Bad Meditator (Or, The Book Review That Wasn't)

This blog post was supposed to be a book review of The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki. It is the book review that did not happen. It will, but that might be next week or sometime after that. I’m not sure. Time seems a little less relevant today, because I just finished a five-day residential meditation retreat. It messes with one’s usual sense of urgency to do, well, almost anything. I know this will pass, and I’ll be back to my to-do list, but it may take a couple of days.

This title is tongue in cheek, because I know I’m not a bad mediator. I don’t think there is such a thing. It’s probably true that “the journey is the destination,” so by practicing meditation with good intention and the desire to be mindful, I’m simply a meditator. Not good or bad.

However, on the surface of things, there are some factors that just might indicate a reluctance to engage fully in the practice. I started meditating with an app about 18 months ago, so I’m a total newbie. Gradually, I got into a 10-30 minute per day practice, took a couple of free online courses on Buddhist philosophy, found some online meditation resources, and discovered the practice to be helpful. I’ve found a meditation group once per week now and I’ve attended a couple of full day meditation events. All good! When the opportunity arose to attend a longer retreat, I debated furiously with myself, because I’m not sure about sitting for so long with my thoughts, or with my hip that sometimes pains me. The retreat is silent, so no talking or even making eye contact with other retreatants. Hmmm, I thought, I’m not sure if I can do that. Or if I want to. Sounds harsh!

I decided to go. I need and want to try new things and…maybe…discover new ways of being in the world. The retreat was at a centre in the woods by a lake. The email gave basic information on what to bring, like: your cup for tea, meditation cushion, a blanket, and an umbrella. Check! In retrospect, there was a little tiny section on what not to bring…but I missed that, or, more likely, saw it and deliberately-by-accident forgot it.

So into my backpack I also stuffed two books to read, one of them Ozeki’s novel. I thought, I’ll read this in no time! I’ll write a review, then get on to the next book and review that too! So much time on retreat to read! And I packed my iPad to read the paper each morning and to read even more eBooks that I’d downloaded from the library in preparation for how much time I’d have. Then I also packed my computer, so I could write my reviews, and maybe even surf the internet and catch up on my Instagram account. I’d dutifully checked that there was wi-fi. Of course I had my phone. I did not forget my earbuds so that I could listen to a podcast while I went for walks and runs. And for good measure I packed a notebook and pens, and a whole bunch of crossword puzzles.

I would not be bored. My bag almost wouldn’t zip up, I was so prepared.

When I arrived, it became painfully obvious that you’re not supposed to have all that stuff to distract you. Any of it. Like even books, ideally. You’re supposed to be with your thoughts. The teachers asked us to voluntarily turn in our phones, and it felt like an outrageous ask. I did, but I knew that secretly I could use my other devices if I needed to. I had my backpack full of contraband. It felt like half a sacrifice.

That first day, I grieved the loss of my phone, feeling entirely disconnected. I experienced rebellious thoughts—against who, I have no idea. The Buddha? The process? We’re all adults here, and we can make our own choices, I thought. I’d specifically chosen Ozeki’s book because it has a meditation theme, and she was a Zen Buddhist priest, so it meshed beautifully with my retreat. I mean, reading can be your meditation, right? I had a fantasy of a younger Ruth Ozeki in her Zen monastery secretly sneaking books into her room and reading by candlelight at night. For the record, I don’t know Ms. Ozeki, and I’m sure she didn’t do this, but this idea took my fancy.

A curious thing happened. As the retreat progressed, things fell away. First of all, there was so much sitting meditation, then walking meditation, then eating, then more meditation…that there was not as much time as I thought. After lunch we had our longest free time, but the beautiful lake with a six kilometre trail around it beckoned, and each day I’d walk or run that. No earbuds because I had no phone. I wouldn’t have wanted them anyway. I had no trouble at all giving up the news or surfing the internet. I read my book, but only before bed, and I fell asleep quickly, so I only made it through the first 100 pages. It was enjoyable but didn’t feel urgent. I thought: I don’t need my things.

Or maybe I did. It soon became clear to me what I had trouble giving up. I had difficulty not checking my email, but I limited it, and just checked it twice a day, and emailed my family once a day. But…Instagram? I longed for it. I wanted to check it all the time! It was hard because I could, I had access to it. I would avoid going back to my room so that I wasn’t tempted. But even Instagram, gradually, became less urgent.

So, bad meditator? I thought so the first day, but as I progressed, I realized that even grappling with the Instagram clutter that littered my head was key to my learning. I guess I was probably not the “ideal” retreatant, but anyway, who is? We all have our clutter to deal with. The person on the other cushion over there, who I’ve never met? They’re dealing with their own mess. All is grist for the mill, and for contemplation.

I had no expectation of anything for the retreat. Nothing magical happened, but lots of interesting stuff did, and I was taken by a bit by surprise. Here are how my days went:

Day One: Arrive, feel awkward because I don’t know what to do. Feel a bit of a fraud because I have all my devices in my room.
Day Two: Mildly irritated at other people around me for no reason. Disconnected. Discombobulated. Mourning my phone.
Day Three: Where did all these tears come from? Everything makes me cry.
Day Four: Slow. Uh oh, I feel relaxed but too relaxed. Have I lost my mojo forever?
Day Five: Thoughts! So many thoughts! Creativity! Was that an insight?
Day Six: Settled, connected. A brief moment of Joy! But now I have to leave.

My grand insight on Day Five was this, while I was walking: “What you can’t or won’t give up dominates you.” I had this insight about Instagram. See? Having to grapple with it was useful! As I did the next sitting meditation, I understood that Instagram was just the surface issue. It is all of the deeper things in life that we have trouble letting go of that cause suffering. Alas, later that day, I became aware that my insight, which seemed so profound at the time, was pretty banal. How can something I thought was so profound be so obvious? I had discovered the most basic principle of Buddhism, one that I had read many times. But I think this must be the difference between knowing the FACT of something and knowing the TRUTH of something in your own life. I will think on this more.

I find it totally impossible to coherently tell someone how it was to be alone with oneself silently for five days. Here are some thoughts and experiences that I found myself contemplating during my time on retreat:

Now is the time to wake up.

I had a conversation with my egg at breakfast.

This is my eating meditation.

This bowl of oatmeal seems insurmountable. It will take a long time to eat.

I got stuck while in the midst of a turn during walking meditation, in the sun, by the heather.

Oxygen is the most euphoric substance when you pay attention.

I went for a run around the lake with the four elements—Fire, Earth, Air and Water—and they were lovely and constant companions.

A bee dive-bombed the pink and white heather and immersed itself in pollen. I thought: that bee is living in the now. Then I borrowed some of its joy.

At 3:05 pm, it is my job to ring the bell.

When the sun sets, I eat dinner.

Now is the time to sleep.

After all was said and done, I felt enriched by my experience. It was not dramatic, but change happened. I was surprised by how each day was different and seemed a prerequisite for the next. I recognized how much I distract myself in the normal course of my life. I bet we all do, to some extent. When those things gradually fell away, I had time for energy, mindfulness and concentration. I came to feel a great deal of friendliness and kindness towards the teachers and my fellow retreatants, and that led to my moment of joy on the last day of retreat. That joy only lasted for about five minutes, but it was amazing.

The next time I go on retreat, I will not bring the stuff of daily life. My bag will be lighter, and I will have a different experience. Not better or worse, just different clutter to contemplate.

Now, back to the day to day. The Book of Form and Emptiness sits beside me here on the ferry ride home. It beckons. I’m going to review it, and that’s all good. But right now, I feel moved to write a poem about the egg that I ate one morning on retreat, so that’s what I’m going to do. I am not a poet. I haven’t written a poem since I composed angsty teenage poetry, so be warned. It is what it is. But I guess that’s what a meditation retreat will do to you.

A Tribute to My Egg
(at breakfast on Day Four of my silent meditation retreat)

I cracked the shell of my hard boiled egg
And saw this egg was different.
It was smaller.
A sensation arose. It was unpleasant.
I labelled it disappointment.

I peeled it and cut it in half lengthwise.
It lacked a certain cohesion.
Its yolk fell away haphazardly from the white.
I shook my head at it.

Then it showed me its bright sunshine yolk
No tepid yellow like the other eggs.

I smiled at it and thought: Hey egg!
It radiated its cheery yellow goodness back at me.

It asked for some salt.
I ate it, and it tasted happy.