How I Learned to Let Go by Discovering It’s Not Actually Possible

Reflections on my first meditation retreat.

By Vanessa Labi

I was about to lay out my clothes for my first day-long meditation retreat, when I realized I had no idea what to wear. 

For someone who encounters a fair amount of anxiety before new experiences, especially mysterious metaphysical ones, settling on an outfit always helped soothe my nerves a little. Plus, I thought looking the part might make me feel less like a fraud. I’d barely given meditation twelve minutes worth of a chance via one of those mindfulness apps that’s supposed to have changed everyone’s lives, and here I was about to dive in for a full day. 

Omar, my boyfriend, had offered up “loose fitting clothing” as a guideline but, vexingly, neither yoga pants or jeans fit that description. He emerged from the closet in a pair of billowy linen pants, joke-posturing in a deep lunge to demonstrate their roominess. 

“Ohh, so linen. I have plenty of that.” I turned to my clothing rack, but realized that all the linen pieces I’d accumulated from its recent peak trendiness did not a mediation outfit make. Omar had actual, functional linen pants, with a drawstring and everything, purchased unironically and before said trend. All my linen garments had either intricate buttons or a sexy slit, all of which would gape open in lotus pose, baring more than my soul. I imagined the point was to avoid fixating on sartorial defects when up against six hours of letting one’s thoughts pass by like clouds. 

If anything, my one goal was to avoid a mental shitstorm.

It would be my first meditation retreat, and Omar’s oh, tenth or so – two of which had been silent and 10 days long. Whereas he’d spent his twenties soul-searching via yoga, various religious texts, and meditation, my spiritual odyssey was more the cliff-notes variety – the peripheral dabbling in an article here, a podcast there. It was as if he’d surfed the waves of spirituality and mindfulness, while I’d stayed on the shore, squinting and nodding from afar as if to say, “Oh yeah, I get the jist.” 

Being one of his values (and yes, he framed it that way), he often vocalized his desire for us to share a meditation practice together. For it to form a lovely foundation for our relationship. Verbally, I’d agree. “Yeah, that sounds great, babe. Let’s do it.” 

But when it came down to it, I was resistant. 

Sometime over the last couple years, as the cultural conversation around wellness increased from a buzz to a roar, I began to feel like an imposter, especially since my friend group loved discussing new-agey shit. The conversation often turned to astrology, the enneagram model, ayurvedic eating, tarot cards. Meditation was always on the menu as well, and I was happy to oblige, touting the benefits I’d gleaned from the latest Ted Talk. My friends would share their own experiences and learnings, the proximity to which made me feel like I could superimpose them onto my own psyche. And as a sensitive, open-minded type (ISFP to be exact), I was plenty invested in the ideas. I had a genuine desire to apply them to my own life…one of these days. 

The truth is that when faced with the prospect of putting ass to meditation cushion, I was terrified. Of the boredom, definitely, but more so of the anxious thoughts that would inevitably arise (you know, the ones I was accustomed to drowning out with the very wellness podcasts that advocated getting to know oneself). Since turning 30, my near perma-state of anxiety had been fortified with a whole new set of pressures. The thought bubbles were mostly self flagellating, mostly a flurry of where I “should be” by now in life. Would I ever be happy in my job, what’s wrong with me that I’m so passive, so stagnant? Maybe I could escape the 9 to 5 and do what makes me happy…but what does make me happy, and besides, how would I survive? What about saving for retirement? Why don’t I have more friends?

I probably would have continued along my avoidant journey had I not been faced with the prospect of being alone on a Saturday, after already being alone Monday through Friday. A recent choice to quit my job and move to Palo Alto with my boyfriend as he began his residency at Stanford, and spend some quality time with myself deciding what to do next had left me with a slew of empty days. These soul-searching days were a blessing and a curse, and the not-knowing-anyone-in-a-new-city part was starting to make them feel more like the latter. 

Eventually, I decided on an outfit: I pulled on some joggers, a thin slub tee, a pair of Vans and hoped for the best. Omar and I hit the road for the Santa Cruz meditation center. I’d agreed to the day with little information of what this meditation day would actually entail. My mind had filled in the gap with an image of a group sitting in a circle in the Santa Cruz forest, a light breeze skimming my ears, songbirds providing an ambient soundtrack. But as we pulled up, the meditation center was revealed to be situated in a strip mall. An attractive one punctuated with plenty of foliage and wellness spas, but a strip mall nonetheless. Omar and I took our seats in the last row of cushioned chairs. Ahead of us was a sea of grey hair. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one to put off the quest for enlightenment. 

The day was led by a silver haired lady named Shaila. I was grateful for her guidance, and not only because she was the only other entity for my mind to engage with other than my own scary self. She had a real knack for guiding beginners; I found myself hanging on to her every word. The day wasn’t so daunting with the hours of silent meditation broken up by her talks, plus several bouts of walking meditation. The walks could be done inside the facility, or outdoors within the strip mall. I did mine outside in the sun; barely caring I was turning the heads of the Saturday errand-running crowd with my trance-like zombie steps. 

When we sat back down, Shaila laid out the day’s work as a three-pronged approach:

Be aware 

Let it go 

Keep trying. 

The middle of the meditation sandwich was no doubt the hardest. Let it go. Aside from the thoughts that crept in during meditation, my daily life arguably contained the most daunting mental loops. I was 31, had left everything I knew to start fresh with a vague desire to do what made me happy, with my savings running out all the while. If I could simply “let go” of all the self-imposed pressure to figure my life out, I like to think I would’ve done it already.

Knowing this was easier said than done. Shaila walked us through it. “In all my years of meditating, of seeking enlightenment, I have never, ever, just let it go,” she confided, opening an outstretched fist to illustrate the dropping of a harried thought. I felt a little vindicated, but sensed the concession would be swiftly followed by another challenge. 

“The trick,” she said, “is to first be aware that you’re in a mental pattern that doesn’t serve you. Then, in the next thought, choose not to invest more energy into it.” This must’ve been one of those classic “simple but not easy” concepts I’d heard about. It certainly was tricky. The idea was not to avoid the unwanted thoughts nor pretend they didn’t exist, but to notice them (oh-so-much “noticing” in mindfulness), pivot, and move your focus to something else. It was a practice in moving energy. 

It finally felt clear on an experiential level why they call it a practice; because this “let it go” business, although useful, was a chore. It’s a choice you make – and not an easy one – over and over and over.

Still, it felt like a key to a door I didn’t know existed. Neither tamping down an uncomfortable thought nor indulging it to its damaging conclusion, as I was so accustomed to doing, was ever going to open any doors, break any circuits. 

It’s possible this tenet had washed over me in one of the podcasts I’d half-listened to. But it turns out that showing up, putting ass to cushion, is a big part of what makes a universal truth actually resonate. Those six hours in the strip mall were worth it, if only to have acquired a basic level of awareness and agency around my thoughts. To have an original sound bite of my own, rather than some well-meaning Ted Talk, ain’t bad either. Although, there is so much quiet effort involved, choosing the right meditation outfit is the very least of the challenges I now face. 

Vanessa Labi is a Sacramento based style blogger, who revels in her passions of arts, culture, curation, and fashion. To find more of Vanessa Labi, visit her blog, Babe-sicle.