How My First Residential Meditation Retreat Freed Me from Self-Doubt

Full disclosure: this title is a bit of a lie. It’s mostly true. My first residential retreat forced me to turn and face my self-doubt, when I had previously run, hid, and thus, found myself controlled by it, for most of my life. That created an opening in my awareness and the result was a whole lot of freedom to expand. But it didn’t set me “free” from doubt in the sense that it made it go away. In truth, I am not sure that anything can. It’s a pattern of the mind that is so engrained that I suspect nothing short of enlightenment (which doesn’t seem to be happening for me any time soon) is going to dislodge it. So what do you do when you can’t beat something? You join it. That’s what the retreat made me do. It made me meet the doubt half-way and the freedom came in when I realized I didn’t have to make it go away at all.  

I didn’t go to the retreat with the specific aim of taking down my self-doubt complex. I had been meditating long enough by that point to know that isn’t really how this works. I knew that I couldn’t control—and shouldn’t try to control—the retreat experience by setting any goals. The point was to take what comes and work with it because that’s what I’d have to do in my life when the retreat was over. Fortunately for me, however, the retreat went exactly according to my non-plan.

I had thought it wouldn’t be a big deal. I had been meditating for about 5 years, I had done some 1-day intensives before, so I was not without skills. At least that’s what I’d told myself. The first night was pretty easy. The silence didn’t start until after dinner and the talk and sit were pleasant. The retreat was at a Catholic facility well out of town, so the only noise was the crickets singing me lullabies. Nevertheless, I could not sleep because I always struggle to sleep in unfamiliar places. Though I avoided a total melt down, it was much too late when I eventually drifted off to sleep.

The morning gave me hope that the day wouldn’t be a total loss because I didn’t feel too bad. I started with a sit before breakfast. It was hazy and uninspiring but not awful. Breakfast, coffee, and a walk outside helped immensely, so the next sit was better and I enjoyed the talk from the teacher leading the retreat. I started to think I might be okay, but by the third sit everything started to change. The weather turned to rain. In a silent retreat, where you can’t talk, engage with other retreatants, or—gasp—even look at your phone, there are precious few distractions. Food is one and walking meditation periods when you tend to basic needs or just move is the other. When the weather is nice, you can get a change of scenery and enjoy the air. When it’s not nice, you have no choice but to find a spot indoors and awkwardly try to avoid running into the path of the other yogis doing walking meditation, who always look so much more focused, devout, and serene than you.

After lunch, things got worse. The coffee had worn off and the meal told my body that it was time to take a nap. Having done several retreats since then, I now know that on retreats my body just wants to sleep from the hours of 2-4 PM. On that retreat, though, I hadn’t learned this yet. I spent the sits fighting off sleep and the suspicion that I was a hopeless failure at meditation. I had also totally failed to appreciate the physical toll that lots of extra meditation would have on my body. At the time, I meditated only about 20 minutes each day. By Saturday afternoon, I had already done about 4 times that, sitting on a cushion with no back support. Everything hurt, so meditation was just sitting with one source of physical pain after another. Even walking meditation wasn’t much help since I was so tired. Feeling defeated, I headed to the kitchen for a snack, hoping maybe a boost in blood sugar might help raise my spirits. I brightened when I saw apples and peanut butter, one of my favorite after school snacks, and sat in near solitude to eat them.

My doubt voice, however, took this opportunity to enter stage right like a diva for its big aria. “Aren’t you supposed to be doing walking meditation right now?”, it asked. I ignored it and sliced my apple. “Did you really come here to eat? You could have had an apple at home.” I smeared some peanut butter, rolled my eyes at myself, and sat. The voice didn’t like being ignored so it turned up the volume. “Why do you have to do stuff like this? Can’t you just be like everyone else?” This was harder to hear. I might have cried but for another yogi standing across the room. I held it together but then the really low bows started, “You could have spent this weekend with your children and you chose to spend it here navel-gazing.” Ouch. I was sinking fast. But then the voice got arrogant, and made a mistake when it tried to land the finishing blow.

When it said “This is a waste of your time,” I suddenly thought “Wait, what?” I might doubt myself but I knew my meditation practice had been good for me. I knew the studies demonstrating its benefits. I had seen my life change consistently for the better since I started meditating and had relied on it countless times to pull myself off so many mental ledges. Thus, when the doubt voice started to attack my practice, my bullshit detector went off like an alarm clock to wake me up. But I didn’t respond with anger. I didn’t punch back at the doubt voice like Rocky after being battered on the ropes. Instead, I laughed (at least internally). I laughed because I suddenly realized that I had been the object of a life-long prank. In a flash. I saw how many times I had listened to that voice and ended up feeling lost, or stuck, or weak. I had tried for years to push the doubt away, puff myself up with feigned confidence, or take the path of least resistance and none of those strategies had worked. So instead, like pulling the mask off a friend at a costume party, I said to the doubt voice in my head “Oh, there you are. I was wondering when you’d show up. Take a seat. We’ll be here for a while.” It did just that and let me finish my snack in peace.

That little exchange also helped me see that I had been beating myself up physically too. I accepted that I was tired and hurting, so I made the rebellious decision to skip the last sit before dinner so I could do some light yoga in my room and shower to prepare to sleep as soon as the evening sit was done. It helped me a lot and my outlook was better at dinner than it had been all day. The evening sit was wonderful and included a guided loving-kindness practice that helped me connect to my daughters and community, even though I wasn’t physically with them. As soon as it ended, I got up, went to bed, and fell asleep immediately.

I awoke the next morning to sunshine, a clear head, and a lighter spirit. As I did the first sit, the truth of what happened the day before was distilled for me in this flash of insight: “Doubt feels a lot like truth.” When you are in it, doubt feels like the real truth. Truth with a capital “T”. It feels like all the lived experience before that was the illusion and the doubting construction of the facts is what is real. But it isn’t and the struggle is seeing that. The doubt had also caused me to be withholding of care for myself at a time when I needed it most. I had been physically in pain for hours before I finally accepted that I needed to do something about it. When I let go of the doubt that backed me into the corner of trying to look like a perfect yogi, I cut myself slack and took care of my body. This is when my mind and heart relaxed and opened enough for me to see clearly.

After leaving that retreat, my doubt did not ride off into the sunset and my tendency to be harsh with myself did not fade into oblivion. They come back to me frequently and sometimes catch me off-guard and knock me down. More often than not, however, I see them in time before they can do much damage. I see them now because I look for them. Before that retreat, I had not wanted to look for my doubt voice because I didn’t want it to be there. I wanted to feel strong, confident, and capable, not weak, and scared and unsure. So, when doubt cropped up, I didn’t know what it was and couldn’t see what it looked like and too often mistook it as a sign of my own frailty. In reality, doubt is just a part of my personality that wants me to be good, to do things well, and to follow the right path. For too long, doubt had let me wander only on a narrow and constricting path, but in a world full of hubris and recklessness a tendency to check myself and check again isn’t entirely bad. The retreat helped me see that doubt was not truth, but only a flavor of it. It helped me see that I could love that doubting part of myself and bring it along with me as I moved forward into the unclear future.

There are lots of stories that people share about how they prevailed over doubt. I don’t quarrel with any of those. For some, the “do it scared” approach works. For others, fake it until you make it may convince even self-doubters of their own abilities. But for me, doing nothing was the only way that I could have made peace with my self-doubt. I had to stop fighting it, stop ignoring it, and stop trying to control it. When I did, I could get a look at it. To my surprise, I found that it wasn’t that scary or ugly after all and I could just let it hang out with me when it chose to show up every so often. The retreat therefore didn’t make my doubt go away, but it changed my relationship with it and that’s what set me free.

Want the condensed version of this story? Here’s a reenactment of the retreat experience. We promise no mommies, meditators, or little doubt voices were harmed in the making of this film.

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