In January of 2005, I took a bus from Port Authority to Springfield, Massachusetts for a silent meditation retreat. My good friend had gone on a retreat the previous year, and she told me it had helped her become more present in her daily life. The style of meditation is called Vipassana, which means to see things as they really are. It was taught in India thousands of years ago as a way to deal with everyday ills.
I had had a particularly rough winter: breaking up with my boyfriend, getting back together, then breaking up again. I wasn’t happy at my job, and things just seemed pretty bleak overall. I was counting on this meditation retreat to solve all of my problems. I would finally become enlightened, gain more self-acceptance, and learn how to be at peace with myself. I didn’t realize that I was also going through a bout of depression.
The Vipassana style of meditation is very regimented, and looking back, I now know that it wasn’t what I needed at the time. When you first arrive at the retreat center, the staff conducts a brief orientation where they go over the rules and shortly after that you give them your phone, reading materials, etc. (basically anything other than your clothing). You are not allowed anything that might distract you from your practice. Furthermore, you take a vow of silence for the next 10 days, and you are expected to refrain from eye contact as well. For some reason, this all felt very doable at the time. I was desperate to feel better.
Throughout the first few days of meditating, we focused on our breathing. Everything becomes very still and quiet. By the fourth day, you learn how to notice physical sensations throughout your body without reacting to them. The objective of this practice is to learn how to go through life in a more mindful way. Thoughts will come and go, but we are in control of how we react to those thoughts. Feel your feelings, and know that they will not kill you. You don’t need to numb out with alcohol, food, drugs, sex, etc. One of the most important things I learned at this retreat is that when you try to numb the pain with whatever your poison is, you also numb yourself from feeling joy. Life just becomes something you have to slog through, as opposed to something to celebrate. I still struggle with this idea sometimes.
By day five, I was ready to leave. It was cold and dark everyday, and the staff had made announcements that a snowstorm was imminent in the coming days. I was in the middle of nowhere in Massachusetts and I felt trapped. I had learned some helpful meditation techniques, but I was dying to talk to another human being. I was profoundly lonely and depressed, and found myself trying to sneak glances at the other participants at lunch or while walking outside in between meditation sessions. I was beginning to understand that being alone all day with my negative thoughts was not helping me. It was making things worse. All I wanted was a smile from another person, something to reassure me that everything was going to be ok. I felt like I was going a bit crazy not being able to talk to someone. Years later I was diagnosed with chronic depression and was told that silent meditation retreats can actually be dangerous for depressives because of the isolation factor. I have since learned healthy ways of managing my depression, and still try to incorporate meditation on a weekly basis. To this day, I consider that retreat to be one of the toughest mental challenges I’ve ever been through.
This is one of my favorite recipes for the colder months. I discovered this recipe last winter, and I must have made it at least a dozen times. I used to hate Brussels sprouts growing up. My mom would boil them, and they would turn out soggy and bitter. That hatred has grown into a real fondness. Brussels sprouts might just be one of my favorite veggies now. The bacon and raisins are a perfect pairing because of the salty/sweet combo that combines beautifully with the slight bitterness of the sprouts and the sour vinegar. Warning: this recipe is addictive.
Brussels Sprouts with Bacon and Raisins
Adapted from Bon Appétit
1 tsp. olive oil
4 thick slices bacon
1 lb. Brussels sprouts, trimmed, halved
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup raisins
1 medium shallot, finely chopped
1 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1/2 cup low-sodium chicken broth
2 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar
1. Heat oil in a large heavy skillet over medium heat. Add bacon and cook, turning occasionally, until crisp, about 5 minutes.
2. Using tongs, transfer bacon to paper towels to drain. Let cool. Coarsely crumble.
3. While bacon cools, add Brussels sprouts to drippings in skillet; season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring often, until well browned in spots and beginning to soften, 5-7 minutes.
4. Reduce heat to low and add raisins, shallot, and butter; cook, stirring often, until shallot is soft, about 3 minutes.
5. Add broth to skillet; increase heat and bring to a boil, scraping up browned bits from bottom of pan. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until broth has evaporated, 1-2 minutes.
6. Stir in vinegar and crumbled bacon. Season to taste with salt and pepper.