Earlier this summer, after learning a writing teacher I wanted to study with in Cape Cod wasn’t available, I asked my literary coach and yoga instructor, Lisa Weinert, to help me put together a personalized writing retreat that I could enjoy at home in New York City. Instead of escaping to spend time writing in some remote bucolic place, I’d find peace in the chaos of Manhattan. I spend a lot of time focusing on fleeing where I live in order to get in touch with — or to reclaim — another part of myself. And although I love a good island or mountain vacation, all too many times I’ve come home and the sense of peace I enjoyed evaporates as I try to shove my suitcases onto the closing doors of the subway after a long flight home.
It was ironic. I spent so much time dreaming about visiting other places, but here I was, planning more time in the thick August heat of New York City while everyone else was dreaming of the shore. The saying “wherever you go, there you are” echoed in my head. Maybe I was going crazy, but I was committed to staying.
I’ve been working with my writing coach on a book about the recovery of self worth, based on my 21-year journey from drug addiction to career and life success. What I learned during my at-home retreat was that writing about addiction is hard, but writing about my success is even harder. I thought my challenge was learning how to talk about the darkest parts of my past, but what I actually needed to learn was how to talk about the brightest parts of my present. I needed to learn how to occupy space and shine.
The plan was to travel downtown from my Upper Manhattan apartment to start each day at 10 am with guided meditations, writing prompts and discussion about the craft, all lead by my coach. Then, at 11 am, I would get to writing. I would close each day with private yoga sessions at 3 pm and other healing practices and treatments such as holistic voice training or reiki sessions. These were practices that my coach handpicked for my literary journey.
The idea of this holistic literary immersion sparked both delight and a healthy amount of fear in me. I’m not a novice to esoteric healing practices, but I’ve always kept my spiritual practice and my writing separate. I joked that I am a journalist, and I am a witch, and never the twain shall meet. A friend once suggested that I needed a sherpa to help me connect my mind and my spirit.
Subconsciously, I questioned whether I was worth it. Who the hell did I think I was to undertake an intensive retreat like this? How did I get to this place of luxury, of time and resources? Who was I to spend an entire week focused on myself? Then I thought, “Who the hell am I not to do it?” The irony of questioning my worth while writing a book about my worth was not lost on me.
To make myself feel better, I began to make a list of everything I would achieve:
- Complete my last chapters.
- Think through a marketing plan and sketch out my new website design.
- Come up with the perfect elevator pitch for book.
- Gain clarity.
- Receive answers.
I was training to win an obstacle course. But maybe the week, and my plans, would be a bust. Would I actually create anything? Can you really schedule creativity?
I was in for a surprise.
My first day of planned writing yielded little. I sat at the desk and eked out 1,000 words that I did not like. I didn’t check anything off my list. Instead, I found myself locked in an obsessive compulsive struggle with my cell phone and the siren call of social media; the need to clean up the wallpaper on my laptop; the overwhelming need to research the name of that movie from the ‘80s that I mention in a particular paragraph of my book.
I was spinning. I wanted to be anywhere but at my desk at the writer’s co-working space I’d rented, the desk I’d rented to be around writers. I started wondering if I could even be a writer. Perhaps I’d made a mistake. I glanced at Rumi’s words I’d written in my notebook margin that morning taken from our first meditation, “What you are seeking is seeking you.”
“But when?” I asked Rumi.
I felt heavy and sad that I was already falling behind. Despite an earlier guided meditation with my coach where she coaxed me to mentally release old stories, the ones that I tell myself in those moments of doubt, the ones that keep me up at night, I found those old thoughts creeping back in.
I started wondering if I could even be a writer. Perhaps I’d made a mistake. I glanced at Rumi’s words I’d written in my notebook margin that morning taken from our first meditation, “What you are seeking is seeking you.”
Just before 3 pm, I packed my things and walked to my “yoga for writers” session. Before the retreat, I did not like yoga, which I thought of as anathema for a conscious woman of 2019 (and this is something that makes little sense considering how many yoga pants I own). I associated yoga with slowness, challenging stretches, my perpetually sweaty hands and feet on the mat and crippling self-awareness. But, as I walked to my sessions through downtown Manhattan, with its random mix of heroin addicts nodding off on street corners, artists running to appointments, dollar stores and $7 matcha oat lattes, I began to fall back in love with the madness and struggle of New York City. The balance of so many extremes in one place felt incredibly endearing.
During my retreat, I would practice yoga five times in just one week. I looked at the proposed schedule and worried I’d made a terrible mistake. Was it too late to find a place on Cape Cod? But I thought about the past year of work with my coach, my trust in the process, my own meditation practice and its benefits, and I committed.
The first yoga studio was housed in an unassuming building near Union Square. The room was small with a lone window that streamed in diffuse light from a courtyard. Although the building was on Fifth Avenue, the room hummed with quiet and calm.
As I learned how to open my fingers, hands and wrists against a wall, my anxiety grew. It was just me and my vulnerable self. There was no place to hide. I slowed down and allowed myself to witness its ebbs and flows. I observed the feeling of discomfort and invited myself to be there fully.
Throughout the week, I practiced specific poses to lengthen me from ground to crown, learning to stand tall and to take up more space. We focused first on my feet, the source of so many aches and pains over the past years. My feet, literally unable to support me, had become a glaring metaphor. I strained at the stretches, twists, and elongation, gritting my teeth and cursing my body when I couldn’t manage a plank with my weak wrists.
With each breath, I tried to just observe the way I unnecessarily gripped my stomach or clenched my muscles out of habit, not need. My coach would tell me to “do less” or “not compromise” on making myself as comfortable as possible, and as I continued through the week, I began letting go. I worked on easing up on the voice that berated me for not being an expert at this task. It felt like shedding an old ill-fitting coat I’d gotten accustomed to wearing. I was slowly becoming unencumbered.
I recognized that voice. That voice of the perfectionist sits on my shoulder each time I sit to write when inspiration does not easily flow.
I practiced savasana — which I’ve nicknamed advanced napping — at the end of my private yoga sessions. I allowed myself to say “yes” to a weighted eye mask and to readjust it after it was placed on my eyes during the pose. Simple, right? Not for me. There was a voice in my head, a very loud voice, telling me that my coach might be offended if I moved the pillow, that she knew better, that taking care of her was more important than my comfort. My quest for perfectionism extends to those around me too. I felt guilty for wanting her to have placed the pillow “perfectly” on my eyes and frustrated that my first instinct was to try to become smaller, to have fewer expectations of her and myself so that I could keep living in this world. Adjusting that eye pillow was an act of radical self care.
When I got on the subway to go home, I was greeted by the antithesis of that quiet practice: screeching brakes, screaming children, and hordes of humans with their sweaty backs and oily faces bumping into me like we were playing bumper cars. I was still soft from the day of practice and had forgotten to carry with me the armor I normally use to survive the city. Rather than pushing back or running away, fight or flight, I breathed into my body and listened to everything around me, rooting myself into my sandals, feet firm on the ground, echoing my yoga practice. I am here, too, I reminded myself while looking at each person’s face and wishing for each soul to find connection, peace, and love on that platform. We are all here.
New York constantly reminds me to cultivate balance in a world that seeks to disturb and disrupt. I now know that inner peace and serenity are not only found in times of calm and quiet – perhaps during a retreat in the mountains or a remote island (like the retreats I have done in the past) – but sometimes best felt in the midst of that madness.
The rest of the week was a cycle of meditation, writing, yoga, hand picked healing treatments and more writing. The experience of these practices, particularly learning how to stand tall and strong in my own body, brought me to one of my biggest realizations as my coach and I worked on my writing: I had spent a lot of time writing about what had gone wrong in my life, but I had not written a single word about what had gone right. My coach pointed out that I had never even written about the past 21 years of my life, and that is actually what my book is about. Fear and guilt kept me from doing so. During the retreat, we nourished that part of my life, that part of my story, something I know will be a lifelong process.
There is a photo of me in a restorative pose during the week, gently twisting my hips and legs, one arm extended left while the rest of my body lay supported over a bolster. I am small in the frame, alone in the white-washed room with its wood panel covered windows that shine light through stars carved in repeating patterns. Emotion welled up in me when I saw the photo. I was the only thing in the perfectly quiet room, right in the center. And I was at peace, receiving the support I needed. All I needed to do was ask for it and allow myself to receive it, just like the writing retreat.
A few days later, I returned to work and was feeling pretty good about some of the new habits I had brought to my “real” life: packing lunch on Sunday for the week, scheduling in time for myself on my calendar at work, managing to write. Later that week, I even read my work at an open mic. And when I made time to review the writing I had done while on retreat and discovered the words were actually quite good.
I signed up for a restorative yoga class that Tuesday, but left much later than I’d intended and barely arrived in time. Once in class, I allowed myself to practice each posture, enjoying it as I experienced it in that moment. No pressure, just one pose at a time. And when I inadvertently made eye contact with the woman next to me who glided with seeming ease from pose to pose, I smiled and wished her and myself connection, peace, and love in that moment.
As I got in the elevator to go home, I heard the loud clomps of a woman running down the hallway to catch the elevator. I held it open for her and let her in.
“I couldn’t wait for the next one,” she said. “I know, I know, not what I should be doing right after yoga.”
I laughed and replied, “It’s New York, we try,” and as we rode down to the lobby, I smiled thinking of the Marie Howe poem my coach had read to me in our last yoga session during the retreat:
What the Silence Says:
I know that you think you already know but—
Longer than that.
even longer than that.
As the numbers ticked down from floor-to-floor, I resolved to do just that, to give myself the gift of silence, of waiting.