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I went on a silent retreat once, and I meditated for four days. I did not have a meditation pillow or anything that might work for meditation, so I borrowed a big floor pillow from my landlady. She had a new dog, a puppy that wasn’t right. It was just one of those “lemon” puppies, and we could all tell within a few weeks. But what can you do in that situation? That’s why I like mutts, but my point here is that I borrowed a pillow from my landlady. Then we went to the meditation retreat.
The first morning, during our “sit,” the Buddhist teacher explained that only in extreme emergencies could we raise our hand. Then her assistant would come over to help us, but only by exchanging written notes. And then we sat. And sat. I was sitting there and it started to dawn on me that I was going to be sitting like that for not just hours but days. We really, truly, would not be allowed to talk. The other “retreaters” wouldn’t let me talk, even if the teachers had pity on me. They went there to get away from conversation. There was no one to talk to.
I looked down and there were all these little worms crawling out of the pillow I was sitting on. I want to say they were worms. Weevils maybe? Honestly, at that moment they looked like maggots, but that may have been a result of my heightened awareness. It occurred to me that Buddhists don’t like to kill living things. I smashed a couple, but they actually bled, so I stopped. I looked up and everyone was meditating, so peaceful, and the worms kept crawling out of my pillow. Yes, I did raise my hand. I did. And the assistant took my pillow somewhere and did something nonviolent with it.
I think I may have mentioned the American spiritual teacher I met in India who wore a JC Penny vest and had a big handlebar mustache. I am not going to say his name because though I don’t personally have a problem with him there are those who do. Anyway he was picking on this woman during one of his talks, a European woman who had actually become a Buddhist nun and meditated for twenty years. The teacher informed us that the nun was still hugely neurotic and worried constantly about the most trivial things.
“Right, Maria?” he said. “Meditation doesn’t work, does it? Your mind still chatters away and tortures your soul. Right, Maria? Right?”
Then he held his watch up in front of his face and said that most of us can only see that much of reality, it’s like each of us has a watch in front of our eyes, really close, so it’s all we can see and we think that’s all there is. I liked the way he used his watch; it was the only prop he had handy. But I didn’t like his vest. Vests are hard to do. You have to really know what you are about to successfully wear a vest. Any vest.
Oh, and my husband went on that silent retreat with me and we did not really talk it through before we went. He had done these retreats before, but I had no idea what I was getting into. We had separate rooms, and once the retreat started he would not make eye contact with me at all in the cafeteria, or if I passed him in the meditation room on my way to my new pillow. He was acting like he didn’t even know me, and that sent me into a sort of tailspin of rejection and uncertainty. Of course, he was only following the retreat protocol. Maybe I was being devoured by worms when they explained this protocol, because I had no idea why he was treating me like a stranger. We were newlyweds at the time and I was quite confident of his love for me, but I started to suffer the worst kind of heartache. Why wouldn’t he look at me? Was he mad at me? What had I done? I cried myself to sleep that first night, and then I went into a brooding rage. My meditations weren’t going well, to say the least. I finally slipped a desperate note under his door, in violation of the rules. He snuck up to me on a path and hugged me quickly, asked me if I was crazy. Someone witnessed the hug and reported us.
There is a funhouse ride I remember from when I was a kid and could ride those things without vomiting. It’s a haunted house with the spinning, tilted seats that carry you through on tracks. At the end, in a dark room, the seat suddenly spins around and brings you face to face with a huge mirror. And in the mirror, between you and the other person in your car, sits a ghost. A green wispy thing. Laughing at you.
Right, Maria? Right?