Meditation, or, a story of perception

Some years ago, I participated in a week-long silent meditation retreat. For seven days, I woke at 5 am. I meditated sitting for 45 minutes. I ate breakfast in silence with about 24 or 25 other retreatants. The rest of the day, I alternated between sitting and walking 45-minute meditations. We ate three meals a day. We listened to one “dharma talk” a day. Every day or two, I had a personal meeting, or “interview,” with a teacher. I did this for seven days. Oh yeah – I also did chores. Dishwashing, sweeping, helping the cook prep. We spoke as needed, but no more, during chores.

Sitting meditations began and ended with the ringing of a bell, by the teacher. Or, occasionally, by a privileged retreatant. The bell-ringer would sit facing the rest of us, who would sit, cross-legged on the floor, eyes closed. Except to the extent that we opened them. (A few of us sat not on the floor, but in chairs, if our knees required it. But not I.)

Not only did we not speak; we didn’t make eye contact.

By day five, I’d only spoken with two or three people during a dishwashing or cooking shift. Nonetheless, I’d formed comprehensive mental pictures of everyone. Based on how they sat, how they walked, how they dressed. Some, I imagined I would really like. Some, I imagined I would find boring. Some I imagined I would dislike, some I imagined I would feel contempt for. I don’t remember how self-conscious I was of these imaginings. Did I know they were almost completely projections? Did I trust them implicitly, thinking them accurate? I don’t recall.

Late in the afternoon on the fifth day, an attractive 20-something woman kept time. This woman, I had decided I hated. She thought she was like, the best meditator. She thought herself cool, thought she had an “in” with the meditation teacher. She was privileged, enlightened, snotty. Better than the rest of us. I was sure of it. I could tell by how she poured her tea, by her oh-so-special meditation cushion. So when, as the sitting started, I saw her at the front of the room, sitting, facing us, keeping time, I thought, “Oh, shit.”

That’s right: I’m about to close my eyes for 45 minutes and breathe, and the woman who rings the bell pisses me off. As the meditation began, I felt burning, stinging hatred for this woman. In my nose. In the back of my throat. In the tightness in my chest, the rapidity, shallowness, of my breathing. I couldn’t stop thinking about just how annoying she was. And that was at the start of the meditation. By the end of it, I was furious.

You see, she had one responsibility: to ring the bell at the start of the period, and again, at the end. But as we sat, my knees started hurting. Back then, I couldn’t sit cross-legged for long. At least not comfortably. Today, there’s no more comfortable position for me. I can sit that way for, literally, hours at a time. But not so, then. So as the minutes passed, my knees hurt more, and more, and more. Until I was in sheer agony. Part of the story I told myself that week was that people judged me if I moved too much before the end of a sitting session. They thought me a “poor meditator,” lacking discipline, etc. Especially her.

The nice thing about a retreat like this is that all the action is in your head. No one was judging me. Or rather, some people may well have been judging me. But some people, no doubt, didn’t even notice me. And others probably envied me my evident comfort in moving around, so often did I fidget.

But this bitch at the front of the room, I told myself, she was judging me. And not only was she judging me, she was failing at the one fucking task for which she was responsible: timekeeping. My aching knees told me that far more than 45 minutes had passed. She sat there, serenely, eyes closed. I knew she was malicious. Malevolent. She was subjecting us to extra cross-leggedness in service of the disingenuous, lying proposition that she was so fucking deep in her meditation that she’d lost track of the time.

That wasn’t all, though. As the minutes ticked by, I opened my eyes. Impatiently, I glared at her, willing her to just ring the fucking bell. But she didn’t. So I looked around. I saw other people’s eyes flickering open. I made eye contact with one or two of them. We shared a knowing moment: CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS BITCH???

When, finally, finally, she rang the bell, I shot one last volley of bullets at her with my eyes, pried my legs apart, and stood up. I stumbled into the nearby kitchen to make myself a cup of tea, to soothe my wounded spirit, and glanced up at the clock. (There were no clocks in the meditation room.)

Precisely 45 minutes had passed since the start of the meditation.

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