Sweat seems to have broken out on your upper lip, even though the late afternoon temperature is cool. You have a knot in your stomach and a searing pain in your left shoulder with no idea why. The polished wood floor seems to be moving up toward you, and the room, though large, feels small and cramped. You don’t remember the name of the person on your right, even though it seems you’ve been in the room with them forever. In any case, they haven’t moved in so long, you’re beginning to think they’re asleep — or worse. Crazy wild thoughts and emotions surge through your head and as they do, tears well up. Your hosts seemed nice enough at first, but now they appear menacing and militant. You’ve come to the conclusion that your survival depends on not moving or fidgeting at all, and in the back of your head a plan of escape is forming. Based on a simple deception, it will begin with the pretext of a trip to the bathroom and end — with any luck — at your abandoned car in a parking lot at dusk. If the plan works, you should be able to escape without detection.
A recurring dream about being kidnapped by drug lords? A never-ending holiday meal at your in-laws?
No. Welcome to Day Three of your first mindfulness meditation retreat. You have 7 days to go and you are beginning to realize something you didn’t really know before — meditation takes guts. At the same time, a question is beginning to dawn. Either intensive meditation practice is a recipe for insanity, or — and this is even more disturbing — your thoughts are in the habit of strutting around in your head like inmates at a madhouse. Apparently, it is only your frenetic habits and schedule that has kept you unaware of the state of things.
This last question begins to sow a seed of doubt. You had always treated your experience more or less objectively. You are here, your experience is there. Good happens, bad happens. You react accordingly. Day three raises the question: What if things don’t work like that?
Day Three is full of physical pain, mental suffering, and bewilderment — and a hint of terror. Your experience, however, comes directly up against a dawning realization: in the midst of the personal drama – NOTHING IS HAPPENING. You are sitting up straight in a quiet room on a meditation cushion. You can feel your breath going in and out. A gong rings now and then to signal walking meditation, mealtime or bedtime. By most measures, the retreat center feels secure and inviting. Only the sense of quiet, the many hours of sitting still, and the absence of familiar distractions and preoccupations are foreign.
Maybe I’ve exaggerated a bit, but this scenario represents a crucial moment in the life of a meditator. Eventually, the obvious benefits of regular meditation, both mental and physical, may draw you to explore intensive practice. It is in the intensity of retreat that habitual patterns of thinking and feeling are fully exposed. These insights aren’t exclusive to the practice of meditation. Endeavors that intensely engage our body and mind make us to notice how we get in the way of our own aspirations.
The mirror on our experience in a mindfulness retreat, however, reflects not only dysfunctional aspects of our relationship with our experience and ourselves, it also highlights the inspirations behind our never-ending strategies for coping with this confusion. Without familiar distractions and comforts, what we notice is a sense of speed. We are always pushing. Always reaching for a solution, a fix. While clearly helpful, short daily or occasional meditation practice can sometimes suffer from this habit of always attempting to patch over — fix-up — our experience in some way.
On retreat, the push behind these efforts to manage experience is exposed and exhausted. We consider for the first time that we could just be, simply, nakedly — without the promise of a “next thing.” We find ourselves suspended in space. It is scary, but at the same time, strangely familiar. As we slow down, our senses are sharpened and details reveal themselves. Thoughts buzz, but plainly out of step with the simplicity of experience; they lose their power over us. We notice our reaction to situations, but it is becoming harder to say which came first — our experience or how we feel about it. We begin to see that our habit of constant movement toward or away from situations and experience doesn’t help. We become inspired to sit still.
Looking at the thought of escape on Day Three inspires a frank conversation with ourselves:
“OK, we get to the car, then what?”
“Where do we go?”
“Well, for starters a burger would be nice. You need protein.”
“A hamburger?! After all we’ve been through together, all you can think about is a hamburger?!”
“Well, I’m not really into tofu. Anyway, I said for starters.”
“And after the protein?”
“You need rest. You haven’t been sleeping well. Somewhere where you can rest. You should sleep.”
“Sleep? I’ve been getting plenty of sleep. And all I’ve been doing is sitting here. Where – where do you want to go?”
“Doesn’t matter really. Anywhere.”
“Anywhere but here.”
This last admission makes you sit up on your Zafu cushion with a start. “Anywhere but here?” Something about the tone of the voice. This is how you’ve been talking to yourself? For how long? You become curious, suspicious even. Who are you, really? What are you about? Hamburgers? You readjust your posture and settle onto your meditation cushion, resolving not to move.
Strangely, the pain in your shoulder has vanished. You feel relaxed and good. The colors and shapes in the meditation room have become clear and bright. The timekeeper’s face seems soft and kind, no longer menacing. Outside, a light snow has begun to fall. Through the window, you can see the late afternoon sunlight catching the tops of the branches on bare trees, giving them a pinkish glow. In the distance, a swath of whitish blue sky is visible, the edge of a cloud bank lit by evening sun.
Suddenly, the beauty of it all takes your breath away. Next to you, the head of the unmoving person has begun to nod. You hear the unmistakable sound of a gentle snore. They’re not dead; you think to yourself, they’re just asleep. From the kitchen comes the smell of dinner and your stomach grumbles. You’re hungry. The smell is familiar, miso soup — most likely with tofu. You smile. For the first time, in a long time, you’re not going anywhere — and it’s fine.
You’re just here. Welcome.
At Samadhi Cushions, we emphasize that meditation should be comfortable. We make and sell meditation cushions and benches with dedication to the idea that the posture of meditation doesn’t have to be torture. To be honest, our inspiration goes deeper. Yes, we do want you to be comfortable. Yes, please do choose your favorite color so it matches the decor in your meditation space. Yes, please learn the basics of Calm Abiding Meditation in a regular meditation practice at home. This is how most of us begin and a proper beginning is important. At the same time, we understand comfort in its original meaning — to give strength. We make cushions so they will support you at critical moments — like late afternoon on Day Three of your first meditation retreat.