That Misery Called Meditation
What seven days of silence did to my head.
All this made for great fun, but a touch of guilt, as well. It occurred to me that I wasn't quite following the program. I wasn't meditating nearly as much as the schedule called for, and at some level I did want to see what all the fuss was about. My daydreams, as vivid as they were, were, in Buddhist terminology, also hindrances, forms of "thinking," and not what we were supposed to be doing, namely "being" or "abiding." The teachers had warned us that the mind would do everything it could to avoid pain or discomfort, and it seemed pretty clear that was exactly what was going on. Yes, I had defeated boredom by the force of my imagination. But I sure hadn't transcended it. Was there more?
It all came to a head in a meeting with Michele McDonald, the head teacher, a woman whose arrival in a room seemed to send invisible shock waves in every direction. She looked at me for a few moments, and then she asked how I was doing. The sound of my voice seemed strange, but I heard myself explaining that, after a rough start, I was feeling a lot of love and having a good time. I referred to an early talk where she warned us about trying to shut the door on pain, and I thought I should address that. I said that while I'd tried to find some pain, I had more or less given up on that and decided to just have fun, and so—
"Sit longer!" she commanded.
I was taken aback.
"Think about it for a second" she said. "What makes you get up? Sit! Don't move, and you'll see."
It is hard to ignore a direct command that comes from a Buddhist master. So began what you might call Phase 3: I went to the meditation hall and sat. Really sat, I mean, without moving, not even to scratch an itch or stretch an ankle. By this time, I'd actually learned to sit in something like a loose, highly undignified interpretation of the lotus position, and there I remained for close to three hours, by far the longest I had ever sat in one place without moving a muscle.
And the master was right—something did happen. As predicted, the pain came. But I didn't move. Into the second hour, the pain was sometimes excruciating: I could have sworn that live coals were being held to my ankles. But at some level I had decided to sit, and that was it. Yes, I was aching, but it was bearable, and even, in a weird way, sort of lovable. For somewhere within it I was beginning to feel a surrender that was deeply and profoundly relaxing.
After that session, I changed my approach and began to surrender further, relinquishing control bit by bit. I gave up trying to do anything special or different than anyone else. Basically, I became one more zombie. When the teachers said, "Sit," I sat, and when it was time to walk, I walked. Somehow it didn't feel boring any more. It was almost as if I'd forgotten what boring was.
At about the same time, a few other strange things began to happen. Once, while eating, my eyes became fixated on a patch of moss, and without warning, time stopped for who knows how long. At other times, colors seemed to be wrong, as if I was wearing tinted glasses. At one point I realized that I had forgotten my own name, the way you might forget the capital of Serbia. And I had begun to find even the smallest thing fascinating. Watching an ant crossing a rock was, for me, like Avatar in 3-D.
And just like that, it ended. Suddenly, we could speak again. I met Sleepy and Hard Body, who had real names and personalities completely different than the ones I had imagined. I hitched a ride back to New York City, where everything looked quite alien. Coming home, I noticed for the first time the sound of the floorboards creaking beneath my feet.
If New York was the same, I was still far from normal, at least for a while. Real life seemed like a big joke—it was far too dramatic, exaggerated, and, above all, comic to be real. A fat man argued with a short man, pointing wildly. Along came a group of girls, dressed for the evening, giggling and texting. And all these people talking to their dogs! Surely I was sitting in a giant theater, and these were paid actors, albeit exceptionally well-cast for their roles.
But over the next few days, those effects slowly wore off. (I did write a lot of kind and loving e-mails, knowing I might not see things so clearly later on.) I began to eat meat again, got on airplanes, and rediscovered what it felt to be rushed. I can't really say whether the week of silence had a lasting effect, though I'd like to hope it did.
Looking back, it's pretty clear to me that I'm not destined to reach enlightenment or to be a Buddhist yogi—not in this life, anyway. The retreat helped me realize that I'm full of desire, of longings for raw experience, and unbelievably controlling of how my life is lived. I also know that a taste for adventure is, at some level, why I went to the retreat in the first place; in that sense, the whole thing was corrupted from the start. But I can report that Robert Wright did know what he was talking about. It sounds simple, but one week of silence may give you a hint, maybe more reliably than almost anything else, of who you are.
Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.