Thursday, January 15, 2009

For Kirk: The meditation retreat...sigh...

My friend Scott learned from his brother about a Buddhist doctrine involving days of directed meditation. Scott attended one of the organization's 10-day retreats - in far-off Washington state, so he would be unable to bolt. He'd heard that the hours all alone with oneself could be difficult, troubling. Day after day after day....

Scott seemed, on his return to Denver, to have had a genuinely life-changing experience. I was curious. He suggested a book to read about the doctrine. I bought the book from an online seller and read it more than once. I decided I'd attend a retreat. After investigating local opportunities, I settled on a session to be held in the country SE of Denver in late November of '08.

Most of what follows I learned from the organization's literature. Some of it I learned when I got to the venue.... Oh, the organization's web site included a ride board. I hooked up a ride for Scott and me with a woman who lives north of Denver and, like Scott, was a returning student.

Note: I don't want to point fingers here or assign blame. The retreats are set up for people who want to be there, who thrive there and who leave at the end. I was only the first of those things...

The retreats are silent. Students do not speak, nor do they meet the eyes of other students. I struggled with that a bit: I want to say good morning and excuse me. I enjoy human contact. 

Students are asked to behave as if they are alone. They are asked not to hold doors open for the person behind or to act as if there is anyone standing in line next to them or sitting next to them at meals. 

There's no music, no photos on the walls. No distraction. Men and women students are separated so that students of one gender seldom see students of the other. There's a curtain across the dining room and it's dark in the meditation room.  Men have a taped-off area for walking outside between meditation sessions; women have a different one. 

Meditation begins quite early; one arises at 4:30. Breakfast and lunch are vegetarian meals; dinner is pieces of fruit and a cup of tea. Students sleep in bunk beds in summer-camp dorms for kids. On arrival, the instructors or staff collect all cell phones, laptops, car keys, books...and the cars are parked in an off-limits lot. 

Tamar and I are not vegetarians but we don't eat a lot of meat and very little beef. When I got to the retreat and began eating meals there, the strictly vegetarian food disagreed with me. I had awful gas, more than I've ever had, and I had it day after day. 

I could just make it through a meditation session, uncomfortable the whole time, my stomach rumbling loudly all through the session, before running to the bathroom. Miserable.

Because there were no laundry facilities at the venue, we had to bring everything we thought we might need for 10 days. I did that as directed, but I made a serious mistake. I did not think to bring genuine American toilet paper. 

Sure, there was toilet paper in the bathrooms, but it was Crimean War surplus paper, it was paper for refinishing the hulls of wooden boats, it was criminally cheap, uncivilized toilet paper and the company owners and factory workers who make it and the merchants who sell it can burn in hell forever. I'll stop now about the toilet paper before I get mean.

Because I spent so much time in the bathroom, and because each visit mandated the use of the toilet paper we talked about, my bottom was soon raw. A raw bottom is one thing, but a raw bottom at a meditation retreat is another. Awful.

I would sit there on a chair (because of my healing leg) trying to focus on my breath as it passed through my nostrils. My stomach would gurgle and rumble, my bottom would scream in pain... I couldn't decide what the condition of my gut was: should I drink laxative tea...or eat stuff that would constipate me? Remember, there was no one to talk with about this.

Eventually, I called one of the staff aside and talked to him. He arranged a chat with our instructor. As I talked to the one and then the other, my stomach rumbled and my butt hurt. 

The meditation was going well, I thought. I sat still for hours each day, focusing on my breath. I was having tiny telltale experiences the instructors suggested that we might have if we were going about it correctly. 

I was remembering things and names and people from my past that I thought I'd surely lost. I found that remembering to be especially gratifying.

In between meditation sessions, I'd walk our area of the grounds and do my physical therapy: leg lifts and hand exercises. I did more exercises than I'd ever do at home - to fill the time and for fear of letting my healing go during the retreat. 

On the fourth day, I admitted to myself that I wasn't getting better. My stomach (or intestinal) disturbance was ruining the retreat experience. I was in the bathroom every hour during the day and several times each night, finding my way there at night with a flashlight, almost surely waking the other guys in my dorm room. 

I told the staffer-in-charge. I talked to our instructor in an empty meditation room. We could not decide what to do food-wise. I said I wanted to go home. 

Going home was, and I'm minimizing the hassle here, not easy. No one would tell me anything so I felt helpless. I was made to feel like a stubborn, ill-willed teenager. I had given my cell phone to Scott, who'd asked our ride down to lock it (and his phone) in her car. We could not speak to the women nor could we visit the cars. I could not get my phone so I could ask if someone from home could come get me. 

I did not know and was not told, but there were old students who would come to the retreat for a day or two. One of them might be leaving on the fifth day, I eventually learned, and might take me to Denver, or to a nearby town where I could catch a bus. 

I offered to walk the two miles to town and hitchhike home, if someone would put my luggage in the car we'd come down in - Scott could return my stuff to me when he got home.

None of that seemed to matter to anyone. I realized that I was getting very little cooperation. I began to want out of there more desperately. I thought of simply walking out. But I couldn't get my phone. And I couldn't carry my bags - full with everything for 10 days, remember. 

During the fifth morning, as I waited for someone to leave and haul me out of there, I was told to stay out of sight of the other students so as not to disturb them. I got up at 4:30 and we left at noon, one of the longest mornings of my life. 

I got my phone back a few hours before we left and to my relief, I had a signal there in the sticks - and could call Tamar and a friend or two to break the solitude. As luck and T-Mobile would have it, Tamar and I got cut off early in our call. 

I've written about the ride home. My ride, really quite a nice young lady, was the nightmare driver whose existence we want to deny, fear of whom wakes cyclists and motorcyclists at 2AM in a cold sweat. 

Without a mean impulse, she did everything we dread in a driver. And she did it all in both lanes and on the shoulder - fiddling with her phone and the radio, distracted every moment, unaware of what cars in front of her were doing. 

My already frazzled nerves protested. I'd have gotten out of the car but I couldn't carry my goddamn bags - everything for 10 days, remember.

Do I think that meditation retreats can be valuable, life-changing experiences? I do. Would I do another? I might do a weekend one. Maybe. Have I formed meditation habits? No. Tamar and I go to a meditation class one evening a week. That's good. More is not necessarily better.

What do I remember most vividly? Climbing out of that girl's Volvo in front of our building and knowing that it was all over. That soon I'd be reunited with Tamar and could resume my life, eating agreeable food, saying good morning and listening to music instead of my churning gut.

I guess I'm glad I did it, that (more accurately) I tried to do it. I'm glad I'm still the kinda guy who tries new things. Not every new thing we try works out, huh?  This one didn't. Maybe the next one will....


Khal said...

Kinda sounds like it was a life changing experience. And not all for the better.

Anonymous said...

Humans are social animals. To deny this seems to me to be very cruel, on the order of self-flagellation by some of the early Christian mystics.

-Earle in Madison.

Kirk said...

Thanks man, I appreciate it and hope recounting the experience didn't open any wounds.

jthurber80 said...

Sounds like SERE school -- no fun for anyone. The Navy made a horrific mistake and accidentally sent four Navy SEALS at one time. The SEALS took over the camp, burning three buildings to the ground, before stealing a truck, driving to a nearby Air Force Base and hijacking (seriously) a C-130, forcing the pilot to fly them to their base in Norfolk, Virginia. Did they get in trouble? Absolutely not, they were Navy SEALS.

Sometimes training is a dangerous thing. Anybody try and lock me up anywhere, anyhow, fire can be a wonderful "tool" to extracate oneself, as can stealing, hijacking, et al. In the immortal words of the Captain: If you can't beat 'em - smoke 'em out.

VC Slim said...

My wife Karen has found peace with Kriya Yoga thru the Self Realization Fellowship after reading Paramhansa Yogananda's "Autobiography of a Yogi". Good luck with finding your way.

Maynard said...

Thanks VC Slim!

I believe I'll read that book.

your friend Maynard