That misery called meditation
Robert Wright, the New York Times online columnist and author of The Evolution of God, is pretty much what you’d call a cynic. That’s why I was surprised when he spoke with such reverence of the period he spent meditating at a silent Buddhist retreat. “When I came out, I was quite different,” he told me. “It was one of the best things I’d ever done.”
What could bring such joy to a cynic? The way to find out was to go to Barre, Mass., home of the Insight Meditation Society, where Wright went on his pilgrimage many years ago. Founded in the 1970s by a group of Westerners who had spent time as Buddhist monks in Southeast Asia, it occupies a former Catholic novitiate next to a forest in the middle of nowhere. For nearly 40 years, it has been offering, well, silence.
I went for what was technically called a retreat. More specifically, it was seven days of silent meditation on the quality of infinite and unconditional loving-kindness. (Metta in Buddhist parlance.) There were rules: No speech, no hurting any being (including insects), no sexual misconduct, and no stealing. We would eat simple meals, sit in a meditation hall, or walk slowly back and forth with the mind focused on loving-kindness. In theory, it sounded pretty nice.
I was, it turned out, wrong. By Day 1, I realized I had made a terrible mistake. After my initial curiosity wore through, I began (in the parlance) to “notice” something: I was miserable. Sitting silently on a cushion for hours at a time turns out to be intensely boring. Worse, it was also physically painful. You could sit cross-legged, kneel, or even sit on a chair, but it didn’t really matter, because after a while, the same nauseating pain would creep into my right shoulder and scream into my ears. I was bored, aching, and because of the whole silent thing, lacked anyone to complain to. Wright be damned, I’d come to the wrong place.
My fellow meditators (referred to as “yogis”) actually made things worse. They hardly resembled beacons of love and joy. Instead, they walked around slowly, dragging their feet, faces blank. I began to feel that I was surrounded by zombies; I half-expected to see arms drop off. Sitting at dinner, surrounded by drooping humans, hunched over their plates, I imagined that I was at a banquet for the chronically depressed. I began to feel a physical, sinking dread at being around so much obvious misery. To think I could have been lying on a beach; instead I was trapped in a morgue.
In short, I quickly figured out that it had been a mistake to come here, and I still had about 140 hours of unrelenting boredom ahead of me. Think about it: A week of pure vacation is a valuable thing to waste sitting on a cushion. I kept imagining the myriad other ways I could have spent it. Back to Japan? To Alaska, into the wild? Scuba diving? Rock climbing? Anything and anywhere but here.
So my meditation practice became one long battle with regret. It went something like this: The teacher told us to imagine a place that made us feel happy and peaceful. I pictured a mountain. Fine. Then I pictured myself hiking that mountain. Then I said, What I am doing here instead of there? Angrily, I switched to the ocean. Peaceful. Then I thought of fish in the ocean. The fish became sushi and I became hungry. There was a piece of shiny fish sitting on rice, quivering slightly. I opened my eyes; and the sushi disappeared. I saw instead a room full of zombies trying to imagine what happiness felt like.
These thoughts, the teacher later explained, were something called a “hindrance.” The fact that I wanted to do something other than sit in the meditation hall was a desire, and desire leads to suffering. (This is the first lesson in Buddhism.) At the time, it seemed clearer to me that sitting in that hall, bored stiff and with burning shoulders was the very essence of “suffering.” Desire, meanwhile, seemed to have a lot to say for itself: It took you places, like, say, the local bar. Give me sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, I thought. I’d have settled for a sitcom at that point; something, anything. But there was still no one to complain to but myself, so I complained away, and I felt bad about that as I slowly lost the ability to move my neck from side to side.
If I’d had my own car, that might have been it, but I didn’t leave Barre—though I did spot at least one person dragging their luggage to the parking lot, never to return. The days passed, and after a while, something began to change. The regret subsided, and I found myself beginning to find it more bearable, even mildly enjoyable. The teachers encouraged us to be easy on ourselves, and I took the hint. If Phase 1 was regret-filled misery, in what you might call Phase 2, I retooled the experience to amuse myself; to turn the retreat into my own personal playground.
It began when we were instructed once again to conjure up a person or place that brought forth feelings of joy and love. Suddenly, I was a child, and I saw my mother as a young woman, eyes full of love, holding my hand and leading me through the park across from our home. My chest ached with the memory, and hot tears of joy came to my eyes. I refocused and felt on my hands the rough bark of my favorite childhood climbing tree, joined with the smell of summer. I summoned my best friends from second grade, Peter and Eddie, and together we ran off looking for adventure. I zoomed forward a few years and found myself with fists full of grass, climbing the side of a Swiss waterfall with my brother and best friends, my heart bursting with deepest joy.
In Phase 2, I had somehow grabbed control of the DVD player of life, and I skipped to the best scenes, the greatest moments of uncomplicated joy. I kissed my first girlfriend all over again on the porch at midnight. I flew to Mongolia, landed on a galloping horse, and thundered across the plains. I watched myself, at the age of 26, a young clerk at the Supreme Court, clutching in my hand a secret memo with a crucial fifth vote. With hours to kill and the remote control in my head, I went on adventures in memory that brought forth an outpouring of the love and kindness that we’d come to meditate on.
Back in reality, I also began to realize that despite the strict meditation schedule, no one could actually tell me what to do. If I decided to ditch the meditation hall and go off into the adjoining forest, no one was going to stop me. And so, with a stick serving as a sword, I ventured deep into the woods in search of ancient treasures, heading a troupe of heroes and wizards on a quest for the stone of wisdom. As a British commando, I spied on an enemy fortress, gathering intelligence. I became a wandering samurai, shouting challenges in Japanese and chopping the arms off my opponents (trees). After a while, I had to face it: I was having a ball, deep in a second childhood as vivid as the first.
Back at the seminary, meanwhile, my fellow zombies began to serve as a source of amusement. I laughed (silently) at their goofy posture and serious bearing. Knowing nothing about them, I made up nicknames and personalities: A man who snored his way through most of the sittings was Sleepy; the woman with a well-developed musculature was Hard Body. More naughtily, I began to imagine that my colleagues were arranging secret trysts, breaking the rules banning “sexual misconduct.” There was, I decided, a secret form of meditative sex going on, negotiated and conducted in total silence. I found unlimited amusement in that oldest of speculations: trying to guess who was secretly sleeping with whom.
All this made for great fun, but a touch of guilt, as well. It occurred to me that I wasn’t quite following the program. I wasn’t meditating nearly as much as the schedule called for, and at some level I did want to see what all the fuss was about. My daydreams, as vivid as they were, were, in Buddhist terminology, also hindrances, forms of “thinking,” and not what we were supposed to be doing, namely “being” or “abiding.” The teachers had warned us that the mind would do everything it could to avoid pain or discomfort, and it seemed pretty clear that was exactly what was going on. Yes, I had defeated boredom by the force of my imagination. But I sure hadn’t transcended it. Was there more?
It all came to a head in a meeting with Michele McDonald, the head teacher, a woman whose arrival in a room seemed to send invisible shock waves in every direction. She looked at me for a few moments, and then she asked how I was doing. The sound of my voice seemed strange, but I heard myself explaining that, after a rough start, I was feeling a lot of love and having a good time. I referred to an early talk where she warned us about trying to shut the door on pain, and I thought I should address that. I said that while I’d tried to find some pain, I had more or less given up on that and decided to just have fun, and so—
“Sit longer!” she commanded.
I was taken aback.
“Think about it for a second” she said. “What makes you get up? Sit! Don’t move, and you’ll see.”
It is hard to ignore a direct command that comes from a Buddhist master. So began what you might call Phase 3: I went to the meditation hall and sat. Really sat, I mean, without moving, not even to scratch an itch or stretch an ankle. By this time, I’d actually learned to sit in something like a loose, highly undignified interpretation of the lotus position, and there I remained for close to three hours, by far the longest I had ever sat in one place without moving a muscle.
And the master was right—something did happen. As predicted, the pain came. But I didn’t move. Into the second hour, the pain was sometimes excruciating: I could have sworn that live coals were being held to my ankles. But at some level I had decided to sit, and that was it. Yes, I was aching, but it was bearable, and even, in a weird way, sort of lovable. For somewhere within it I was beginning to feel a surrender that was deeply and profoundly relaxing.
After that session, I changed my approach and began to surrender further, relinquishing control bit by bit. I gave up trying to do anything special or different than anyone else. Basically, I became one more zombie. When the teachers said, “Sit,” I sat, and when it was time to walk, I walked. Somehow it didn’t feel boring any more. It was almost as if I’d forgotten what boring was.
At about the same time, a few other strange things began to happen. Once, while eating, my eyes became fixated on a patch of moss, and without warning, time stopped for who knows how long. At other times, colors seemed to be wrong, as if I was wearing tinted glasses. At one point I realized that I had forgotten my own name, the way you might forget the capital of Serbia. And I had begun to find even the smallest thing fascinating. Watching an ant crossing a rock was, for me, like Avatar in 3-D.
And just like that, it ended. Suddenly, we could speak again. I met Sleepy and Hard Body, who had real names and personalities completely different than the ones I had imagined. I hitched a ride back to New York City, where everything looked quite alien. Coming home, I noticed for the first time the sound of the floorboards creaking beneath my feet.
If New York was the same, I was still far from normal, at least for a while. Real life seemed like a big joke—it was far too dramatic, exaggerated, and, above all, comic to be real. A fat man argued with a short man, pointing wildly. Along came a group of girls, dressed for the evening, giggling and texting. And all these people talking to their dogs! Surely I was sitting in a giant theater, and these were paid actors, albeit exceptionally well-cast for their roles.
But over the next few days, those effects slowly wore off. (I did write a lot of kind and loving e-mails, knowing I might not see things so clearly later on.) I began to eat meat again, got on airplanes, and rediscovered what it felt to be rushed. I can’t really say whether the week of silence had a lasting effect, though I’d like to hope it did.
Looking back, it’s pretty clear to me that I’m not destined to reach enlightenment or to be a Buddhist yogi—not in this life, anyway. The retreat helped me realize that I’m full of desire, of longings for raw experience, and unbelievably controlling of how my life is lived. I also know that a taste for adventure is, at some level, why I went to the retreat in the first place; in that sense, the whole thing was corrupted from the start. But I can report that Robert Wright did know what he was talking about. It sounds simple, but one week of silence may give you a hint, maybe more reliably than almost anything else, of who you are.[Tim Wu, Slate]