A month-long meditation retreat, the most amazing spiritual experience of my life
How an Enlightenment Skeptic, Found Spiritual Confidence
By Mayra Cuevas
It wasn’t an overnight decision. In a sense, I had been preparing for this month-long meditation retreat since my first mediation experience twenty years ago. I was 16, living in rural Puerto Rico and diagnosed with severe depression. My parents took me to see a therapist. She prescribed only one thing: meditation. Not only did she save my life, but she initiated me on a life-long spiritual journey.
In my 20s, I continued my meditation practice by joining a Buddhist tradition. Initially, I went to a meditation class once a week, and then I slowly incorporated teachings, short weekend retreats and eventually began attending two-week international courses. The transformative nature of my meditation practice always left me wanting to know more about these profound teachings. The peaceful effect the practice had on my mind and the positive changes in my life were irrefutable.
The only doubt that always remained in my mind was whether I – as flawed a being as I currently see myself – could attain what Buddhists call Enlightenment. “The highest of all possible human goals is the attainment of complete enlightenment, an ultimate state of peace in which all obstacles obscuring the mind have been removed and all good qualities such as wisdom, compassion and skillful means have been fully developed.” – from Clear Light of Bliss, Ven. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso.
For me, the answer had always been, “I don’t know.” I was skeptical, not about the teachings but about my own ability to realize their full potential. After all, I was not a monk living in some mountain cave. I was newly married with two step-kids, working in a pressure-cooker environment, trying to launch a second career as an author. Could I really aspire to enlightenment? The answer came during this retreat.
Gaining Spiritual Confidence
Something amazing happens when you take away external distractions: you get to sit with your own mind. To some – as I heard again and again – the prospect of sitting alone for any amount of time with your their mind was an invitation to going crazy. Not for me. I simply couldn’t wait. I was ready to immerse myself in my spiritual practice in a way that was impossible while juggling a never ending to-do list, sitting in Atlanta traffic for more than two hours each day or working in my frantic job.
My retreat schedule included four sessions a day, each was a mixture of prayers, meditation and mantra recitation. Before the beginning of the retreat we were advised to set our “boundaries,” or guidelines meant to aid our retreat experience. We all observed silence until lunchtime. my boundaries also included staying within the Temple grounds and abstaining from most external communication – no internet browsing, no emails, no calls, no texts. The only outside communication I received came from my husband, in the form of handwritten letters, which unexpectedly brought a new sense of intimacy to our relationship.
My retreat lasted 27 days. It was the most meaningful spiritual experience of my life.
I have read texts from various spiritual traditions describing a closeness to a state of purity, divinity or Enlightenment. It wasn’t until I let go of identifying with a limited sense of self that I felt I came as close to that experience as I ever had. This experience – in many ways indescribable – was a sense of peace unlike I had never felt before. A sense of being of one nature with all other beings, where it was impossible to develop even the thought of harming another. My heart felt overcome with only kindness, compassion and love. And I even gained some clarity on the more challenging teachings on wisdom, which had always eluded me.
In the end, the most important realization I gained from my retreat was that the Buddhist path to Enlightenment is possible – even for me. This spiritual confidence came from seeing that the state of peace my Guru described, is already a part of me. It is merely temporarily obscured by negative states of mind.
Returning to the World
“Was it hard coming back?” Friends asked me this question and it was a difficult one to answer.
Funny enough, the first place I visited after finishing my retreat was a Wal-Mart. I went to help a friend purchase some things but the experience of wandering around the aisles felt no different than being in a dream. The world had lost its solidness and I felt lighter being in it.
I knew then that in many ways, a retreat like this would always stay with me and I would carry the experiences in my heart, long after I left.
And even though, I lived in this world, the meaning of my life was no longer a constant search for short-lived moments of external gratification or an unsatisfying accumulation of material things. Instead, I found meaning in understanding that the only aspect of myself that will transcend this life is my mind – what some call a soul. And I realized that the only true path to lasting happiness is inner peace.
Mayra Cuevas is a student of the New Kadampa Tradition of Buddhism and Kadampa Meditation Center Georgia. Her month-long retreat was part of the International Winter Retreat program at the Kadampa Temple in Glen Spey, NY. Follow her @MayraECuevas