Five Days of Silent Meditation or
QUEEN SPAZZY FREE-FOR-ALL TAKES TO THE WOODS
Note: This essay was written several years ago, at the end of a particularly STILL/WILD summer
"Sincere spiritual exploration is, and always has been, an endeavor of methodical discipline. Looking for Truth is not some kind of spazzy free-for-all, not even during this, the great age of the spazzy free-for-all."
Sunday, August 12
I tried this once before, this silent retreat thing, just over a decade ago–and the results were disastrous. My monkey mind had its way with me back then, and I came out of the experience thinking that I would rather endure all manner of physical torture than the mental torture that silence and absolute solitude wrought. At that point in my life, I was way less than ready to come face to face with the shame, fear and confusion that drove my inner narrative, and I bailed after a day. After several hours of driving aimlessly along the Blue Ridge Parkway (there are worse things, ultimately) I pulled off on the side of the road and called my then partner, who listened to me cry and who said, memorably, “Baby, I don’t know how to help you.” So there on the side of the road, I pulled out my journal and scribbled furiously: “I need a rebirth, a reclamation, a commitment to self first and foremost. I need a dress, a ring, and Promises…” and the rest is history. (www.dressringpromises.com)
In any case, a decade and lifetimes of experience later, I am infinitely more prepared this time. I think. I have, for a long time now, had a sustained contemplative practice. Furthermore, this summer will go down in my personal history as the one in which I was the unofficial bride of the little stone chapel at Montgomery Bell State Park. For the past two months, in that sweet spot, I have logged in countless hours of meditation and centering prayer. I didn’t set out to devote this summer to a radical and transformative spiritual practice, but for whatever reason (likely a temporary bout with ill health that brought me to my knees, as it were) I suddenly this summer craved quietude in the way I have craved chocolate in the past. I have experienced untold amounts of Divine Grace in the silence. And now I want more.
I feel determined. Not only do I feel determined, I feel ready: I have a schedule mapped out (which I plan to adhere to rigorously), my bag packed, my food prepared. And yet … I’m putting off bed time because I’m scared. Stillness is hard. I keep saying to my son, Jacob, “I’m nervous,” to which he finally replies, “Dear God. By this point I am too!” As usual, he keeps me laughing all night.
Monday August 13
I arrive at the park promptly at 9:00 am, and it’s raining hard. This is perfectly fine, I think, assuming it doesn’t rain all week. The chapel is first on the schedule-to-which-I’ll-be-adhering-rigorously, and it is lovely as always. I plan to observe a sitting meditation for about three hours a day–if not zazen (kekka-fuza escapes me), at least silently. The rest of the day is for quiet contemplation, prayer, and swimming. Oh, and eating. I will, of course, be eating food from my strict and spare meal plan – to which, yes, I will also be adhering rigorously. (Incidentally, the word “rigorous” will grow less important as the week progresses.)
I love this tiny, sacred space. As much as I love it–and as totally as I have claimed it as my own this summer I have refused to get proprietary about it. I refuse, for instance, to ever call it, “My chapel.” As often as I start to say, “My chapel” and catch myself, it is and will always be, “The chapel;” The sandstone chapel that commemorates the birth of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in 1810, to be exact.
There are visitors in and out all morning, that I’ll have to deal with eventually. I’ve been dealing with this all summer and am used to the distractions, which generally I have decided are good for me. In fact, I have made it a practice to personally welcome any and everyone who crosses the threshold of my–I mean the–chapel. But if I’m to observe a strict meditation schedule this week, I’ll have to ignore the folks that come and go. But I haven’t figured out how to do that yet. (It’s day one, people.) The upside is I’ve had some lovely conversations this morning, as usual, and in between visitors I meditate until my schedule tells me it’s snack/swim time–at which point, I head to the lake.
There will be no swimming today. It’s raining even harder by the time I get to the water, so instead of swimming, I wrap myself in towels and surround myself with books. This place is beautiful, as is the rain, and I feel warm and cozy and delighted by the storm. I can’t believe that I was ever, ever nervous about this week! I eat to my heart’s delight, rhapsodize in my journal about the sound of the rain (or something) and feel, for all the world, like I’m on vacation.
Somewhere in these initial, self-congratulatory hours I am dimly aware of the fact that vacation isn’t really the point, but for now this awareness is keeping a polite distance. I turn the page of my journal and commence making a cheerful list of my favorite Hafiz poems … Right up until I come across this one (with which I’m very familiar and which partially spurred this idea in the first place):
FOR THREE DAYS
Not many teachers in this world
Can give you as much enlightenment
In one year
As sitting all alone, for three days,
In your closet
This means not leaving.
Better get a friend to help with
A few sandwiches
And no reading in there or writing poems,
That would be cheating;
Aim high–for a 360 degree
This sitting alone, though, is
If you are normally
Or have ever been under doctors
Surveillance because of your
Don’t let Hafiz fool you–
A ruby is buried
No books for the rest of the week, then. This means that whether or not I am officially meditating, I will have nine hours a day here by myself, with very few distractions.
I put away my books and practice another seated meditation, because there isn’t much else to do what with the rain and the moratorium on reading. But my tremor is a distraction, as is the relentless pain in my tail bone. In addition to that, the mosquitoes are out and my feet are cold and I can’t remember whether or not I set my alarm to alert me when “snack/swim time” is over and …
Yes. This is more to the point, and this ain’t no vacation. The thought makes me smile. And so we begin.
During my afternoon meditation in the chapel my goal is to (politely?) ignore anyone that enters. This is harder than I thought it would be. First of all, it makes me a bit nervous. The very many cautionary tales I’ve received from the many friends and loved ones who know of my plan to spend the week in a state park, alone, have had an effect; meaning that everyone who approaches me (especially when my back is turned and my eyes are closed) is momentarily suspect. Even harder is dealing with the fact that I feel rude. I realize that I have come to love my role as the one woman welcome committee, and it is hard not to acknowledge the presence of all who enter. But I want–I need–to “go deeper” (whatever that means) and so today I do manage to ignore the few people who wander in. Interestingly, when I remain silent, everyone who enters does so quietly and respectfully. I hear people come in, but sometimes I don’t notice when they leave.
I have carried, into the park with me, a story of such tragic proportions that it will have to be dealt with sooner or later, and I decide to spend some time praying about it this afternoon. I have dear friends who know and work with a family who has, just this past week, experienced trauma of the highest order. The kind of human tragedy that is hard to wrap one’s heart and mind around.
I am somewhat accustomed to this line of contemplation in that I have been an anti-death penalty activist for much of my life. Within this line of work it is necessary, early on, to find a place within one’s spiritual understanding for heinous and atrocious human behavior on the one hand, and unfathomable grief and loss on the other. And yet this story, which is unmercifully splattered on the pages of our local newspaper, is especially heartbreaking.
I think again of Hafiz, as I so often do, who writes gently:
There is no event in your life
You in some way
Did not drive a hard bargain for.
This chapel has become the place in which I actively wrestle with proclamations such as these, both as they relate to my own life and to the lives of the people around me. I realize, once again, that I gently, tenderly–apologetically, even–accept this as Truth. Across the vast expanse of lifetimes, in which the soul’s purpose is to evolve and to keep on evolving, it makes sense to me that we are, at times, broken (sometimes completely shattered, in fact) because we ask and need to be, on some level; because such brokenness serves us in some way. This is what I have come to believe, in any case.
That said, my pain for this family is overwhelming and I pray for relief for them; for some semblance of safe passage through this lifetime, in which nothing will ever be the same. I weep for them, as well as for my friends who know them and who have had to bear witness to their pain. Here in the chapel, I give this time to them. It is the least I can do.
Tuesday, August 14
I am, as it turns out, infinitely more ready for a week of intense meditation than I might have guessed.
That said, it’s not always easy. On this particular morning lots of anger is surfacing, in addition to anxiety, confusion etc. I sit with it all. This is one of the most useful things about a contemplative practice, I’m finding: the increased ability to sit with pain and sadness very intentionally. Instead of running from the discomfort (and worse) – instead of distracting myself at all costs - I move right to the center of it. This practice, I think, has quite a lot to do with the fact that I feel a much greater sense of contentment than I ever have before. The persistent feeling that something isn’t quite right – the sort of low level, dissonant, background noise in the back of my mind is, slowly but surely, shifting to its opposite. This in and of itself is revolutionary for me.
Let’s be clear: I am here for my children, Trenna and Jacob. It’s the very, very least I can do.
It’s swim time now, according to my schedule, and today there’s not a cloud in the sky when I get to the lake. As I peel off my sweat pants and head for the water, I can’t help celebrating the fact that the kids are back in school and the vacationers have all gone home, meaning that I am alone in this beautiful place; wondrously, blissfully alone. As I step into the lake, however, it strikes me that perhaps this is not such a good thing because who other than me will scare away the fish? But I swim happily enough until I’ve had my fill, at which point I decide to spend the rest of snack/swim time meditating on the tiny, sandy “beach.”
So far, the biggest challenge I’m facing in my meditation is this: Each time I close my eyes, my mind presents me with reams and reams of blank paper on which to write, and write I do—fingers flying across a mental keyboard, thoughts and paragraphs and bits of monologues coming so quickly I can scarcely keep up with them. By week’s end I will come to understand that this is a gift. I haven’t generated this much creative output in years. Still, it’s distracting. It’s easy to overly identify with the material that I’m receiving, all of which appears effortlessly, unsolicited and fully formed. It’s tempting to think that I am very, very clever, all of a sudden. By the time Friday rolls around I will have learned, quite successfully, I think, to manage this phenomena. As well, I will have learned a great deal about the creative process in general (or at least about my own). The process really is wondrously co-creative. Ideally, I think, one creates huge amounts of space in which to listen and receive. Then, if anything is to come of such gifts, one must show up and suit up for the sweat equity part of the bargain.
Before this week, I probably could have intellectualized all of this, and even described it to some degree. But never before have I experienced it in such stark terms.
Wednesday, August 15
No swimming this morning. The water is stagnant and, well, yucky. My sweet little swimming hole today more closely resembles a sewage treatment plant for ducks. I guess this is what happens when the kids are back in school and the vacationers have gone home.
I have found a new place to meditate, as there are just too many people in and out of the chapel. Also, I’m not adhering to my schedule quite as rigorously as I was in the beginning. I’m meditating, or at least sitting silently, for more hours than I had originally scheduled. I’m now spending most of my time at the spillway, which is absolutely gorgeous and which offers the added bonus of the sound of falling water.
I am here at the spillway when it happens - when I get a brief and exquisite taste of the ineffable. (I can’t say I wasn’t hopeful.) I have been meditating for an hour or so when I tip over into a state that transcends my ability to describe it. I don’t get to stay long; it’s a tiny taste–a teaser. But it’s enough. It’s so much more than enough. It releases my head and pierces my heart, and when I open my eyes everything around me is so beautiful it takes my breath away. I literally gasp out loud and have to resist the urge to leap out of my chair. I want to move, suddenly. I want to take this glimpse of Divinity and run out into the world with it. It takes no small amount of discipline to stay in my seat, but stay in my seat I do, and it’s not long before I settle in and bask in this feeling. I could (and do) sit here for hours.
A hawk circles above me, sliding along the sky. I think about how for El Gavilan, as for the rest of us, it’s not possible to take flight until one is able to rise above guilt and shame. I watch the hawk for a long time.
Thursday, August 16
This morning I deviate from the schedule in a big way. I decide to spend some time, while in this calm and centered place, getting a handle on the year ahead. I get out my calendar and my budget and lay it all out on paper, with dates and numbers. It’s a fun exercise, all in all, though in the end my document more closely resembles abstract art (emphasis on abstract) than an actual budget. Numbers are not my area of expertise, to put it mildly. But still, I like where this is going. Through an odd combination of unceasing willfulness (not to mention a dearth of alternatives), I have crafted a life that, for the most part, reflects my passions and interests across the board. All of my work meets at the intersection of Art and Change-making, with particular emphasis on what can accurately be described as a new, worldwide women’s movement – as in, Gather the Women, Save the World and Not a Moment Too Soon. Happily, I’m traveling a lot this fall: to the beach with my sister in August; to Colorado to perform a beloved momologue and to see beloved friends in September; and to Santa Fe, New Mexico at the end of October, for another silent retreat at the Monastery at Christ in the Desert. All in all, it’s shaping up to be a lovely year as years go. But I get so caught up in doing mode that it is hard to switch to being mode. After an hour or so, when I put away my notebooks and turn inward, I have a hard time settling in. Truth be told, I’ve probably been stalling a bit. Yesterday was so lovely that on some level I have convinced myself that today wont be. Not surprisingly then, it’s not.
Satori, the Zen Buddhists call it. I wonder if those who have been meditating for years experience Satori somewhat regularly–or if it is always purely an act of Grace. I’m not sure that what I experienced yesterday would qualify as such; I have experienced Satori once before in no uncertain terms, and yesterday’s experience (whatever it was) was so brief (seconds) that I’m not sure. I don’t know enough about such things.
I spend most of the morning fantasizing. Not the lurid variety, just to be clear. (My daughter hates when I use this word. What she doesn’t understand is that by this point, in my mid forties, my fantasies are as often inhabited by the well appointed kitchen as by the well appointed man.) That said, I do spend a fair amount of time, in general, daydreaming about some lovely man I haven’t met yet, and this morning is no exception. In any case, eventually I decide to move to another part of the park to see if a change of location will help. I find a pretty place I haven’t been before, haul my chair down to the water’s edge, and try to remember everything I know about meditation: relax, focus on breathing, don’t fight the thoughts–just let them float innocently by etc.
But mostly I’m just hot. The mosquitoes are even worse here, the fish are jumping in a way that’s distracting, and I’m sure I’m getting sunburned. I move again, back to the spillway, and when I park my chair in the usual spot I decide that I am here to stay for the rest of the day; that I will sit in silent meditation come hell or high water, transcendent experience or not. Despite my firm decision and the idyllic surroundings, however, and despite the fact that I do indeed sit here for the rest of the day, I never settle in.
Today the monkey mind (whom we might call Koko) is in complete control. She is behaving like three-year-old, very smart triplets in an attempt to entice me into doing something infinitely more fun than letting my thoughts “float innocently by.” The more Koko tries to distract me the more stubbornly I try to shush her, and soon we are engaged in a full on battle of wills. I’m trying desperately to ignore her, and she responds by amping it up a few notches—presenting me, for instance, with a game she finds both fun and entertaining and which she dubs: Potentially Pithy facebook Posts (my favorite being “It’s no fun ovulating when you’re single”). I don’t have to mention that this is exhausting. All in all, I want to go home.
Thursday, it seems, is a wash.
Friday, August 17
Except that Thursday wasn’t a wash. It was a necessary and important part of my experience as a whole. It’s all good, as they say.
And here is Friday already. I’m leaving early, I’ve decided. I have put my life on hold for a week and decide that I have to come out at noon to chop wood and carry water, as it were. There are things I simply shouldn’t put off until next week. I settle on this decision firmly as I turn into the park.
Interestingly, all mental chatter ceases as I turn in, and it feels as if I’m entering a sacred space. I feel alert and present to a degree that is surprising and unexpected. That said, I think I somehow knew, even before I went into the Wilderness, that it would all come together in the end.
I’ll be in the chapel this morning. The dear, dear little chapel.
Here I have my best meditation of the week, by far. I settle in immediately. Thoughts come and go, but I’m not attached to any of them. People come and go, but I’m not attached to them either. The coming and going barely ruffles the edges of my consciousness, and the hours slide by quickly.
At noon, I drive out of the park. It’s raining again, which is perfectly fine.