Next week, I'm turning fifty. And because I am a person who likes to mark occasions with a bit of ceremony, even if it is just a number and a day like any other, I have been considering what to do. A party ... well ... yes. A trip somewhere with my beloved ... Iceland here I come. But I needed something else, something a bit more preparatory, as opposed to celebratory. And then I was fortunate enough to get pulled off the waitlist for a five-day silent meditation retreat at the Insight Meditation Society. Hanging out with my mind for five days sounded perfect. I thought it would be easy, maybe even enjoyable. After all, I'm not a novice. It was going to be my fourth time participating in a similar process, each varying in length and format. I'm old hand, I thought. I know what's going on inside my mind. Indeed. I discovered that was true, but not relevant.
The silence began and it was as if my mind joined up as a member of Opus Dei, infamous for their practices around mortification of the flesh. On each of the first three days, my mental-metaphorical cilice (an undergarment made to induce pain, like a hairshirt, though often with wires or thorns) got tighter, as if I'd gone from a size 6 barbed-hairshirt to a size 0.
Here's a mix-tape of the inside of the mind: Half-Shaved Head would use chopsticks. So virtuous, the way he eats so slowly. Who does he think he's fooling? How can you even think that? Just because you aren't peaceful doesn't mean other people aren't. Stop criticizing. This is exactly what's wrong with you. Stop judging. But chopsticks are such a pain to wash. One hundred people, and maximum two people ever use chopsticks, plus one that probably got dropped on the floor. The amount of time I spend chasing those chopsticks during my dinner dishwashing yogi job. It's not just his chopstick-using, how about the way he holds his two hands over his heart when he walks by anyone ... so annoying. He's almost as bad as Goenka Girl, with her beatific expression, as if she's just had sex with the Buddha before coming to meditation. I wonder if Half-Shaved Head is a good lover, all that patience. Mr. Tantric. He and Goenka Girl should get together. What kind of crappy person am I, judging them during a meditation retreat? This is exactly why you need this retreat and other people don't. You are not a nice person. I wish I could bring my cat on retreat with me, maybe I'd be nicer if she were here. Oh, it's morning, I want the orange side of my shawl facing out, not the purple side. That's for the evening meditations. If I'm not too exhausted to show up. I can't believe I went to bed at 8:30 last night. What's wrong with me that I can't even make one more hour? It's only a half hour of walking meditation and a half hour of sitting. But I don't really like the chanting so much. A bit too Buddhist-y for me. Besides, lots of people don't show up. I'm not the only deadbeat. I'm such a deadbeat. They're probably just meditating in their rooms or doing something else more noble than sleeping. I can't even keep my mind in the meditation. Am I supposed to be counting or saying the lovingkindness words? What are they again? Fuck. My back hurts so much. I want to move. I have to move. I shouldn't move. I'm supposed to breathe into the pain, explore the nature of the pain. Burning. Sharp. No, wait, it's dispersed. It's my whole back. No, it's just that part underneath my shoulder blade. Aaaah. I can't. I have to move. I'm so weak. I could have just sat there another minute. Oh look, there's Ferocious Woman. Stop peeking. She doesn't like me. I think she was glowering at me in the woods this morning. She's probably right. I shouldn't be running. It's not very retreat-ish. But it feels so fake to w-a-l-k s-l-o-w-l-y all the time. Her and all those other women with their tragic haircuts, savoring every bite of their meal, chewing 50 times, or however many times the Buddha says to chew to be in the moment. What if I love running and eating my food quickly? Maybe that's how I enjoy the moment--fast. I'm fooling myself. I just don't have the patience to chew every bite. No, it's true that I don't enjoy my meal that way. It makes me want to stop eating completely. Well that would probably be better anyway. Then I'd lose weight. But then I'd look even older than I already do. My birthday. Coming way too soon. I know it's just a number. But it's a big one. I would like to get a new top for my birthday party; something backless, with a little sparkle, or not. Too flashy. Am I too old for sleeveless? Will my arms just look wobbly? What does it even matter what I wear? Everyone else always looks so much better than me. I wish I looked like someone else. What was the woodpecker trying to say to me this morning in the woods? Was he encouraging me or criticizing me? Oh there's my vipasana friend. I like it when he sits down near me. He probably doesn't even notice I'm here.
My mind, the indefatigable critic, making sure I am aware 24/7/365 of how easy it is to fail in the world, of how I am in fact failing in the moment. It was exhausting to sit with its ceaseless chatter every day. When I tried to escape into sleep, the bad dreams would come. On the fourth day my mind removed the cilice. Just like that.
I was granted some moments of clarity, of transcendence, even of bliss. I felt the first deep sadness for my self, for the pain my mind inflicted on me with the non-stop self-flagellation. For the first time I understood at a cellular level the empathy that the teachers talk about--imagine your mind is a child, how would you treat a child filled with rage or sorrow?--with tenderness, of course, with love. As one of our teachers said, we aren't here to flog our thoughts, to rip them violently from our minds, to beat them into submission. All we need to do is notice them. Say, thank you. And let them pass away, if they don't serve us. Release the fist of your mind.
For one breath here and another breath there, I glimpsed the path I needed to take. The hundreds of thousands of millions of thank yous I will need to say to my mind, the letting gos. And I was filled with ... a simultaneous sense of hopelessness and joy.
It's been almost two weeks now since I got home. I'm not a new person. I've changed a microscopic hair's breadth of a nanometer. I don't even know if I can hang on to that change. In fact, if I know anything, it's that I have to loosen my grip. I feel like I'm holding the most fragile of objects in my hands, and even then I feel how the heat of my fingertips threatens to dissolve it's preciousness.
This past weekend I did a half marathon on trails up at Bear Mountain, part of the North Face Endurance Challenge series of events. After some significant time off for a bad case of Morton's Neuroma, which is somewhat under control now, I wasn't feeling particularly confident. Plus, it was rainy and 48 degrees Fahrenheit; in other words, sub-optimal conditions on trails with now-slick rocks and roots, obscured by also-wet leaves. So I was pleased to discover that I'd won my age group. I felt good, for a moment, until I started looking at the age groups around me. And while the woman who won in the age group younger than I had only run a minute faster than me and I would have come in second in that age span, the woman in the age group older (to which I will belong next week), ran 12 minutes faster than me. I thought, well, that just goes to show, I didn't really win, I just got lucky that I was ten days younger than her and that no one else happened to show up in my age group. Pretty soon my mind had written off the whole day as an aberration. The next morning, when my partner, who is generous in promoting my accomplishments to others, mentioned my performance at the event to someone else, my mind started in with its usual direct messaging, oh how embarrassing, it was not anything, and so on. Then suddenly I remembered my meditation retreat, and I thought, "Thank you for your input, but right now I'm going to set those self-critical thoughts aside, and I'm going to enjoy a few moments of feeling good about myself."
Five days of silent examination of my mind and there, in that moment, was an observable result. Sounds small. But as every meditation teacher I've ever had has said, if you can pause long enough even once to see how your mind is causing you suffering, you can pause again, and again, and then again. Happy Birthday to me.