Reflecting on Reflections: Making Sense of My Meditation Retreat

Written by Darren Kanthal

December 14, 2022

seven-day silent meditation retreat in Baja in the Sea of Cortez

It all started with your standard-issue older white businessman in his khakis and blazer getting irritated with airport security – only to find he left his cell phone in his pocket after going through the metal detector three times. Me and the guy behind me had a great laugh.

And it ended with a woman throwing a fit and calling bullsh!t on the Mexican airport security officer for conducting a random check on her. The same check the second security officer performed on me. Both of us casually made our way to the airplane without even a hint of possibly missing the flight.

These bookends are not uncommon and yet, I find it interesting that they happened on my way to and from a seven-day silent meditation retreat.

I mean, could life have scripted that any better?! I’m trying to find some Zen in an otherwise busy and stressful world, and these people are the perfect examples of all that busyness and stress. Ya gotta laugh.

Hold Up – You Did A Meditation Retreat?

For those that know me, you’re probably surprised to learn this. But yes, it’s true, I did a seven-day silent meditation retreat in Baja in the Sea of Cortez. For those of you who don’t know me well, I gotta tell ya – even I’m surprised I did this! I’ve never done anything remotely like this before.

Four years ago, my first coaching instructor said he was doing this same retreat after leaving our class. ‘I’m going to meditate with the whales,’ were his exact words, if I remember correctly. In true Darren fashion, one side of my brain judged the sh*t outta him and the other side thought it sounded really cool. But the seed was planted. This past summer, I inquired about the November 2022 retreat, and voilá – I was soon on my way.

Although I didn’t kayak with whales, we did see some spouting water from the shore of our last island called Punta Baja (we stayed on three islands total over the week) and also saw a huge school of dolphins swim around 20 yards off the beach we stood and marveled at.

Battling with my Inner Observer

Battling with my inner observer

It’s hard to really describe the experience – something I discussed with other meditators once we started speaking again on the tail-end of the trip. What do we say to people? How do we describe it? That was the unanswerable question at the time. It remains difficult to answer.

I didn’t have any instant, profound lightning-bolt visuals or conclusions. I didn’t resolve the challenges of my life. I didn’t return with some crazy clarity. Over time, the lessons have been more of a consistent trickle showing themselves at any given time, consistently, many times over.

My main goal was to be present. Which is like the biggest ‘no sh*t’ thing to say. Meditation is exactly that – staying present. For those without much meditation experience, like me, our minds wander a lot. For those with a stronger practice, their minds wander less.

It ended up being more about recognizing my brain wandering, and then being present enough to bring it back (or not, and let it continue wandering). On several occasions, I watched as an observer as my brain would say something like ‘this sucks, I’m bored, I don’t want to do this anymore, when is he going to ring that damn bell’ – or something like that.

In many instances, the observer in me also watched as my brain refocused and came out of that narrative. The sound of the water washing ashore. The many sea birds gliding effortlessly and with such grace seemingly inches from the water’s surface. The sun’s rays. The clouds. The color of the sand when the water crashed and receded from the beach. All the rocks and coral scattered around my seat. There was so much to focus on other than my thoughts, dialogue, and narrative.

Allowing Curiosity to Thrive

Allowing curiosity to thrive

That’s what really struck me. When I’m not engulfed in opening my mouth to fill the silence and losing myself in thought, there’s so much to be curious about. There’s so much to see, hear, and feel – both emotionally and sensory (sight, sound, smell, touch).

Each day I wrote in my journal. Sometimes it was the things I was thinking, feeling, and experiencing. Plenty of times, it was the songs that repeated in my head over and over again.

The line ‘you’ll either come back a bum or a king, baby I don’t know’ from Billy Joel’s Easy Money was on repeat. Something about coming back from the retreat as a ‘bum’ or a ‘king’ had some resonance. Would this experience be something I enjoyed (King) or not (bum)?

I came back a king.

A couple of things really rang true. The first – I really enjoy being alive. I love my family and friends. I love what I do for a living. I love being outside and experiencing nature. I even love the challenges, stress, and strife of life. Even in the hardest of times, there is still much to marvel in – the sunrise or sunset, an animal doing its thing, a child’s laugh, hearing a great song – the things to marvel at are countless!

The other thing is how much I really enjoyed the retreat experience. Every single consideration was taken care of for us – food, cooking, prepping, scheduling, and equipment. We as a meditation group had nothing to do except let go of any control, enjoy being cared for, and be present and aware of what life presented to us. That was remarkable!

The Sounds of Silence

The sounds of silence

Simon and Garfunkel did a great job, and I also have my own ideas about the sounds of silence. Here are some first-hand experiences from the retreat:

    • When nobody’s talking, the crunch of chips being chewed and the sound of metal forks on composite camping plates was amplified.
    • The silence after a sneeze and not saying bless you was really f*cking weird!
    • It’s significantly easier to do nothing when that’s the point.
    • The ‘bad’ things, experiences, thoughts, feelings, etc. can sometimes be equally as important and beneficial as the ‘good’.
    • Simple movement (we did Qi Gong on the retreat) works wonders for the aches, pains, and stiffness of the body.
    • The sound of the Herman Seagull sounds like it’s laughing at you – which in turn made me laugh several times.
    • I love listening to music (this became especially apparent when I arrived back to civilization and listened to my favorite playlist as I took the first shower in eight days).
    • Observing all the beauty around me is, well, a beautiful thing.

Applying This Experience to Our Own Lives

The above was just fun observations. But as I reflected on the retreat, it occurred to me that a certain set of conditions needed to be met to achieve the greatness of the retreat. Without the perfect symbiosis of each of these conditions, the retreat doesn’t go as it did. It also dawned on me that these conditions can also be useful in our work and personal lives. So, what conclusions did I draw?

1. Give yourself permission

It’s easy to do nothing when that’s the point. That’s what I said to Mark, our meditation leader, during the first group meeting on Day 2. He kinda laughed a little, agreed, and then said ‘yes, once you give yourself permission to do nothing, it is kind of easier to achieve that’. That’s when the importance of permission dawned on me – and reminded me of this video I made months earlier.

When I told people I was going on this retreat, I was met with a mix of bewilderment, wonder, exasperation, and some were even aghast. They’d ask, ‘what made you WANT to do this?’ My reply was rather direct and I’d say ‘I don’t know exactly. I just decided that’s what I wanted to do.’ And that’s just it – I gave myself permission to take the time off of work, invest financially and energetically, and to experience something I’d never done before.

2. ‘Help you’

The adventure company provided all the equipment

When my good friends Garry and Tina’s son Jack was a young kid, they’d ask ‘Can I help you?’. From that, he learned that if he said ‘help you’ – his mom or dad would offer the help he needed. I experienced Jack using that saying many times and reflecting on it in Baja brought a smile to my face. I also realized that another condition for success is recognizing that we need help and asking for it.

If I didn’t have help on this retreat, it simply doesn’t happen. The adventure company provided all the equipment – kayaks, paddles, tents, sleeping bags and pads, food, and everything else we could have possibly needed. Our guides were also GREAT cooks – they helped to keep us well-fed and hydrated. Without their help, we’re just a bunch of people stranded on islands strewn about the Sea of Cortez calling out SOS.

The same is true when we don’t ask for help in our regular lives. It’s like being stranded on an island we created and without help, it’s very hard to save ourselves.

3. Have faith and believe it’s going to work

We all live in the conversations in our brain. The narrative of judgment that speaks loudly in our minds can often drive the way we see the world. How many times have you or someone else told you all the reasons an idea won’t work? Don’t take a risk. Play it safe. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. It happens ALL the time! If we believe something won’t work, it often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

On the contrary, if we have faith and believe in ourselves, in positive outcomes, in our ability to grow, evolve and achieve our greatness – that too can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

4. Slow down enough to observe and be aware

pay more attention

There are a multitude of signs, clues, and cues that we and the world give ourselves if we only pay more attention. So many people I speak with don’t do this – they rush through their days, weeks, and months with all the busyness of life.

Work needs to be done. Kids need caring for. Yards need to be manicured. ‘Fill in the blank’ needs ‘fill in the blank’. You get the idea.

Few of us actually pay attention to how we’re doing, the ways people are responding to us, and how the universe is conspiring to our benefit. Becoming intimately aware of how you hold stress; the discomfort in your jaw after anxiously gritting your teeth all night (this is true for me); the impatience you feel when you’re overwhelmed or overburdened (this too is true for me); the afternoon dip and loss of energy when you haven’t eaten enough throughout the day (yup, me again) – are all important clues to pay attention to.

Recognizing if someone is physically leaning in or out as you speak to them. An opportunity presenting itself to you at a time you were most certainly not expecting it. All these aspects of life are necessary to observe and be aware of.

Final Baja Reflections – Bajo Las Estrellas

Final Baja reflections

As I reflected in bed on the last night, peering through the mesh of my tent’s roof that revealed the milky way and one of the biggest shooting stars of the trip, I understood that each of those conditions made this retreat a remarkable experience.

Yet no matter how amazing this experience was for me, I need to remember something – it began and ended with grumpy, entitled, stress-driven mini-incidents at the airport. We have control over ourselves, but life will continue to test our boundaries.

After the sun, sea, and cavity-probing sand is behind us, will we remember to remain present?

In the tent, I thought about my life’s successes and shortcomings. I also thought the same of some of my clients. In all of those stories, these four conditions (or lack thereof) played a significant role. Some of my clients’ experiences applying the four conditions went smashingly well. Others, not so much and are now part of our respective lives’ stories and learnings.

As I said, it’s hard to describe what I went through and conveying the experience to others remains challenging. But over time it’s becoming clearer and more present in my mind and, whatever I gained, I look forward to sharing it with others.

Darren Kanthal

Darren Kanthal, Founder of The Kanthal Group, is a values-driven leadership and career coach with over 20 years of experience in HR and Talent Acquisition. Darren is intensely passionate about helping mid-career leaders cut through the BS, do the foundational work, and achieve their greatness.


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