I’m caught between dread and meager pride. I’m dreading the next 10 days of my silent meditation retreat and shamefully proud that I’ve survived the first 9 hours of meditation. Only three more hours this evening of sitting on the floor lost in thought.
What the fuck did I sign up for?
This is going to be an eternity. Sitting. Sitting. Sitting. Except it’s anything but sitting.
It’s excruciating pain.
My aging, stiff body reproaches many positions that most people find common and comfortable. The closer my fanny comes to the floor, pain darts into my back and legs with increasing ease. Sitting cross legged on the floor all day becomes a physical endurance feat and masterclass in pain.
No one enjoys being in pain, but as the days wear on, the pain morphs: the body’s sensations become tolerable and, just in time, your head becomes your tormentor. In an instant, you learn the mind creates more difficulty than the body ever could. My mind’s first attack was boredom.
Now the pain offers a seductive bargain: all consuming attention and an escape from boredom. It’s a wicked antidote to the mind rolling on and on with an invisible, ceaseless drizzle.
But there are rare moments of self-awareness and clarity like the morning mist burned off by dawn’s rising sun:
My mind is as messy as bird shit splatter.
Onward, the mind spills a new flurry of daisy-chained half-thoughts that shit into the wind with unbridled abandon and reckless navigation to who-knows-what; dropping breadcrumbs of half-wise puzzle pieces you can’t begin to hold onto, coupled with the empty promise that while these thoughts are new, they are certainly not valuable because if they’ve come this far once, they’ll most likely come this way again – maybe.
During a rare break, I reflect: Who bolted the stables and assigned this thing Conductor of my Life Train?
I’m certain I didn’t. Which begs “Who the hell am I?”
This is the product offered on 10-day meditation retreats. Space and time to stumble through observing the reality of your mind. Retreat does not mean rest and tranquility.
The illusory benefit is enlightenment – as suspect a promise as heaven or hell. A nice halfway train stop on your meditative journey might be something similar to what Marcus Aurelius once wrote, “You have power over your mind, not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
I’m a fan of strength, but this retreat is an intense undertaking. It’s no beach party. Had I known that I’d spend five days in tortuous pain before learning to observe the pain with a pseudo-comfortable detachment, I’d have never gone. I was already nervous before going and the promise of pain would have been too much to overcome.
But walking away at the end of the retreat with something wholly new – yet unnamed – turned the experience into something valuable. One hundred hours of meditation later, I know something has changed but I highly doubt anyone but me can notice. I still anger. I’m still weak. I still eat too many cookies.
But something is different. What before was an imperceptible voice is now audible. I might still grab a cookie, but I see and hear the Conductor’s command. And once in a while, there is space between command and cookie for an intervention.
I’m aware of the falling bird shit and sidestep the splatter zone… sometimes.