Last July, I had the good fortune to sit an 18-day meditation retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Marin County, California. Often as I prepare to embark on retreat, friends will comment that sitting in silence for several weeks sounds relaxing. As anyone who has endured multiple days of uninterrupted sitting and walking meditation practice knows, it’s not a trip to the beach.
The barrage of annoying chatter and ingrained patterns of neurosis that come to the surface when you stop and pay attention is humbling. Aiming the monkey mind at the present moment is way more challenging than herding cats.
So why do I subject myself to it? Why not take that trip to the beach instead? Every retreat since my first 5-day venture has led me to understanding I could never have imagined. More than anything else, this is what fuels and inspires me. This year was no different, and in some ways, it was the culmination of my 28 years of practice.
On the first day of the retreat, I received the results of a biopsy I’d had a few days earlier. The biopsy showed a malignant tumor in my left breast. The tumor was very small, but still the words “invasive ductal carcinoma” slammed into me like a runaway train. The adrenaline rush lasted most of the day.
As the concept—breast cancer!—began to sink in, predictable mental and emotional states appeared: fear, anxiety and grief for the healthy, low-maintenance body I’ve enjoyed all these years. Remarkably absent was the frenzied commentary I fully expected after so many years of watching my mind intimately.
There was no “Why me?” or “Poor me,” or “What did I do to deserve this?” or any of the myriad judgments my mind would have added to the same situation 20 years ago. In fact, most of the time, I felt buoyed by a deep, underlying well of equanimity. The situation was most certainly not what I would wish for, but my mind, after so many years of practice, had been trained not to make matters worse.
The first nine days of the retreat were devoted to metta (lovingkindness) practice. This created a soft field of kindness around the emotions I was experiencing. A week into the retreat, metta gave way to equanimity.
From equanimity came overwhelming gratitude, not for the cancer of course, but for the years of hard work that had allowed me to sit with the reality of a potentially life-threatening condition without losing balance. When I reported the situation and my response to it to meditation teacher and author Joseph Goldstein, he said, “This is why we practice.”
This is absolutely true. While mindfulness is recently being touted for its ability to help us focus and “get ahead” among other benefits, its original intention was to help us navigate the inherent suffering in our lives.
The Buddha first became aware of suffering inherent in our human lives while on a clandestine trip out of the palace where he was born and lived. On this journey, he encountered a person wracked with old age, another wasting away from illness, a human corpse, and an awakened person. In the face of old age, sickness and death, what was it that the awakened being had discovered that allowed him to be at peace with the suffering in the world? This began a seven-year journey into extreme asceticism—to counter the opulence he’d grown up with—and finally, a realization that neither extreme leads to happiness. The “middle way” is the path
From this understanding emerged the Four Noble Truths: the truth of suffering, the truth of the causes of suffering (clinging to what is impermanent, which is everything in our conditioned experience), the truth of the end of suffering, and the truth of the path to the end of suffering.
No matter how much yoga we practice, how healthy our diet or how stress-free our lives, we all age, experience illness and eventually, pass out of our bodies. We will all experience gain and loss, and pleasure and pain, multiple times throughout our lives. This is not a mistake. It is simply the way our lives unfold. Our choice is in how we meet these inevitable ups and downs. And as I’ve discovered, we can train our minds to respond to life’s vicissitudes with equanimity and grace.
The retreat also reminded me in no uncertain terms how unsustainable my life had become. Working four jobs and taking off maybe three or four days a year is not how I want to spend this precious life. This has become even more apparent as I move through the cancer treatment process, which is far more complicated than I’d imagined. I’m still figuring out how to find the middle way that allows me to pay my bills, negotiate the cancer process, and add some much-needed down time to my life.
I sometimes experience sadness, stress and worry. Sometimes I get caught in these emotions. Sometimes I don’t. Practice has taught me to be okay with the times when I get caught. No need to add judgment to an already less-than-ideal situation. Equanimity, including accepting my mind’s unhealthy patterns, has become my baseline.
This is why I practice. The underlying field of equanimity I discovered on retreat remains through the highs and lows of this new unfolding process. It is always present, even when things ought to be unbearable. To my teachers and mentors, I feel nothing but gratitude for supporting me on this life path. May all beings be at ease, no matter what path they choose.
Charlotte Bell Charlotte, founder of the Mindful Yoga Collective, has been practicing yoga since 1982, and began teaching in 1986. Certified by B.K.S. Iyengar in 1989, she has established and taught regular classes along Utah's Wasatch Front, and in California and Hawaii. For her full bio, click here.