So recently, my pal Aaron sent out an email to our group of friends. I refer to this particular group as the puppy pile, as we're rather like a lovingly misshapen and benign gang; we move, as it were, en masse.
Which is great for me -- and specifically for my brain -- since I actually kind of hate being alone. It's all well and good if I wake up on a particular day and think to myself, Mmmm a jar of Nutella and my new sci-fi book is what I am about tonight! I take a long bath and pick at my face in the mirror. I reorganize weird cosmetics bags or sweep my floor of its carnivorous dust bunnies. I edit photographs and listen to the same 25 Ani DiFranco and Regina Spektor songs I've listened to since I was 15. If I want to be alone, I get weird with myself and generally keep busy.
It's when I'm not planning on being alone that things start to get ugly. It is a combination of FOMO (a neurosis that Mindy Kaling lives as a brand) and the sad reality that I am simply badly wired. I'll be making some coffee in the morning when my roommates have left for their respective jobs, and suddenly my brain starts firing off things like this:
Ouch! This water is hot, I nearly burned my damn hand. Man, burn victims. How awful, all that pain, all that scarring. What would it be like to become instantly and irrevocably mutilated? What is it like to see your best friend's face burst into your hospital room, her face ashen. She instantly starts crying and saying she's sorry. And you're thinking, well, nobody's more sorry than me. Will anybody even kiss me again?
And how crazy is it that someone right now -- instead of curling up to read the news with coffee on an ugly (if exceedingly comfortable) sofa -- is being beaten, raped, humiliated, heart-broken; shot with intravenous drugs; orgasming in throaty screams; divorcing their parents; adopting a son; floating in the Dead Sea; defying their ancestors; christened, slaughtered, worshipped, and denigrated.
The simultaneity of it all is truly staggering. I remember taking the Meyers Briggs' personality test in high school with a best friend. It has a question along the lines of, "Do you stay up late at night and wonder what on earth you're doing here? What the hell is it all about, Alfie?" My pal shook her head and said blithely, Nope! I was stunned. I truly thought everybody just bored their eyes into the ceiling and wondered about exactly that.
But 15 years later, I wish "nope" could be my answer. I tell myself: Quit asking questions that turn your threadbare tires in that 15-foot mud. Quit wondering about things that, by definition, you will never, ever, not in a million freakin' years, know the answer to. Which leaves one in a perpetual state of anxiety and confusion. Which is a nasty place to be.
But do I listen? Nah. I'm not such great company.
So anyway, I get this email from my pal Aaron -- who is a dedicated meditator and, in truth, just about the most gentle, calm-exuding human I've ever encountered. He invites all of us to go to Spirit Rock Meditation Center for a day-long "Beginner's Guide to Mindfulness." I eye the email. I scroll up and down. I nibble my nails a bit.
I begin to seriously consider going.
I happened to recently discover Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (which was actually developed for suicidal patients, as it helps you deal with how your thoughts violently trigger your emotions and vice versa), and it has a huge emphasis on being in the moment; it's a decidedly Eastern-leaning paradigm.
My once ever-angry brother has gotten into meditating. My boyfriend -- my fellow depressive extrovert -- meditates. People just, like, can't get enough of this cross-legged healing rite.
I've done yoga for years but use it as a means to stretch my body into satisfying shapes and sweat. I do not heal. I worry that my stomach is bulging out weird, that I am going to accidentally toot, that I'm pulling a hammy as we speak, and what am I going to eat after this? Even during Shavasana -- sprawled and exhausted -- my mind races.
In addition to Aaron, my roommate Hannah decides to go to the retreat, and I start to think, Maybe this will be good for you. It will be painful, you know that, to have to just sit and be in your brain for half-hour stretches, but you're gonna do this thing. You're going to have a revelation. Maybe somebody, someday, will describe you as calm-inducing! Be still my rat-racing heart.
We all meet up early Saturday morning. We laugh and chat on the drive up. We stare out the window and absent-mindedly sing to music. So far, this is my kind of Saturday!
We arrive and suddenly, I can feel anxiety roiling in my guts. Everyone is headed into this low-ceilinged wooden building; they're taking off their shoes and smiling beatifically; they're gathering pillows and mats and quaffing tea by the artisanal gulp-full. Me? I'm sweating. I'm stretching. I'm trying to talk and move as much as I humanly can while they give their introductory speech. I am sweeping my eyes across the crowded room -- most people are swaddled in loose clothes and settling into metal chairs -- and praying myself into a damn corn field.
I hear the leader -- who is pleasantly droning about mindfulness -- talk about being aware of everything that is transpiring right now; what your immediate experience is. We are to banish the future and relinquish the past. There is only now. The rug-fringe on your toes; the squeaking sounds of chairs; the air moving ever-so-slowly across your face. But most of all? Your breath.
In and out. In... two... three... out... two... three. Immediately my back starts to ache. I start to wiggle. I start thinking about those little weird bones in my back collapsing together. I feel an insatiable urge to start rolling my neck, twisting my spine back and forth.
I don't. I decide to lie down instead. Immediately, I am sleepy. Am I going to pay $50 to sleep on this damn floor all day?! I open my eyes and look around. Everyone is a towering paragon of smooth-faced inner-staring. Hannah is wrapped in a beautiful red scarf; she is a tiny crimson mountain.
Thank God Aaron lies down next to me and seems to fall asleep. I feel less guilty, but no less sleepy. At least we're both paying to sleep in public on a carpeted floor. Let it go. There's like a hundred more rounds of this. Just fall asleep.
We wake up, and I feel abashed and groggy as we head outside for a moving meditation. They recommend a kind of pacing -- a slow walk that traverses the same path. Pay attention to everything. The blades of grass. The tickle on your nose. The feeling of lifting your feet through space.
I start to panic. Everyone is walking everywhere outside, willy nilly. It's like a Bangladesh intersection in slow motion. Everyone is wearing their gentle-face. I am wincing. I am trying to make eye contact with Hannah or Aaron; have they been body-snatched too?!
Finally I decide I should be alone. I wander to an adjacent construction site and pick a spot to stroll. I close my eyes and start walking in slow motion back and forth. Back and forth. I have fleeting moments of creeping euphoria. The sun, the sound of gravel. The dull hum of the machines. My chest rising and falling. I can feel the stones beneath my sneakers and I can smell dirt.
I'm a freakin' Buddha.
We all head back inside for more sit-down meditation, during which I mostly compulsively think about my friend's Pi party that night and resist the urge to bite my fingernails or poke Aaron next to me or write dirty limericks in my brain.
I am beginning to freak out.
Then we do an eating meditation. We're all given raisins. We consider this wrinkled little fruit. We fondle it, we smell it. We roll it about in our palm. We think about every damn person and machine and bug that helped bring this tiny little treat into our palm. We bite it slowly. We savor the snap of its skin. I enjoy it thoroughly.
Then it's time for lunch. THANK GOD! I practically want to rip my clothes off and rub my bare rump all over the Buddha statues (for sale) outside. I am positively giddy. And starving. And oh-so-keen for some human contact.
We all wander up a lovely knoll and share our snacks. I try to eat a carrot in slow motion; I try to smell the earth; I try to be deeply thankful to not be disfigured, lost, or forlorn. To be sitting on a hill in California eating organic chocolate and laughing with friends. But mostly I just feel guilty for being such a spoiled neurotic shithead that a day of contemplation is a kind of torture.
I feel my anxiety build as we head back into the room for our final meditation. I feel raw. I feel like I am sparring myself and losing. I lie down again. I feel my brain start to reel. I feel tears coming. I turn and see a woman who looks like my ex-boyfriend's mother. I start to cry. Is everything I've done a mistake?! Will the past dig its claws into my soft bits till the day I die? I picture my mother's face, rotting. I picture my brother and I -- black-clad and staring at a freshly dug grave. I want him to take my hand. I want to bury my face in his shoulder and scream, but I can't. Will I ever find a partner? Am I even a good person? What will it be like to be 84 with most of my friends dead? Are we all in purgatory?
I am literally just soaking the damn rug in hot frantic panicked tears when we finally are asked to come back into our bodies and do some debriefing. I gather myself into a sitting position and arrange my face in what I hope is a stoic shape denoting knowledge. People ask a few questions. And then a woman begins to share her revelation. That she was able to simply watch her thoughts go by, but not participate in them. It became a kind of humorous farce -- oh, my my! Look at what my brain is up to! She was elated, she was articulate. She was changed.
Well la la la I am just so goddamn pleased for you. You've just touched the void and conquered the demons. Meanwhile, I've cast some sort of sinister spell which has conjured things the likes of which are tantamount to masochistic snuff films.
I've had a revelation too: I'm never going back there again.