 12 and I can’t believe I’m doing this. I can write. I feel empowered and way deep in my core I know I will always be doing this.
She also asked us to pick one word as our theme for the weekend. She had construction paper and crayons and we were to write it down. I chose “Quiet” and wrote it in gray letters on light blue paper. Then I highlighted around the letters in subdued tones of yellow, orange, green. I chose that word because I wanted to learn to better quiet my mind and open myself to other things.
When we left the cabin, about 8:30 this first evening, I wondered how I’d fall asleep so early. I’m a night owl, usually up until 1 a.m. or so. Our leader warned us not to leave food out in our rooms unless it was sealed in a plastic container because otherwise “the little mice” might get at it. What???????????????
I could hardly breathe, such was my panic. I was vocal in my distress, trying to keep calm. A woman in the room next to mine let out a scream when she found a bug in her linens and my fear escalated. While she took the bug to let it loose outside, I heard her roommate give a start. There was a little mouse in the hall.
Let me reiterate that we are not wearing shoes (socks were OK) and that it is now about 50 degrees and there’s no heat. Others talked about how it resembled camping. But I don’t camp. Ever. I don’t need five-star treatment, but we were way out of my comfort zone now. Ready for diversion, I joined a few others in the lounge down the hall and talked with the residents there. It was pleasant enough, but I was preoccupied now with the critters. How in the world would I sleep?
Then they all saw me give a start when I saw movement out of the corner of my eye.
“Did you see a mouse?” one asked. “There is one running around the room.”
My feet came up off the floor almost of their own volition. I shared my panic with the group, just needing to at that point. I rambled about how I know it’s an irrational fear and that I shouldn’t have it but that I was scared.
Then the remarkable happened. A young woman named Emily suggested I might stop calling it irrational because everyone has those kinds of fears and that it wasn’t helping me to compound the fear by beating myself up for having it. I heard her.
“You have a roommate, right?” she said.
I shook my head, told her no because I snore and had requested my own room. She offered to stay with me. I felt the tears hitting my eyes.
“Really?” I said.
“Would you be OK with the top bunk?” I asked.
“Of course,” she said.
She explained she would likely be up until 2 a.m. or so reading in the lounge, but would come sleep in my room after that. She even came with me right then to make up the bed so it would be ready for her to climb into. I couldn’t stop thanking her. It relaxed me a lot. As she was unfolding blankets, she said, “You would not be the first person who didn’t find this place a good fit.”
When she headed back to the lounge I put a blanket along the bottom of my door and began to unpack my suitcase. It had been non-stop activity since arrival and I hadn’t done that yet. Then I flipped through a magazine while cautiously reclining in my low-to-the-ground bed. I was wired.
As the hours ticked by, 11 p.m., then midnight, it became obvious that I wasn’t going to sleep. I thought about leaving in the morning. My thoughts on that went something like this, spinning and swirling for hours:
What a copout. No one else is contemplating leaving. It’s a mouse, for goodness sake. It’s afraid of you. It’s smaller than you. It’s irrational. What is your problem? You made a commitment. You’re not quitting.
Still no sleep. Still no Emily.
I said a Hail Mary. And then another. And another. I flipped through the magazine again.
Then I laid back flat and looked up at the wood grain of the bunk bed above me. I was fascinated by the design (see photo inset). I saw in it an image of two eyes, a nose and a mouth. What did those piercing eyes see, I wondered? They were looking at me so intently. What did they see?
I got lost in my silence and as more hours ticked by, the fear started to become something else. Not something to be conquered, but to be accepted. Self-acceptance. I started asking myself about all the places in my life that I’m brave and acknowledging myself for those. I take creative risks all the time. My entire life takes courage to live in the sense that it’s far from traditional. This rush of thoughts was like hugging myself. The quiet was doing me in and bringing important things out at the same time. It was maddening.
I kept saying prayers. It was now past 4 a.m. Still no Emily.
The call for the morning sit was just an hour and a half away. I had to go to the bathroom, but that meant going out in the hall and I was afraid. I started visioning what it would be like to leave that day and my entire body felt more relaxed. It made me nervous to think about the winding drive down the mountain, but I envisioned myself listening to Carole King’s Tapestry and it felt serene and right.
I was still afraid of the mice, but I had reached acceptance. I had had my own private “sit” in that bunk bed with the face in the wood staring down at me. I had gone to a very Zen place. That word “Quiet” that I’d put on construction paper … I’d already manifested that. What came out of this quiet was like nothing I’d ever experienced. I was absolutely fine about leaving. No regrets.
At about 5 a.m. Emily came in, apologizing. She had fallen asleep while reading in the lounge.
“Have you been laying here all night with the light on?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said. “But it’s been good.”
“I’m so sorry,” she said.
“No, actually, I think it happened for a reason,” I said. “It was only in the last hour or so that I started to find the peace in this. I’m leaving.”
We talked for a little while and the bell rang for morning sit. She left to don her robe. I’d already done my own private sit, so I started packing. I got dressed and pulled myself together. I made sure the women I’d driven up with had alternate rides. I waited until the morning ritual was done so I could say a proper good-bye. I explained that I wanted a retreat to leave me feeling nourished and rested and that this one would not do that. I left with not a single regret.
As envisioned, I sang with Carole King all the way down the mountain. About an hour into the trip I stopped at a diner suggested by Emily and had the best plate of eggs and toast I’ve ever eaten in my life.
I am Nancy Colasurdo.
So often this little number plays in my head: “I am not ___________ enough.” I fill in the blanks with, alternately, words like deep, spiritual, earthy, Zen, flexible, easygoing, etc. But you know what? I’m done with that. Done.
This is who I am. I don’t like mice. I like my ‘nature’ neatly packaged. I don’t like when food on my plate touches other food on my plate.
Am I high maintenance? I don’t know. Who’s judging?
I don’t have to apologize for not being a wilderness gal or one who is willing to scrub floors at an ashram. I have my own simple ways and my own diva ones.
When I came home just 24 hours after being at the monastery, I slept the afternoon away. That was yesterday. Today I got up and ate breakfast and walked to a new little flower and décor shop in town. I came out with a hydrangea and some eucalyptus and put them in a glass vase on a side table.
After I posted a photo of it on Facebook, friends commented that my home looks like a retreat.
And if that isn’t a metaphor for this whole fabulous, beautiful experience, I don’t know what is.
It was all right here to start with. I just needed to see it and give myself a big, fat hug.