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.