A Story from the Animal Activist Meditation Retreat
On May 22, 2019, Banyan Grove retreat center outside of San Francisco, CA, welcomed animal activists from around the U.S. for a six-day Animal Activist Meditation Retreat sponsored by The Pollination Project. Here, one of the participants, Tessa Urbanovich, a long-time farmed animal advocate, describes her experience and the insights she gained from the retreat.
I arrived at Banyan Grove for the 2019 Animal Activist Meditation Retreat with a few expectations. I knew that for about six days, I would be physically quiet (the most physically quiet I had ever been in my life!). I knew that I would sit down and try to focus on my breath for many minutes every day, and that I would probably experience withdrawal symptoms from mindlessly clicking around on my phone. I also knew that there was a possibility that this retreat could wring out some of the stress and anxiety hanging out in my heart and brain.
I was right about a couple of these things.
Definitely, I was right about being challenged by the silence. Personally, I identify as a “connector” (euphemistic for “compulsive talker”), and I feared what would happen in my brain if I didn’t tell people what I liked about them, express all the stupid jokes in my head, or make sure that other people experienced the same cool stuff I was experiencing (and there was a lot of cool stuff at Banyan Grove!). What I didn’t know was that, without verbal communication, things would quiet down inside of me.
Let’s pretend that my brain is a house. Prior to the retreat, there was a lot of activity in the house! The walls were over-decorated, there was way too much furniture, and people kept coming in and out – it was so loud and busy! On about Day 4 of the retreat, I started to notice that the house was … quieter. Some extraneous decor had been taken down, and it was starting to feel more like a simple, warm, peaceful home, rather than a place to store unnecessary furniture and shiny things. While the retreat’s silence slowly emptied my house, the talks led by Tashi – the Buddhist Monk who gave four Dharma talks every day and led our retreat discussions – slowly replaced its chaotic embellishments with neutral tones and mood lighting. It felt so good in there. In the Zendo (meditation hall), we discussed a wide array of topics that helped me like my brain more: having compassion for those who don’t seem deserving, strategies for stress and difficult encounters, collective karma – so much good stuff!
However, just because my house was serene and warm didn’t mean that meditation was easy. In many cases, I had a difficult time: it was too hard and boring to just focus on my nostrils, or I fell asleep (whoops!), or my lower back was distractingly sore. Out of the ~24 times we sat to meditate, I probably only fully accepted that I was to focus attention on my breathing (or “dropped in” to my meditation) two whole times. The quantity of sitting helped me accept how difficult it was, accept myself where I was at, and accept that I have an incredibly human brain. I also saw that sitting became easier with practice and with community.
Because of this retreat, I had the opportunity to take a break from daily stimulation (work and interaction), and I saw that there is something about my internal nature that is very happy, peaceful, and loving. I had no judgments about those around me – I was not annoyed by or wanting to control anyone. I had adoration for the silent meditators meandering like zen-fueled zombies throughout the Grove. When I wasn’t meditating, journaling, eating, or asking Tashi all of the questions, I stared at trees, spiders, lizards, and tadpoles. Banyan Grove really is annoyingly serene and beautiful.
On the night when we broke silence, I realized that in my everyday life, each of my little communication encounters sparks a lot of stimulation in my brain (in my home!). I noticed feelings of anxiety, a compulsive need to express and judge through words, uncertainty, and generally – more complication! With minimal communication for six days, as well as with Tashi’s Dharma talks, Banyan’s beauty, and vegan nourishment from Kaia (our resident chef), my brain decluttered and redecorated. The remodeled home was so peaceful!
I left with a little post-retreat glow, half-a-journal full of Tashi Tools, a bounty of deeper insights about my life, and a new community. Although I knew very little about them, I felt very connected with each of the people at the retreat. We all shared some deep commonalities: a love for animals, a passion for helping animals, struggles around using anger as motivation for activism, and a spiritual curiosity (what other kinds of weirdos would sign up for a 5-day silent retreat?).
I still revel in the gratitude I feel for all who made possible the retreat: Service Space, Tashi, the co-managers, Ari (TPP’s founder). Although I periodically feel frustrated being back in the real world (my brain-house is pretty topsy-turvy again), I know that the deep space and quiet is still within me, and it’s my choice to continue to practice. Going back into work with everything I’ve gained from the retreat—the peace, connections, notes, tools—will surely have a trickle effect.
If ever you have the beautiful opportunity to embark on this inward journey to be a Warrior for Peace & Compassion, I strongly recommend it, so that you too can reap the benefits of silence and the retreat’s intentionality!