A Skeptic Attends a Meditation Retreat

Almost everyone is seated on meditation mats, maybe propped up by pillows, but I’m sitting on a chair, which the Insight Meditation Center (IMC) has graciously provided for older folks who can’t sit in the lotus position, legs twisted like pretzels, for more than 15 seconds at a time.  My eyes are closed and have been for… well, I don’t know how long.  This period of sitting meditation is scheduled for 45 minutes and I can’t tell if we’re closer to the middle or the end.

I have promised myself not to cheat, to look at my watch, though my eyes are itching to.  I know this is not the best of preoccupations.  I need to discipline my mind.  With effort, I return to breathing softly, slowly.  For a moment, that’s all there is.  I feel calm.  There’s no place I want to go.  I am where I am.  That lasts for—again, it’s hard to tell—maybe a few minutes but maybe only 15 seconds.

Now I want the session to end so that I can comprehend and celebrate this moment.  I have loved the peacefulness.  This is what I want to achieve—oops, that’s the wrong word, the opposite of just being.  Still I want to celebrate.  How much longer will the sitting be?  Now the gong rings.  At last.  But I don’t feel like moving or opening my eyes.  I am back to loving the quiet. These are fleeting moments that I want to last.

For much of the meditation periods, I am lost in time; and being lost is good.  My hope for the weekend retreat is that it will cast me out of my regular thought stream, which has grown a little stale, a little self-protective, and free my creative juices.  At 76, I still feel too tied to the need for productivity and, as a result, to matter in every social setting.  Maybe the sustained meditation emphasis on just being present will nudge me towards a greater acceptance of myself, just as I am—or the discovery of a new way to experience myself.

But the aura of acceptance is not where the retreat begins.  Rather, we receive instructions about all the things we shouldn’t do.  Like talk or make contact with others, even by nodding or smiling (which is said to invade their space), or read or use any electronic devices.  Those we must hand in to the office.  At the introductory lecture, we are presented with the “five hindrances,” that will interfere with our progress as meditators and people.  They are: sensual desire or greed; ill will or aversion; sloth and torpor; restlessness  anxiety or worry; and doubt.

Who can argue with the last four, and it’s easy to see that sensual desire has no place at the retreat.  But I feel that the long list of prohibitions has created a somewhat dour atmosphere.  When someone has done me a kindness, as many people do, by letting me into line or opening doors, I’d like to give a nod, a little smile of recognition, but no.  That might demand a response from them, breaking the “cone of silence” that is said to be critical to our ability to focus intently inward.

So in spite of my reservations, I see the point, and I promise myself to follow the rules.  This isn’t easy for me.  I dislike rules.  I like to be mischievous, even Rebellious.  But my goal is to throw myself into the unknown and if that means accepting authority for a period of time, then I’ll do it.

As a matter of fact, the idea of surrender has long been near the top my list of important enterprises.  I like to be in control of myself and I probably spend way too much energy making sure of it.  Instead of navigating through the many potential threats to my freedom, I could accept what others want from me, how others see me, what rules require of me.  Letting go might be liberating, might release a great deal of normally wasted energy.  Surrendering to others might let the small child in me peak into the warmth and comfort of other people’s acceptance and love.

Each retreat participant is assigned a “yogi” task.  Mine is to clean the toilets.  This seems brilliant to me, almost mystical in its perspicacity.  Along with surrender, the theme I’ve chosen to work on this weekend is humility, a quality that comes as naturally to me as surrender.  Here, in one stroke, the retreat staff has provided fertile grounds for my spiritual aspirations.

The retreat is structured very simply.  We rise early and then do sitting meditation, then breakfast, yogi work, sitting, walking meditation, sitting, walking, lunch, sitting… you get the idea.  On Friday, we’re at it from 7:30pm – 9:30pm.  On Saturday, from 6am – 9:15pm.  On Sunday morning, the gong rings at 5:15 and we meditate in various forms from 6:00am to 11:30am, with a lecture fitted in.

The key to Vipassana meditation—that’s the name for the IMC practice—is to follow your breath or any other focus that keeps your mind from wandering.  They call these foci “anchors,” and you are free to choose your own.  For years, I following my breath has served as my anchor

The goal is to empty your mind, which is virtually impossible.  As you sit and follow your breath, thoughts leap to mind, serious ones mixing freely with laundry lists of things you should be doing or should have done.  Desires, dreams, and hopes arise.  Anxieties and fears arise, too.  The discipline consists of noticing the mental processes and letting them go by returning to your breath.  You don’t fight the thoughts.  You let them float by like a river.  Relative inattention robs them of their hold on you.   Your mind empties itself of its reactive and neurotic tendencies and distortions.  With time, with consistent meditation over years, you grow freer and freer from their ability to dominate your life.

An empty mind is a free mind, or so we are told, and it enables you to experience the world as it is.  An empty mind is also said to be a more peaceful place to dwell, which is my goal.

Each time I meditate during the retreat seems unique.  Sometimes I become quiet quickly, and I feel a kind of contentment.  Sometimes, I shuffle and wriggle, unable to get comfortable and much of the meditation seems like a struggle to quiet myself.  Some sitting periods are filled with internal chatter; some are almost free of it.  At times, I can’t wait for the period to end and at others I am disappointed that the sitting is ending because I am so pleased with the peaceful moment.  It is rare that, even for a moment, I feel a free and empty mind.  But I am grateful for those moments.

During the last hours of Sunday morning, I can’t wait for the lecture to stop and then can hardly abide the final sitting meditation.  I want to go home.  I want to speak with my friend, David, on the drive home.  As we drive, our conversation is good but it doesn’t touch deeply on our experience at the retreat, as though we are withholding that for another time or, in some odd way, partly retaining our cone of silence.  I’m glad to see Franny and to describe the retreat but, again, I feel like I’ve withheld its essence—not out of meanness or fear but because the experience is still only within me.

The next day, I binge on political news and TV sports, just as the retreat instructors have warned us against.  The surrender is over.  I worry that the retreat has had no impact on me whatsoever.

But I do feel quieter inside. I seemed to have tasted its sweetness and long for the peacefulness of meditation in my chair.  And I have been continuing the practice, which feels like a refuge.  The practice is hardly at the center of my life but it is a little closer, which surprises the skeptic in me.



A couple of weeks ago, a friend asked me to talk about aging with a men’s reading group that he hosts.  I agreed and a few days later, he sent me a gift of That Good Night, a novel by Richard Probert.  It’s a rollicking, hyperbolic, Odessey-like journey that describes the struggles and triumphs of 84 year old Charlie Lambert as he escapes from what he experiences as the prison of an assisted living facility.

Charlie is an archetypal grumpy old man, who feels rejected by his family, forgotten by his friends, and consigned to a life of endless boredom, condescension, and enforced passivity.  He yearns to be free.  He dreams of making his own decisions and pursuing a life of his own choosing, which, after his escape, takes the form of a solo sailing voyage from the Chesapeake to the shores of Maine.

Freedom is no metaphor for Charlie.  As he sails off, his mind and energy return to life.  He relishes even the smallest pleasures. For Charlie, even the uncertainties and pains of freedom are preferable to a life quietude and resignation, and That Good Night serves as a comic paean to self-determination.

Of course, the need for autonomy and a sense of one’s agency accompany us through all stages of life.  In early childhood, during the “terrible twos,” we intone: “No, no, no.”  That’s the time when we, incohately but persistently, begin to draw boundaries between ourselves and our parents.  It’s as if a small child could say “I am more than an extension of my parents.”  The content doesn’t matter but the boundaries do.

In adolescence, we move beyond the world that we see as defined by others.  Wittingly and unwittingly, we explore unknown and often frightening realms.  Part of us yearns for a return to the security of parental rules and ideas, but we can’t, we won’t.  Beginning in early adulthood, our sense of belonging and our sense of service may lead to an apparent retreat into more conventional styles.  We seem to let other people—bosses and spouses, for example—commandeer the autonomy we had won with such pain and perseverance.  What independence and self determination we still nurture goes underground and becomes more a part of our fantasy than our active lives.  That’s part of the mystery of adulthood.  Even as we earn our livings and raise our children, we can feel other, seemingly more authentic, exotic, or rebellious selves peek out at work, in affairs, in mid life crises.  But, for the most part, these remain anomalous, not defining experiences.

Strangely enough, self-determination reappears as a defining experience in old age, even if neglected by institutions that care for us.  With the loss of job- and family-defined lives, we must decide what we will do, who we will be.  We yearn equally for safety and adventure.  Some adventures may seem tame—Elder Hostile travel tours, skin diving, and red convertibles, for instance—but they express a profound desire to reach beyond the limitations that we had imposed on ourselves.

And surprisingly enough, I believe that this desire transcends gender.  While self-determination is far more closely associated with men than women, the need to meet life head on and to set one’s own course, seems as true for one as the other.

What, then, is self-determination?  For me, it’s not so much about running from convention nor reacting against what others do or what they wish for us.  As we reach maturity, self-determination shifts from a negative to a positive valance—not so much being free from constraints as being free to pursue our own ends.

This kind of freedom requires self knowledge.  You can’t set a true course until you know what it is, and you can’t know what it is until you know who you are and what  aims make you feel right with yourself.  Old friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, put it this way:  “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”  To do so, you really have to listen to those inner voices.  As older people, we have the time and the elbow room to do that kind of listening. We have listened before.  We know the themes that have animated our lives.  We are potential connoisseurs.

To listen well, you have to be still.  For a moment, at least, you have to let go the need to be productive.  Otis Redding can be our model, “sitting on the dock of the bay, watching the tide roll away.”  Meditation provides another model.  It calms the mind and allows us to observe our feelings with greater clarity and skepticism.  As William Wright writes, “Rather than automatically following their guidance, you critically inspect them and decide which ones to trust.”

At such times, feelings, thoughts, and images float through your mind.  If you refuse to settle on one right away, you eventually find your mind focusing, almost by itself, on some desire and some course of action.  If you wish, that becomes your north star.

Pursuing that star then requires discipline.  Henry David Thoreau tells us that “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately…”  This statement joins the two parts of self and determination.  As we know from the pages of Walden Pond, Thoreau quieted his life so that he could determine what mattered most, then followed what he learned as carefully and authentically as he could.

I identify with Thoreau.  Like him, I keep a journal as a way to observe my world and to quiet myself.  I think of my blog posts as ways to sort through and crystallize what I am learning.

It’s not easy to find the core.  As contemporary philosophers have taught us, it may be necessary at first to throw off the rules that we live by before we can learn about our more authentic voices and choices.  In fact, self-determination is a phrase often used for countries, not individuals.  A former colony, for example, throws off the yoke of slavery in order to gain freedom, first.  Only then does self-direction follow.

So, too, with individuals.  We have to look inside at length to determine what has been imposed and what is true for us, alone.  We have to throw off the colonizing process of all the rules we have learned, the habits we have developed in order to be liked, to seem good, smart, strong, or appropriate.

In his famous essay, Emerson talks of “self reliance,” but that phrase misses the mark for me.  It’s not a matter of just depending on ourselves.  I think we do and must depend on others, as well.  It’s a matter of directing ourselves in order to be the person we wish to be, in order to achieve the ends we want to achieve.  In another passage, Emerson says it better:  First he tells us that  “The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be.”  Then he proclaims:  “Dare to live the life you have dreamed for yourself. Go forward and make your dreams come true.”

How, then, can we go forward?  There is an emerging consensus among psychologists and educators that determination is as powerful as what we think of as innate ability.  They call this quality “grit.”  When they look at a child’s potential, they say that the willingness to try and try again, to fall and rise again, to persevere in the face of criticism and doubts, their own and others’—that this quality of character may be a better predictor of future success than IQ and social privilege.

It may seem strange to invoke the quality of grit for aging people but I am convinced that it is essential to our well being.  Those among my friends who tenaciously pursue the activities that matter most to them, whether it be caring for grandchildren, playing music, meditating, continuing their professional work, or launching new and seemingly unrealistic project—these people are most alive.

Self determination, then, begins with contemplation and culminates with the energetic, often dogged pursuit of whatever turns you on.  There is joy and satisfaction in this pursuit.

The Wisdom of Aging

I have been looking through the essays I’ve written during the last five months and have noticed how many of them talk about letting go of many of the activities, thoughts, and feelings that have sustained me through my life.

There are actually three, complementary themes that jump out.  In some, I feel abandoned—by physical strength or memory, for instance.  In others, I am letting go.  Here I think of my efforts at fame and fortune and my desire to be more than I actually am.  Still others feel active, as though I am saying farewell.  I have, for example, retired.  And I have divested myself of many possessions.

I have been studying the wisdom traditions, both East and West, throughout my adult life.  The experience is often similar to what I feel when I read popular books on quantum theory and the bending of time.  While I’m reading, I think I understand.  When I’m done and try to explain what I’ve learned, my understanding has fled.  But the idea of wisdom continues its allure, and some of my late life experience seems to lend itself, at least a little bit, towards better understanding.

The marriage of age and wisdom is an ancient one.  It applies best to traditional and stable cultures, where the known world is available to the observant person, and not changed annually by new technologies.  In the known worlds, observation leads to knowledge.  Knowledge is tested and forged in fires of experience.  Reflecting upon that experience then leads to good judgment; and the repeated experience of good judgment leads to both confidence and a calm disposition. When sound judgment is shared calmly with others, and not imposed, word spreads.  A wise man or woman is in our midst.  This is the ancient pathway.

In spiritual traditions, judgment based on knowledge may not be enough.  There is a paradoxical passage to be navigated.  Even as you accumulate knowledge, you must let it go in order to see through conventional knowledge—and to see freshly into the unknown.  The Christian tradition, for instance, tells us that “…unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  (Matthew).  Buddhist and Hindu practices teach us how to let go of our illusions and our attachments in order to be free.  Liturgy and ritual are in the service of their opposite: the unknown.

This is the aim of meditation, maybe the primary discipline, even primary teacher, in many spiritual traditions.  In meditation we learn to see a tired and futile old solution to problems we have faced many times and, instead of grabbing onto it, we let it flow by.  When we hold on to what we know, it eventually weighs us down and blinds us to what is right in front of us.  By letting go of conventional wisdom, we are unmoored, which can be frightening, but we are also liberated to experience the world as if for the first time.  The experience is simple, spontaneous, visceral, and very satisfying.

Once free, you can bring back a good deal of the knowledge and good judgment that you had attained through study and experience.  Much of it will remain pertinent—but fresher, more immediate, more specific to each new situation.  Specificity and immediacy are what change.  You no longer apply knowledge with the broad strokes that had rendered your judgment, however correct, so uninspiring.  The inspiration of the child is in the sense of wonder.  Each moment is special.  With time, wonder and knowledge join. The marriage is joyous.  The present moment—discovery—and the ages are bonded as one.

The search for wisdom is often puzzling and daunting.  Among other things, it requires sacrifice: you must learn to let go the very knowledge that you have depended on, the precious knowledge that has given you a sense of security and status in your community.  In our fast-changing world, wisdom-as-knowledge is ephemeral.  The capacity to let it go over and over again becomes the key to clear sightedness.  And clear sightedness is true wisdom.  It permits you to address each moment, each challenge, each problem without the baggage of failed solutions.

Contemporary society confronts us not with stability but constant change.  Within that change, though, we also build a body of knowledge, some having to do with the nature of change and how best to cope with it.  But, ironically, on an individual level, this body of knowledge generally becomes almost as fixed as it was in traditional societies.  Those in search of wisdom pass through a comparable development: from observation and experience to knowledge and good judgment, from judgment to calm.  For those who wish to go further, the process of letting go of the certainty and woodenness of the knowledge they have attained, letting go remains the key to clarity.

Let me step back from these philosophical ruminations and say a little bit about how they apply to my life—and maybe to yours.  Remember, there were three related experiences that seem increasingly prominent: abandonment; letting go; farewell.

Abandonment means loss.  But it means more than loss.  It’s as though someone is actively leaving you or taking something away.  I don’t experience the loss of youth as voluntary.  It feels like it has fled while I slept.  The same is true for my belief, my dependence on the future as a balm that heals all ills.  Since I was a child, raised by parents who envisioned a better world, I have trusted the future.  Throughout my life, when I failed, struggled, or didn’t live up to expectations, I always believed that I could correct mistakes and improve conditions in the future. Now that I am much older, the future is no longer my friend and savior.  It has abandoned me. There’s only the present.

Letting go has a much more positive connotation for me.  It is active.  It feels purposeful.  For instance, I have begun to let go of my wish, my need, to be extraordinary.  I no longer expect that of myself, and I have plenty of evidence over a long life to confirm the humility that has finally emerged with age.  This humbling turns out to be restful.  I’m judging myself less, pushing less, failing less.  No doubt it also eases my relations with others.

Farewell is more active, still.  I have waved goodbye to my long and generally satisfying professional life.  My work was more than work for me.  It was defining.  It was a good part of who I was.  Saying farewell feels like leaving a friend, a family member.  It also means the end of “earning a living” and all that that connotes, especially for a man of my generation.  After long thought, I have said my goodbyes to people, projects, and lingering ambitions.  I have divested myself of many, many material objects, including the home where Franny and I raised our children, thousands of my beloved books, and much of the income I used to think we needed.

For a couple of years leading up to retirement, I was frightened by the yawning chasm that seemed to be on the other side.  But, with time, I began to feel that there was some other, great phase of life that I wanted to give myself to.  A time to explore my place on earth, the meaning of my life.

This brings me back to the theme of wisdom.  I don’t expect to achieve wisdom, certainly not as a steady state, a dependable calm, far above the concerns and slights of everyday life.  But I hope to touch its shores.  I think I know the secret sauce, too.  It has to do with saying farewell to being more—more charming, more intelligent, more lovable, more successful—more than myself.  More than my self.  It is time to find the freedom in just being who I am in a universe I do not control.