The Unexpected Magic of Online Meditation Retreats

Last weekend, I experienced my very first online meditation retreat.

I’ll admit, I was initially skeptical – when I think of meditation retreats, I picture extended getaways at tranquil centers in nature, sitting and walking with dozens of silent peaceful beings. In contrast, how much depth can you really gain over Zoom screens in your own house? But in the era of COVID-19, things have changed, and upon finding out that Spirit Rock was putting on a weekend-long retreat for Asians in the diaspora, I felt intrigued.

“Wanna do this?” I asked my roommate Taj as he entered the kitchen last week. “Sure,” he said, looking at the retreat registration page on my computer screen. “What else are we doing?” 

We both signed up, and, come Saturday morning at 9:45AM, staggered out of bed just in time to set up our meditation space in our living room. The teachers had emailed us a suggestion to create an altar with meaningful objects, so we placed a candle, small silver Buddha statue, tiny pothos plant, and my deceased uncle’s copper ashtray on a small table next to Taj’s laptop. Taj lit some incense and logged into the Zoom room, and we settled down on our cushions. 

“Whoa, there’s like 70 people here,” I said. We scanned the many Asian faces peering out from little Zoom screens, older and younger and serious and smiling against backdrops of bedrooms, kitchens, plain and decorated walls…. all who looked more like us than any group of meditators I’d ever sat with before. It felt familiar, and so comforting. 

Dawn, one of the retreat teachers, filled the screen as she spoke a welcome. “Spirit Rock hasn’t done a retreat for Asian practitioners since 2004, and it feels so meaningful to hold this space with all of you.” Gullu and Louije, the other teachers, came on screen and shared their own feelings of excitement and nervousness. Introducing the native lands on which they currently reside, their gender pronouns, their personal stories with retreats and wanting to get it “right”. 

“It might be a bit of a stereotype, but many of us are probably overachievers,” Gullu said, and I laughed in recognition and felt myself relax. As he led us into our first 30-minute sitting meditation, emphasizing that the only thing to do is to simply be, I felt myself loosening even more, following my inhale and exhale in my nose… then my chest… then my stomach. 

The rest of the day unfolded from that seed of presence. Walking meditation came next, with the instruction to walk as if our feet were kissing the earth, a la Thich Nhat Hanh style. Taj and I went into our little backyard and started at opposite ends. Lifting…moving…pressing. Feeling the grass under our bare feet, soft and sweet and complex. In two years of living here, I had never paid so much attention to this grass. How diverse it was – daffodils, tiny purple flowers, clovers and moss and wheat stalks. I felt reverence, awe, and sorrow pass through me. You deserve to be loved by us, I said silently to the green life under my feet. 

After another 30-minute sit, we were released for an hour-long mindful lunch break. Taj and I walked slowly – so slowly! – down the hall to our kitchen, and I marveled at how pleasant the cool, smooth tile felt. The same reverence I had for the grass outside spread to our kitchen, and I reached for a broom – feeling the wood in my palm – and started sweeping the floor as Taj chopped vegetables. I was so absorbed in the sensations that I forgot to register it as an unpleasant chore. Washing and cutting an apple felt the same – fascinatingly complex, from the water over my fingers to the feel of the knife slicing through the fruit’s body. 

As we sat down with our food, we closed our eyes and breathed, preparing ourselves for the experience ahead. An unspoken joint decision that just felt right in the moment. Opening my eyes, I was struck by the vibrancy of my avocado tomato toast. How perfect it was, and how it only existed thanks to the farmworkers, sunlight, water, earth, drivers, and store workers toiling through the pandemic. As we experienced our lunch bite by exquisite bite, I wanted to moan in pleasure for the flavors and textures and temperatures dancing in my mouth. How many times have we eaten meals at this table, too lost in future plans and past ruminations to taste our food? 

After a short post-lunch meditation, the teachers explained we were going to do a relational practice in groups of seven people. “Before you decide to bail,” Dawn said, smiling, “ask yourself, what would it be like to be open to a new experience?” The three teachers demonstrated the practice – we’d number ourselves from 1-7 and take turns sharing how it feels to not belong. A word or short phrase. And then reverse the order, sharing how it feels to belong.

The moderator split us into random Zoom breakout groups, and Taj and I found ourselves in a room with six strangers. We smiled awkwardly, and one of them offered to start. “Not belonging feels… isolating,” he said. The rest of us took his cue. “Lonely,” a younger woman with a wall of plants behind her said. I hesitated, shy, wanting to get it right. Then remembered that the practice was about letting things emerge in the moment. “Paralyzing,” I said, thinking about all the times I’ve been the only person of color in a room full of white folks. 

After we circled three or four times, our answers became more nuanced. “I close myself off.” “I want to change the other people.” “I judge them,” I said, taking myself by surprise. It was true. I let my anger and anxiety create stories about the inner words of the people I don’t feel connected to. 

Then we switched to how it felt to belong. “Like a sigh of relief.” “Like I can be myself, 100%.” We started smiling. “It feels like when you’re on the dance floor with your friends at the club and an amazing song comes on and you’re like yasssss!” I burst out laughing. “Oh my god, yes!” I said. “It feels cosmic… like I want to create something together.” My group mates nodded. 

The one-minute-left notification appeared on our screen. “Noooo!” said the boy who talked about the club. “I miss y’all already!!” “Find me on social media!” I said and Taj cracked up, just as we came back to the large group. 

We debriefed together, and the rest of the weekend unfolded like this. Sitting meditation in our living rooms, walking in the backyard, savoring our food, and laughing and crying in small groups with strangers who became confidants for our vulnerability. Talking about what it was like to be Asian Buddhists in a Western lineage. Complex and rich and sometimes invisibilizing. But knowing that our ancestors across the Asian diaspora passed down the beautiful values and culture of Buddhism in our families for thousands of years before the first white people discovered it in their Eastern travels felt comforting. Like a small but brightly burning flame, giving us wisdom and strength through the tumult. 

As we logged off Zoom for the last time, waves of gratitude washed through my heart. My house these past few months of quarantine has become both my work office and my place of rest. Where I exercise and converse and cook and read. Everything now happens here. It was only because I did this retreat online in my house that I was able to start blending the deep state of peace and joy from meditation retreat into my everyday home life. And that feels like the most important thing I can be doing right now.

As I basked in the lingering warmth of the beautiful souls from around the country sharing one of the most intimate virtual spaces I had ever been in, I looked at Taj and smiled. So glad to be on this journey together. 

The awakening of humanity can only happen together, and even though we’re physically apart, we can still connect in deep and profound ways. We find the courage to be with ourselves, we open our hearts, grow the love, and then do it all over again.