The “Silent Retreat” sign taped to the front door reminds me to step lighter and slow down, to not disrupt the tranquility. But when I quietly open the door, a clamor erupts, the voices of two greeters and a handful of retreatants checking in. At a table, I’m directed to sign up for a yogi job and fill out a questionnaire, which jars me with the question, “Have you ever attempted suicide?” It’s said that people can lose it on a silent meditation retreat, but this one is only four days. For my part, I’m hardly worried about silence. Instead, I relish the freedom from idle chitchat, both the delivery and the receipt of it.
I haul my bag upstairs to my room, Kindness, passing by others with names more fitting for me, Peace and Self-Control. Perhaps rooms are assigned based on weakness. On my way back down, a new person is arriving, an energy-commanding woman clad in jewels and scarves and layer after layer. Her long locks are a complicated arrangement described by no words I know, not coils, dreads, or braids. I want to stare to figure it all out.
“Can someone help me with my bags?” she asks. I’m appalled. This isn’t a hotel. But the likelihood is that a lot of people here would love to help with her bags. Or me with my bags. Or anyone with almost anything. I revert to bystander mode; the foyer is full of people who can help. The only other thing to do before dinner is to find a spot in the meditation hall for my cushion. I have preferences. I scan the rows for spaciousness, a spot on the end most definitely. Close to the door for easy escape.
A light, open house-style dinner is served. Eat when you can. The dining room is booming with conversation. I still haven’t figured out why we’re talking and when we won’t be, but I’d rather just wait to find out than ask anyone. I sit at a lightly populated table. I hadn’t come prepared for this.
Finally we meditate. It’s intense in a good way almost immediately, all of us here together doing this. After the bell ends the sitting period, there’s a lot of information to cover: rules, guidelines, when to shower, how the callback bells work, and why to refrain from journaling. It’s been figured out by others before us, so all we have to do is be. I thrive on all the information, suck it up. I’m a rule follower and know I can do everything suggested with ease. And then the beloved silence begins.
The schedule for the next three days is something like this: sit, walk, sit, walk, sit, walk, sit, walk, sit, walk, sit, walk, sit, walk, sit, walk, sit, walk, with three meals peppered in. I briefly panic, wondering if my body can take all that sitting. At home it’s just 30 minutes a day.
Walking meditation isn’t something I’ve got the hang of yet. The walking is fine, but the other part doesn’t fall in line so easily. We can do it indoors or out. This Center is on one of Minnesota’s multitude of lakes, and there are woods with trails. I explore them all as I would on a hike, taking in everything, thoughts active. Out here it’s harder to keep an eye on the thoughts. They’re racing ahead like excited little kids.
The bell can be heard clearly from far away, and although I know I have six minutes before the sit begins, I feel hurry jump on my back. It’s reminding me that others will be crowding the entrance, removing coats and changing shoes, and I still have to hit the toilet, and go go go. You don’t want to enter the meditation hall LATE, it hisses.
Maybe because I don’t know anyone here, I make the first retreater’s mistake of becoming intensely interested in them, but only in a neurotic way, so my mind can devise a classification system. Everyone gets a name. It might be based on the yogi job they do: Vaccum Guy, Bathroom Cleaner, or Bell Ringer. It could be from their clothes or appearance: Thumbhole Girl, Scowling Man, or Clicky Toes. The lucky retreatant who gets to stay in the hermitage obviously becomes Hermit.
My roommate is Zennie. She may not be the only Zen practitioner on this Vipassana retreat, but she’s the only one wearing the tradition’s bib-like garment. In ancient times, these were made from collected scraps, even bloody and soiled ones. I hope hers isn’t. I’ve always regarded Zen as the strict old nun to Vipassana’s casual young feminist, but whenever I walk into our room, she’s texting.
Over the days, I definitely remain an outside-goer, though I stay out of the woods. On the lawn, I choose a walking lane and work on concentration. There are a few others like me, out here every chance we get. The guy from the cushion next to me pole hikes at great speed through the prairie restoration. I’ve seen the “BIRKIE” license plates on one of the cars; even on retreat he’s training for the ski marathon. Among the insiders, things are going much differently. One woman appears to have mistaken “mindful” for “zombielike.” It seems to be catching on.
It’s not actually a silent retreat, which I find a little disappointing. When doing yogi jobs, we can whisper to each other. In the kitchen, “Do I give this to you?” the potwasher asks, handing me a bowl. I have signed up to load the dishwasher after lunch, glad that I unknowingly chose wisely. There’s a long break at this time of day, and I don’t know what else I’d do with myself.
There’s more talking than just that. Each evening, we attend a lecture, where it’s okay to crack open the journal and take notes. Afterward, there’s time for questions. Voices resound through the once silent room. On top of that, each morning, a third of the retreatants at a time gather for small groups, led by the grand poobah of this whole mindfest, the guiding teacher, Mark. It’s excessively intimate in the context of the silence, and I perspire trying to think of something to contribute. My words never come out right.
When the other two groups are meeting, empty cushions scattered throughout the meditation hall mark the absences. The spaciousness in the room energizes and distracts me. The glaring omission is Mark, and without our leader at the helm, the reverent tone in the hall slowly disintegrates. People walk in late without trying to move silently, pant legs rubbing. The woman who requested a bellboy, Special Needs, plops in a chair and gulps loudly from her metal water bottle. Others jump ship before the sitting period is over, as if they can’t get through it without our guide modeling the way. There’s more yawning and shifting than normal. Audibly Sighing Man doesn’t even show up. The Timekeeper nods off, snoring lightly. I eye the bell in horror, fixated by the idea that quitting time has come and gone. I’m trapped on my cushion indefinitely.
Once a day, Mark leads us in qigong, and our grateful bodies sway and scoop. The mind hungrily devours the sensations and images. Normally slow to learn movement, I feel unselfconscious and natural with it, even loose.
My body may be flexible but my dedication to the schedule is not. When it says sit, I sit. I move promptly to the food line at meal times. I can’t help noting that others pick and choose from the schedule like it’s a la carte. They grant themselves permission where I couldn’t. Special Needs is always in the kitchen doing custom concoctions. The snacks left out between meals are gobbled up. People nap in their rooms during sitting period. There’s flagrant journaling and book reading. A woman in the bathroom runs the water in the sink for minute after minute after minute. The Dharma teaches about the three unwholesome roots: greed, hatred, and delusion. Wanting I have little trouble with; I’ve whittled my desires down to the most basic needs. Has aversion expanded to fill the vacated space?
At home, I drink coffee, and I’m not a vegetarian. The food here is fine, but the coffee is close to useless, and I distrust soy. It’s day three, and I haven’t had a proper appointment with the toilet. I blame the tofu sloppy joes, just because. But the lack of reading materials plays a role. My fallback tactic of reading the spare toilet paper packaging fails me; it’s totally wordless.
By the middle of day three, I’m ready to be done. Boredom has now latched on, and it keeps whining and complaining while I’m trying to sit. I feel I’m wasting my time. I daydream about a dramatic exit, tossing my things in my red Camaro and peeling out of the lot, leaving a cloud of dust and 30-some dropped jaws behind me. This is impossible to orchestrate, though, since the parking lot’s not visible from here and I have a sputtering black sedan.
I think of the two attitudes Mark told us to use in sitting. The first is urgency, stick-to-itness. “I’m doing this thing, Boredom. Go jump in the lake.” The second is to forgive, start over, be patient, be gentle. Maybe boredom will fall asleep.
I enjoy a terrific wildlife sighting, a box elder bug in the dining room. Its non-graceful movements are fascinating. It’s gone, and I return to my carrot ginger soup, which seems fibrous and bulky and colon friendly. I have high hopes for morning. Dinners grow sparser as the days pass, in perfect rhythm with our need for it. Satiation comes more readily when each bite is tended to.
There’s a book of short quips lying around, meditation Q&A. I grab it and slip into the bathroom, the stink of shame a cloud around me. Still, things improve.
The last half day goes quickly, and there’s a little flutter to the air. Restlessness. When we move the cushions for closing circle, I can only give thanks I had no idea this was coming. We each “get” a turn to share about our experience. When mouths open, the words that come out shatter my fabrications into tiny particles. Scowly Guy is sweet and tender. Special Needs battles crushing health issues. Others had profound and heartfelt experiences while I was annoyed by Potwasher blowing on his soup. I’m mortified by my pettiness in the midst of these people. When my turn comes, I don’t tell them how it really was. I want a redo, to come back and try again. I have an idea how to proceed. Forgive, start over, be patient, be gentle.
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Annie Stopyro resides in Durango, Colorado, where she writes life stories for family preservation. Her work has appeared in Talking Stick 24, Sasee, Neutrons Protons and Defenestration. She earned a B.A. in creative writing from the University of Minnesota.
Photo credit: Dirk Dreyer www.dreyerpictures.com