Recently I went on a meditation retreat in India with my teacher and a couple dozen other seekers.
I know, it sounds so exotic.
So spiritual gangster-ish.
An Eat Pray Love moment that might be in percolating in someone you recognize:
The exhausted new mom walking her infant in endless stroller laps around the block.
The lady in the check out line ahead of you buying organic juice boxes and gluten-free pretzels.
The woman you always wave to in the carpool lane when you drop your kids off at school.
The middle-aged mama who brings her teens to yoga class – and their cracking up makes it harder for you to concentrate in downward-facing dog but still makes you smile.
Sounds like you?
Sounds like me, too, in snapshots over time. Those long days and short years will get ya, no question.
So three years ago this fall, when my oldest was knee-deep in college test prep, a little voice inside my head said time to start letting go.
Back then, I had no idea how that might possibly happen. That kid, and in rapid succession, his younger sister, had taken over my body, mind, and spirit for the better part of two decades.
Motherhood is a long series of transformative moments both seismic and small that leave you wondering where you’ll find the strength, when you’ll ever sleep again, how you’ll ever get it all done and what the hell can you make for dinner that everyone’s not sick of?
On and on and on it goes – and you go.
But let go? Now that’s a whole other story.
It’s Not What You Know, It’s What You Don’t Know
There’s a Sanskrit expression that I take particular comfort in: neti neti.
It means what it sounds like: not this, not this.
In the metaphysical sense, it’s all about releasing the non-essentials – distractions, rationalizations, and other ego-driven trappings of us human animals – to get to the core of what truly is.
Satchitananda. Truth, consciousness, bliss.
A lofty goal, when initially after five minutes sitting in silence, I’d get the urge to jump, run, scream, or at a bare minimum, throw in a load of laundry.
But with that proverbial empty nest looming on the near horizon, I knew that things had to change.
I needed a special purpose, dare I say dharma – not to mention a bigger paycheck because college is a lot more expensive than mommy ’n me classes – so first I went headlong back into full-time work. After all, that was something I did with great passion and success pre-kids.
Maybe it’s because I hadn’t had a full night’s sleep in years, or perhaps it was the multitasking nature of us modern moms, but being as productive as I recall being back in the day proved impossible.
Although I love how these mainstream ministers of meditation make the practice seem easy and even cool and fun, it wasn’t the exact connection for me.
Neti neti, was all I knew. Still, I craved finding a way to flip my mommy brain to a new channel, and open up, as the pop psychologists urge, to a brand new me.
Getting a Mantra Makeover
Over the years, I’d come up with a ton of mantras for myself: “sleep is for wussies,” “ages and phases,” “mom jeans are sexy,” and “it’s not easy being a mother – if it were easy, fathers would do it,” among others.
So when a friend of mine who had beat back depression with the help of Transcendental Meditation (TM) recommended I try it, I decided to give it a whirl. After all, TM's claims of relief from stress and anxiety, a healthier heart and clearer mind, among other benefits, are research-backed.
The way the meditation works is this: you close your eyes for 20 minutes twice a day, sit quietly and settle your mind with your mantra. That’s it. No pressure to concentrate or empty your brain of thoughts. TM uses the word “effortless,” which was about all I could possibly muster.
And so, I settled into TM, which had a natural built-in benefit for someone who makes her living staring at a screen for 10 or so hours a day: time during the day for a little shut-eye with a soothing inward gaze.
Sometimes it’s more like transcendrooling meditation, and other times the laundry list doesn’t stop spewing its to-dos at me. But that’s the beauty of this particular meditation – it’s all good and still works no matter what.
Just like the rush of relief I once felt when the letdown reflex kicked in while nursing, I actually really did find that I felt refreshed and more vital after I let go of stresses during meditation.
This non-caffeine related energy boost began to routinely get me up and over the hump of being a full-time working mom to a fresher version of my tired mama self.
Passage to India
The meditation trip to Rishikesh in Northern India led by my Vedic meditation teachers, Jeff Kober, and Adele Slaughter, and Australian global consciousness & integrated meditation school, The Broad Place, was a natural progression and also a wildly massive gamble at the same time.
I went without knowing anyone and not even too many details of the trip. I was vaguely in touch with the idea that I’d be “off the grid” for the first time since there was a grid to be on.
But nothing could prepare me for the massive disorientation of the first few days in the sacred city where we acclimated to a half day's time difference and a novel cultural experience.
What I found in Rishikesh was a world of paradoxes: it’s at once chaotic and peaceful. Breaktaking and heartbreaking. Fragrant and odious. Awesome and humble.
And full of shit. When cows, dogs, goats, humans, and other creatures gather, there is a whole lot of pooping going on.
In short, India was the perfect metaphor for motherhood. And the thing that we moms do instinctively – make space for the contradictions of life to continually evolve as you find no static answers, but plenty of dynamic questions to live.
This ultimate truth was brought into sharp relief as we continued the journey from the city to our remote retreat location in the Himalayan foothills.
It was there that something in me shifted, for good. The second morning of the retreat, as I settled in for our two-hour daily meditation routine called “rounding,” which adds in yoga, poses to deepen meditation and kicks the stress release into high gear, the woman next to me began to softly cry.
I didn’t know much about her, but I did know she had grown children who had recently helped her through some health reversals. In other words, my teary neighbor was just a bit ahead of me on the motherhood spectrum.
Suddenly, like an infant, my next door neighbor’s initial sniffles turned into full-on wailing. “My children… I just don’t want to be a burden to them.”
As I moved to comfort her by putting a hand on her shoulder in solidarity, I was caught by a wave of my own emotion – a rush of water from my eyes as powerful as Ganga Ma, the Hindu goddess who’s said to rule the nearby Ganges River.
Even after I moved away from her back to my spot, my tears continued to spill in an unending flow for the entire two-hour session.
Minutes later at our communal breakfast, I sat down with a few new friends determined to shrug off whatever happened in that morning meditation. Side note: this is a tried and true mommy trick – don’t let ’em see you cry.
All it took, though, was a warm, loving hug from Adele to unmoor the biggest, baddest, most crippling stress release ever in the form of a sudden migraine headache so searingly painful that it was on par with childbirth.
It radiated up from my chest, through my brain so intensely that it made me cry out, and finally out my crown chakra to dissipate into the dining room air.
“Better out than in,” proclaimed Adele.
Minutes later, Jeff assured me that this experience was normal, including the intensity of the pain I experienced. He gently explained that how stresses felt going into my body ultimately feel the same way when I release them.
In the aftermath of this metaphysical moment, I honestly felt like I had birthed something I’d been hauling around for years like a phantom baby bump.
Behind me now is the heavy lifting of raising children, and ahead is a lot of unknowns as to how our relationship will evolve as my kids progress into full-on adulthood. But for now, in this present moment, I’m finally in the necessary headspace to embrace this latest lifecycle shift.
The stress I unloaded in India didn’t come back with me in my baggage. And in its place is something that’s easy to carry with me no matter where I go: a space to birth new ideas, new adventures and yes, a brand new me.
And to that, I say to you: mamaste.