Lessons from a Year of Solitude

Cara Lai
February 2, 2024
Dust Swirling In The Sunlight In A Kitchen

A lot of us approach our meditation practice with the mentality that we are somehow fundamentally flawed. We may have gotten the message that we can’t trust our thoughts, our impulses, our emotions, ourselves. Many of us even feel as though humans in general are only making trouble by existing on the planet.

At the end of the summer of 2020, at the height of the pandemic, rising global temperatures and raging wildfires, in the midst of a hot mess of violence and protests on the streets of America, I set out on a solitary meditation retreat for a year. I brought with me my own hot mess: a body run down and twisted in knots from having had Lyme disease for eight years, and a mind that was angsty and foggy—like a feral-but-tranquilized cat.

The idea was to stay in this cabin in the mountains of southwest Colorado and attempt to meditate my face off for an entire year. I had done a lot of long retreats, but nothing longer than three months, and nothing by myself. My husband (bless his soul) dropped me off, and I watched through tears as his car turned a corner and drove out of sight down the rocky access road. I was so overwhelmed by what lay ahead that I could hardly glance at my feelings, let alone fully face them in meditation. I took a cold shower in the hopes of getting refreshed enough to actually sit with myself. Drying off on the porch afterwards, the bar of Dr. Bronners soap sitting in front of me shone blindingly white in my face, screaming, “ALONE.” Well, actually, it said “ALL-ONE,” but I knew what it meant. It was taunting me, reminding me, “This is what you wanted, Cara!”

I wanted to get away from my slovenly fellow humans and the overwhelming, intractable mess we’ve made on this planet, and just be in my own little world—one where things made sense, where it felt like I was doing something to better myself and, ultimately, put something good into the world when I came out on the other side. But for the first time in a dozen or so years of meditating, I found myself completely unable to focus. No matter what I tried—and I tried everything I could think of—something about what was happening was so unbearable that sitting and watching my breath felt just shy of torture.

I was aware of feeling like an unwelcome guest in that place. Surrounded by the huge mountains, the ponderosas, the cicadas and the pine cones, everything seemed to be fitting into the web of life quite neatly. And here I was, getting Hannaford groceries delivered, churning out bags of garbage and a plume of woodsmoke from my chimney for the birds overhead to inhale. I would look out at the mountains through a haze caused by some distant wildfires, and think about how badly we’d effed things up as a species.
As the days, weeks, and months ticked by, I found myself in completely unfamiliar territory, where nothing seemed to make any sense, there was no sense of direction or purpose, but just enough hope to keep me there. Day after day, I did my due diligence as a meditator, sitting and walking, sitting and walking. It wasn’t long before my routine devolved into sitting, walking, lying in bed, pacing, screaming, breaking down, and sobbing. Eventually the crying became a regular event, to the point where I couldn’t remember a time when I had gone a day without crying.

It was in this woebegone state that something unexpected happened. I was doing some walking meditation in front of my cabin when I heard a gentle voice, from out of nowhere, saying to the scrub oaks, “Don’t you just love her?”
As trippy as it was, I was used to strange things happening on retreat, so I was mostly just surprised about the concept of being loved by this place where I felt like an intruder.

What if my presence was wanted, or even nourishing? What if there was a usefulness for me being there and bearing witness to my life and the life around me, and doing this profound and ancient practice? What else should I have been doing? Of all the ways one could be spending their time, this seemed pretty wholesome.

It’s been two years, and I am still unpacking that retreat. But one thing that feels true is this: there is another way of approaching life than from a place of believing we are broken, trying not to screw things up even more than we already have, and searching for a way out of our predicament. What if we are already whole, and our existence on this planet is welcome? This is not to deny the very real pain of things, or the hand we have in it. It’s to see that pain as only one part of the picture, and to recognize the goodness at the heart of who we are.

I would argue that all of our thoughts, emotions, and impulses are deeply connected to what is good: safety, well-being, and love. (If you disagree, look at your mind and see what’s true for yourself.) This framing is a way that we can hold our experience when we meditate. Start from a place of trusting whatever comes up. Instead of feeling like you have to fend off distractions or view your thoughts as untrustworthy or wrong, honor them as a part of what belongs in this moment.

Maybe it’s not about trying to become good, but about returning to the original goodness that’s already woven into the fabric of who you are. Maybe it’s not an accident that you were born at this time, with this body, this trauma, and this set of circumstances. Maybe it’s not an accident that you found mindfulness, or that you’re reading this article today. And maybe your life on this earth is waiting for you to come home, waiting for you to remember that you have a place here, that you’re needed, and that you belong.

Cara Lai spent most of her life trying to figure out how to be happy, or at least avoid total misery, which landed her on a meditation cushion for the majority of her adulthood. Throughout many consciousness adventures including a few mind-bendingly long meditation retreats, she has explored the wilderness of the mind, chronic illness, and the importance of pleasure. She teaches teen and adult meditation retreats across the country.

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