Are We All on a Meditation Retreat?
There’s a point during every meditation retreat where I think I’m going crazy.
And there’s nothing to distract me from that notion.
I see ghosts.
People from my past jump out of the closet where I’ve tried to hide them. Memories and emotions I thought I’d banished forever resurface as well, flooding my central nervous system with anxiety, interrupting my sleep and any sense of well being I had when I entered the doors of the retreat center.
I feel hopeless and my life feels pointless.
In other words, I feel like millions of Americans feel right now.
Powerless, defenseless, confused, frightened and angry.
So it occurred to me that in the midst of this terrifying coronavirus pandemic, maybe we’re all on a meditation retreat that none of us signed up for.
I guess that’s better than being in the middle of a horror movie.
Or is it?
Is having to sit still with every thought, memory, emotion or misconception you’ve ever had like being in a nightmarish film?
Let me explain…
Every time I’ve gone on a retreat, I’ve left my home with the smug idea that I could somehow set an agenda for myself (remember…I’m not leading this retreat…I’m just one attendee…with delusions of grandeur.)
The goals are always a variation of something like this: I’m going to learn XY or Z. And, while I’m at it, A, B, C, D, E, F, G,.. I’m going to become “a better meditator.” And I’m going to take home a spiritual goodie bag – feelings of bliss, a sense of accomplishment, and lessons that will help me navigate my life with ease and grace.
I still haven’t learned that this is all a fantasy. I’m filled with those same delusions and illusions in the middle of a global pandemic. Every morning I wake up thinking that today might be the day when I figure out how to live with all the grief and fear in my gut. When I find the balance between consuming heartbreaking news coverage and preserving my sanity, so that I have the energy to go about my day with purpose, managing to be present for others.
As I’ve done on meditation retreats, I keep looking for a road map. Or a path. A clearing in the woods. Or a passage through choppy waters into a calm, serene harbor, where I will drop anchor and live out the rest of my days in peace.
I know that’s nuts. But go easy on me, please. I’m the survivor of a childhood trauma that almost killed me and a family saddled with mental illness, dysfunctional relationships and the bankruptcy of a family business.
So I know how to create illusions, because they’ve helped me to survive without looking at the heart of darkness that’s the core of our existence – that we are not in control of very much. I’ve tried distractions in addition to my fantasies, but those only work for so long; how much binge watching, social media posting and eating can one woman do?
So I’ve been doing a lot of crying during this period of fear and isolation.
Which occasionally leads me to a moment of clarity.
Until I go back to being confused all over again.
And that’s exactly how things usually work for me on a meditation retreat.
During one of the most challenging and confusing times of my life – when I was the primary caregiver for my mother, in her eighth year of Alzheimers – I signed up for a retreat with Sharon Salzberg, one of my favorite Buddhist teachers. She and Sylvia Boorstein – another wise gem of a human being – were teaching the practice of lovingkindness.
And I wasn’t feeling especially loving at that point.
I was exhausted and depleted from caring for a mother who had never been very maternal. And when I had to leave an afternoon session of teaching in order to step outside the monastery and take an important phone call from one of her doctors, I was annoyed. I kept the conversation about raising the dosage of her anti-psychotic medication short and still returned to the meditation hall resentful.
Until Sharon opened up my heart.
As she led the gathering of students through a metta – or lovingkindness – meditation, I fidgeted in my chair, trying to forget my conversation with the doctor. I did manage to recite what Sharon had suggested we say to ourselves:
“May I be safe, may I be happy, may I be healthy, may I live with ease.”
Still, I kept fidgeting.
Live with ease? No way.
But when she suggested next that we focus on someone who made us smile, my husband immediately popped into my head. Focusing on an image of him, I recited “May you be safe, may you be happy, may you be healthy, may you live with ease.”
That was way easier than sending love to myself.
Sharon then urged us to think of someone we knew only slightly, and I focused on our mailman, wishing him everything I’d wished for myself and Jimmy.
Finally, I followed Sharon’s suggestion that we send lovingkindness out into the world, and that came surprisingly easy to me. Imagining myself inside a groovy, technicolor animation, I beamed love out all over the globe in every direction – on land and sea, into cities and farms, to rainforests and oceans… even birds high up in the sky and worms underneath the earth received my blessings.
And that felt wonderful. I’d left myself and my mother’s crumbling brain behind.
From that day forward, while this was a hard practice to get used to – because loving myself in a peaceful way has always been a struggle – lovingkindness has become one of my favorite ways to meditate. In fact, I used it when I had my brain scanned by a neuroscientist for my last book, when he charted increased blood flow to the areas that generate compassion and love.
As Sharon explained to me, until we develop compassion for ourselves we can’t be compassionate to others. And that’s what I’ve learned at every meditation retreat I’ve ever attended. While I’ve signed up for selfish reasons, I’ve always left knowing that I can’t spend the rest of my days navel gazing.
And now – while the whole world is on this strange meditation retreat – we can’t just all save ourselves.
We have to save everybody.
Or the world will remain frighteningly off kilter.
We will kill each other if we don’t save each other -morally, spiritually and materially.
We’re in a health crisis and we’re also at a political turning point. A moral reckoning. We might not leave this time of forced contemplation with a list of lessons learned. But something good must come of this. And that something has to be not just personal but universal.
I started off “sheltering at home” by taking a deep dive inward, in response to the isolation I felt at being cut off from the outside world physically. But when I saw how much better it felt to turn my focus on others, I began to feel much better.
About a week ago I couldn’t sleep and so I did what I’ve only done on a couple of occasions.
I fell to my knees at the side of my bed and I prayed to God for a way though this. For me, and for everyone else. It was a kind of pure, raw, mega metta meditation.
A few days later, after more restless nights (and no pattern to my up-and-down, bumpy days) I saw an Instagram post about a congresswoman in the Bronx and Queens who was delivering food to her constituents. I followed the link to volunteer, and heard back from someone named Daniel. “I’ll need some help,” I texted him. “I’m old!”
And the next day I joined a training session for volunteers, venturing out to do some lovingkindness in real life. I signed onto Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s website and began calling older residents quarantined in their apartments, to check and see how they were doing, and if they needed help with food or medicine.
People were so kind.
Many of them were doing fine, thanks to family members, and they gratefully suggested that I help others in need. Ten different people ended our calls by telling me “God Bless You!”
“Thank you so much for doing this,” several people said.
A construction worker had questions about unemployment as he was home taking care of his aunt in her 80s. Another man joked that he needed a roll of toilet paper, and it felt so good when we both burst out laughing, He told me he’d like to make calls too, so I connected him with the congresswoman’s office.
One man had called 311 for food and no one ever called him back. I told him about an organization called The Hungry Monk, whose vans deliver food to people in need, and I gave him their number.
Not all of the calls I made were easy. Some people couldn’t speak English so I made a note for someone to call them back.
And then I spoke to a man whose 84 year old mother had just died. I expressed my condolences as best as I could, and then hung up the phone and cried. It was just too much to bump up against that kind of raw pain.
But a couple of minutes later I was back on the phone making more calls. Sending metta – selfless pure love – out into the world and receiving it back from grateful people happy to connect.
I used to enjoy thinking that the world revolves on some kind of a moral axis that I might not understand but that somebody else does. That there’s a reason for everything. And that someone somewhere understands those reasons. That there’s a cosmic force that keeps the world running in a sometimes chaotic way, but that always returns to a new normal.
Now, however, I don’t think that we’re going to come out of this time period into a new normal. I do think, however, that we’ll come to a new understanding – that there is no normal.
That’s how I feel at the end of a few days of meditating.
That there are no set rules. That every changing moment is an opportunity for growth and learning and the opening of my heart, which will inevitably involve some pain. Again and again and again. I will lose people I love. Things can change on a dime. I will falter and fall down. I will struggle to sleep, work, love and find my way. I will find myself on shaky ground again and again. I will get used to things changing one day and be devastated by some kind of change the day after that.
“Sometimes I think of this planet as one giant floating hospital,” I heard Sylvia Boorstein say at that retreat.
Everyone suffers. Everyone must acknowledge the suffering of others without judgment and with compassion.
In my last book I included a passage from The Vow of the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, which is said to be the Golden Rule of Buddhism. I studied and recited it in a wonderful meditation event with His Holiness The Dalai Lama, in the heart of New York City. Back then, I vowed to read it every day. It’s been a while since I practiced that vow faithfully.
And now seems a good time to renew it:
May I be the doctor, the medicine
And may I be the nurse
For all sick beings in the world
Until everyone is healed.