I didn’t know what to expect. I did two meditation retreats before — one in Bethlehem and one in New York — and they were very different from each other. The one in Palestine focused on the teachings of Gurdjieff (including the dance-like movements and a number of guided meditations) while in upstate New York I did hour-long sitting meditations and working meditations in a Buddhist monastery with a bunch of uptight Manhattan yuppies (several of whom left after the first day).

What would a meditation retreat be like in Oklahoma — especially one that mandated silence among the participants except during two daily meetings?

We all gathered for the first meeting in a large conference room that had been decorated with scarves and an altar-like table with candles for ambience. I could see there were about 25 participants, mostly women, ranging in age from twenty to seventy. We sat in a large circle of chairs or meditation cushions, our choice. Most of us looked like typical Okies (in loungewear). We did not introduce ourselves — getting to know each other in the usual icebreaker / small-talk way was not on the agenda. We were all just humans here for a human experience. (Later I would learn they included housewives, widows, students, professors, social workers, retirees, businessmen, and more.)

OKfallThe organizers, a husband and wife team named Rick and Mary NurrieStearns, gave us the schedule. It was fairly structured with two yoga sessions, three meditation sessions, two group meetings, and a couple hours after lunch for hiking or reflection each day. The hiking was really nice — the soft fall colors were gorgeous, the sky clear blue with interesting clouds, and two lakes with good trails were just outside the door. No cell phones, books, movies, or computers were allowed, so there was no way to escape. For those four days, you were stuck with yourself and these people. But it was surprisingly un-scary. We were all there with the same mindset of openness and nonjudgment (several of them had been to earlier retreats), and it felt very relaxing.

It was admittedly strange at first to spend so many hours with people and not know their names or exhange anything other than silent smiles. But in the meetings we were encouraged to go deep, and people talked about searing tragedies, frustrations, hopes, and fears. All were quietly accepted as human experiences. We simply sat with the fact that being human is often very difficult and confusing, and we’re all doing more or less our best, even if we screw up more than we would like and don’t always handle things as calmly as we should. Acknowledging it without trying to placate it or bat it away or deny it opened a feeling of spaciousness. Yes, this life is difficult. It’s also exquisite and very lovable, with many avenues and endless chances for joy, growth, and transcendence.

The fact that we didn’t know each other’s names, home towns, professions, affiliations, or income level (we were all wearing sweatpants) ironically made us feel closer to each other. We took in each other’s raw, honest words without the usual filters or categories, which brought our basic humanity to the forefront. It was impossible not to like every person there, no matter who they were or what they had done. They were human, just like me.

Each meeting had a theme, one of those Big Questions we tell ourselves we answered satisfactorily enough when we were teenagers or just kinda forgot about in the sturm und drang of daily life. In one session we talked about habit energies, and how when we’re not fully conscious, we seek the same old energy pathways. We talked about some of those habits and how they have diminished our lives. We also shared recurrent thoughts that caused us problems. It was hard to hide anything from yourself in that searing space of honesty, and it got pretty intense at times.

There were no easy answers, no pert affirmations. Just people wrestling in the daylight in a safe and open space. We explored the questions through stories, artwork, music, poems, and sharing with each other. The sharing — making it personal and immediate — was always the highlight, tempered by the wisdom and beauty of the ages.

For me this was valuable, illuminating, and precious. How rare it is for adults to pull out these big meaty slabs, these black holes of un-knowing, into the open, together, and sit before them gamely and humbly, sharing stories and insights without trying to subdue or banish them. The questions will certainly still be there after we disband. But we sit with them now with a little more comfort, familiarity, and awareness. And a little less loneliness. You could see people visibly relax and soften as the days went on.

I’ve been dancing around the main theme of the retreat — meditation — because it’s so difficult to put into words. In the past few years I’ve found myself feeling alienated from the universe for no good reason. I grew some kind of oily reality-repellent skin and found myself focusing endlessly on results, not on any given present moment. I knew it wasn’t good, and still I was trapped in it. Whenever I tried to meditate, it was like a bad drug reaction, a horrible metaphysical itch. I avoided the cushion as if it had bedbugs.

During this retreat, there was no escape. No computer to hack around on, no small-talk to make me feel self-conscious or important (two words that have little to do with reality when applied to a person), and no way to avoid the cushion without facing the reality of being a complete jerk idiotically wasting her time and money.

Nine times I sat on the cushion in a room full of people who were so silent it put the fidgety New Yorkers to shame. I had nowhere else to go. Nothing else to do. It was easy to feel compassion for everyone else, and I knew I was nothing special — really no different — so I tried to feel compassion for myself, too. I tried to settle into myself without fear or judgment. I tried to focus on my breath and on the simple stunning fact that I am alive. I tried not to run away from the present moment, not to focus on memories, projections, or daydreams. I tried to focus on the experience — the feeling — of being.

With all the space and compassion opened up by the people and the setting, it wasn’t as excruciating as usual. It made sense. There truly was no five-alarm fire. It really was OK to just be for a few minutes.

And the results were literally life-changing. When I was fully present, insights and realizations had a space in which to bubble up. For one thing, I realized how much pointless anxiety I had been carrying around lately. Like all humans, of course, I have things to be anxious about. Things I’ve lost. Things I fear losing. Things I fear I may never have. Health issues, money issues, wondering occasionally if I’m wasting my life or on the wrong path.

But being anxious all the time doesn’t help anything. There are times and places to take your fears and channel them into useful actions. Other than those times, fear is worse than useless. It makes all these disasters and potential disasters worse, not better. It cheats you of a lot of the “pretty much OK” or “really good” times in between disasters for no reason. For example, lying in bed at night, no matter what your life is otherwise like, should be at least one peaceful, stress-free time in your day. But for so many people it’s a head spin-out that ramps up all the stress even more and makes the next day even more difficult.

I knew that very well before I went on this retreat. But it took that time of humbly, calmly looking inward to feel it as true rather than just know it as true, and to be able to get a better handle on it.

So I decided to have a long and respectful talk with my fear. I named him Fred and pictured him as a lonely guy in a huge fire station randomly pulling at bells and alarms because no one had trained him properly and he didn’t know what else to do. I explained to him that I needed him alert and watchful, not making meaningless noises all the time. I told him he was valuable, and he would be even more valuable (and have a better life, too) if he stayed rested up in case there was a real emergency. After quite a bit of back-and-forth, he seemed to believe that made sense.

Now when I feel anxiety gnawing away at me, I try to remember to say, “Fred? Is there a problem?” Usually he says, “Uh, no, sorry. Old habits,” and he shrugs apologetically and I smile, and I feel much better. It’s just Fred knocking around. There’s really nothing wrong at this particular moment.

Another time when I was trying to quiet my mind, my ego rebelled and said, “Who the hell are you to tell me to be quiet? Why should I listen to you?” I sat with that question a while. It was a valid one. Who the hell was I? Why should I be in charge?

After a while I had to truthfully admit: I don’t have a right to bully or control you. You are a part of the cosmos, too. We should be partners, not enemies.

But… Ego, my friend, you have some serious boundary issues that we need to talk about. I don’t get to control you, but you also don’t get to talk over me all the time. Sometimes you have to give me the microphone for a while and not whinge and wheedle and sabotage the whole time. Don’t worry — when I’m in charge for a little while, it doesn’t mean you’re dead or dying. You’re just quiet; a little time for rest and rejuvenation. And trust me when I say that whatever you want to accomplish, you’ll be more likely to do so if we’re partners instead of antagonists. Deal?

My ego is many things, but it’s not a complete idiot. When you talk to it respectfully, it can occasionally make reasonable decisions. And in this case it was hard for it to refuse without being exposed as a mean, self-destructive moron. (Egos hate that. They prefer to be self-destructive morons without being exposed.) So it shook my hand and promised to try.

Now when I meditate, and the monkey mind starts flapping around, I can give it a little smile as if to say, “Hey, remember our deal…?” And sometimes — not always but sometimes — it smiles too, sighs, and sits still for a while. The inmates no longer (completely) run the asylum. They’ve learned a little more respect for their mother, and they fear and resent her less. Neither of us will kill or abandon the other and both of us know we are, at heart, doing our best.

[Oh yeah… I also pictured my ego as the young Bart Simpson just before Lisa was born, marching around the house banging on a pot and chanting loudly, “I am so great! I am so great! Everybody loves me, I am so great!” When his pregnant, exhausted mother begs, “Honey, can you please be quiet?” He yells, “Quiet! Buy it! Diet! High it! Vie it…!” (You can watch the very short video here.) Yeah. My poor ego thinks it needs to make so much noise just to be acknowledged and feel a tiny bit of security in a universe that’s frankly not all that secure for human egos. I think a little love helped.]

These are only steps on the road to deeper meditation — a meditation of truly timeless silence and calmness, of ineffable connection far beyond joy. (I have experienced that, but only on accident.) But they feel like necessary steps in the right direction.

I’ve read plenty of wise words about focusing on the present moment and letting go of fixations over many years. But this weekend wasn’t about words. It was about practice.

Having a bunch of frozen fruit sitting in the freezer for weeks is not the same as actually drinking a fruit smoothie. Watching soccer games on TV is not the same as practicing or playing soccer. And thinking or reading about the benefits of mindfulness is not the same as meditating.

Rubber finally hit some road this weekend, and thank God for that. My life has been much lighter and freer since. I hope with regular practice, the feeling can continue.

P.S.

Funny story: After a meditation went particularly well, I had a cheerful thought: “That went well, so I can probably skip the next one.”

Then I laughed. That silly, crafty ego.

P.P.S.

The novel I’m writing, The Bracelet: A Novel of Freedom, deals with some of the themes of this post in a page-turning, adventurous kinda way.

You can read Chapter One of the novel here and learn more about the book at its (finished but still online) Kickstarter campaign.

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A rough prototype of the cover until I can hire a designer

A rough prototype of the cover until I can hire a designer

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