Bead & Reel Life: The Pursuit of Enlightenment
Posted on December 29 2017
Well... I can safely report that reaching enlightenment is actually pretty hard.
Before the silent meditation retreat, a colleague had told me that her friend had done the same program and he would hear cars peeling out of the parking lot late at night, the sound of people sneaking away and giving up. I smiled and assured everyone I would not be one of those people. I'm strong, and resilient, and I like being quiet!! In fact, it sounded dreamy to me! In fact, the month of December had left me exhausted and burned out and overstimulated and drained in every way possible, and 10 days of silence and introspection was exactly what I needed!
(In retrospect, I think the The Universe was laughing pretty mightily right about here)
I'm pleased to report that I did not sneak away in the middle of the night. Nope, I left during the daytime, with kind words from the staff, and 72 unbearable hours left to go.
Quitting was a very hard thing for me to do. I'm your typical Type A, overachieving personality who also happens to be a self improvement junkie. I have dabbled in all kinds of religions and philosophies and shamans and healers and experiences, and take great pride in my willingness to go through totally awful and weird things in my search for enlightenment (or, at least for a bit of healing). However, not even the weirdest, most awful things I've done before prepared me for the immense mental, physical, and emotional anguish (despair? agony?.... why doesn't the English language have a word that encapsulates the depths of this kind of pain??) that sitting still and being present with your body and mind for such long periods of time has on a person.
Every day was hard. Like, really really hard. Like, waking up at 4am, meditating through the discomfort in your legs, your hips, your back, your brain. Meditating until you wanted to amputate your legs, your hips, your back, your brain. Sleeping less than 7 hours each night, not having dinner, not having any time alone. Having nothing to distract your mind from every fear and failure and wound and disappointment and worry and heartbreak that you've ever had.
Like, I'm surprised that Hollywood writers haven't figured out that if you really want to torture someone in all those horror movies, just force them to be alone with their thoughts for 15 hours a day. Waaaaaay scarier than any dungeons or monsters.
I wanted to give up at many points along the way, and a lot of people did. The first two days were super hard, and a lot of people left, but I stayed. After Day 3 Of Intense Misery, we were told that the real work would now begin, and realizing that it was going to get even harder made me sob so much that the staff had to ask me to calm down. And some people left, but I still stayed.
On Day 4 Of Intense Misery, the real work really did begin as we learned a new meditation technique. If you want to learn the technique you should probably take the course, but the premise is based on feeling your body, not just quieting your mind. On paper perhaps that sounds totally fine, but, once you start doing it and finally notice all the heaviness and aches and pains and traumas and discomforts and emotions that we all carry around on our bodies all the time (no matter how masterfully we usually ignore them), it brings up a huge amount of difficult feelings and realities and you just have to sit with them and let them be. I think this is especially difficult for those of us who have overcome sexual violence, and even though what came up through the meditations was absolutely horrible to go through for everyone, and some people left, I sat with all my painful feelings, and I stayed.
I should note that while yes I did stay, by now my mind was a complete wreck. At the end of the night I walked to my room as the wind howled with a storm, and my brain howled with an even bigger storm, and I had a dream that I was stabbing people to death with pencils. Pencils. It turns out that while in this reality I may be a vegan pacifist, apparently my subconscious is a mass murderer, and not the coward's approach of guns or bombs or poison either, but the very up close and personal approach of writing utensils.
(this is why more people should fear writers)
On Day 5 of Intense Misery But Also My Birthday I awoke at 4am, hid the pencils, and went into the meditation hall. I was optimistic, despite my nightmare, and despite the previous night's instructions that we should now start sitting completely still for an entire hour without shifting, twitching, adjusting, or changing positions, all while maintaining a totally calm mind through meditation, of course.
If you think that doesn't sound like the hardest thing ever, try it for 5 minutes and then let me know how much you'd enjoy doing 55 additional minutes.
Since it was my Birthday Meditation, I was extra determined, and probably due to my older, wise age that I hadn't had the previous day, I made it through 60 agonizing, excruciating, unbearable minutes of absolute stillness. My left hip and knee hurt so badly I thought I might die, and I was definitely mentally scanning the room for pencils - but even still, I stayed.
Then I changed the cross of my legs and did another 60 minutes of agonizing, excruciating unbearable moments fighting both my body and my mind. It was such a battle. I was like, "hey brain, let's be quiet k!" and my brain was like, "thanks for the totally nice offer but I already have plans! like thinking about all your shortcomings as a human being! and also all the lyrics to all the songs by Abba! oooh and breakfast!" And I was like, "okay fine then, hey body, let's stop fidgeting okay!" and my body was like, "you're so sweet for offering but actually I've already scheduled my whole day around creating this totally exquisite knee pain followed by taunting you with an itch on your toe! let's hang out soon though k bye!"
Afterwards, I was truly amazed I had survived and figured I must be close to enlightenment because that would only be fair after enduring such a thing, right? Enlightenment can't possibly be more than two hours of excruciating meditating away otherwise why would anyone bother?
I went to the dining hall for my Birthday Breakfast where much to my unexpected delight there was pineapple upside down cake. A breakfast dessert! This had never happened before! I must be getting close to enlightenment to be getting such a totally rad high five from The Universe! I patiently waited in line to get a piece (notice I said patiently, because I was now an almost enlightened person!), and literally just as I got to the front of the line one of the kitchen staff swooped in and added a sign that said "Made With Butter" making it like, the 4th non-vegan thing offered so far.
So apparently that high five from The Universe was missing 4 fingers.
Sans pineapple upside down cake, I then went back to the meditation hall for another round of the most unimaginable torture, and there was now a sign on the door saying something to the effect of that while it is encouraged for you to sit completely utterly entirely still for this next hour, if it becomes too terrible you could just quietly and slowly change your posture. It's okay to do it 3 or 4 times, or 10 if you have to. Oh, and this sitting totally still rule is only for after breakfast, not before, and only needs to be done 3 times a day, with large breaks in between.
So, basically, I had just sat through two back-to-back hours of entire stillness and despite the odds had quieted my mind and overcame my own weaknesses and accepted the reality of all my physical and emotional anguish and I didn't need to know how to do that yet! I could have been squirming towards enlightenment still! I could have spent my entire birthday morning fidgeting!
I cried from the pain of it all (90% hips/mind, 10% cake), and it's a good thing there were no pencils handy.
I had been told in advance that Day 6 of Intense Misery would be truly intensely miserable, and, I am pleased to report that I succeeded admirably in reaching new levels of boundless misery (#overachiver). And even so, I stayed. And I suffered and I cried and I decided that I would just make it through one more day, and, if it didn't get any easier I could quit. So Day 7 of Intense Misery rolled around and it was even worse. My mind was so agitated. My body was so agitated. I couldn't stand one more second of the teacher's voice, or the 4am wake ups, or the intense emotions of past traumas being brought up through this work. But I stayed and I breathed and I made it through the morning. Then the afternoon. And then the night. And then started again on Day 8 of Intense Misery. And I kept thinking about a conversation my father and I had near the end of his life, as I was lamenting a totally dumb relationship situation I had put myself into, and he said, "When what you're doing finally hurts enough, you'll stop."
I think there are immense rewards in learning resilience and perseverance and not giving up. And I also think there are immense rewards in taking care of yourself, and I decided I had hurt enough. There are so many situations in life where we don't have a choice in what happens to us, or don't have a choice to change the circumstances. But this time, I did. I could choose to end my hurting. I could choose to stop suffering.
And I felt immense feelings of shame, of failure, of underachieving. I personally know three people who have previously made it through all 10 days, as well as all the rest of my classmates, and I wondered how it is that "everyone" seems to be able to complete this course and yet I couldn't. I've done so many challenging things in my life, and yet, this was one I couldn't finish. I felt guilty and wondered how I could possibly hold my head up now that I only made it through 80% of the 10 days. That's like, a B- at best. But while leaving could be seen as me giving into my tendencies of running away and aversion, into reacting, into being weak-minded or as lacking in strength, I decided that actually it was me displaying some of my most empowered, most Trusting, most Sustainable behavior so far (#wordsoftheyear).
I had reached my pain threshold, and chose to take myself out of a situation that I am not in the right place in my life to handle. I chose to trust that there are many paths to enlightenment, and many times it will be available, and that this was not my one and only shot. I chose to forego 72 more hours of intense, deep suffering in a time in my life when I have already endured enough lately on a broad level as a citizen and human, as well as on a personal level.
I chose to take the many insights and lessons and teachings and techniques I learned in and through the course, and let that be enough for now. And the staff was very kind and told me I would be welcome back any time, and a friend gave me a key to their empty vacation home in the desert so I am going to finish up the next few days with some silence and some meditating but also some writing and some reading and probably even some fidgeting (#shhhh).
I had gone to find liberation from suffering, and, I did end up liberating myself from suffering, just not in the way that I had imagined.
Which is okay, since Gautama Buddha didn't reach enlightenment until he was 35. That gives me an entire year to figure it out.
I realize this is perhaps not the most glowing review of this program but I do want to mention that I think it's a really great course, in a beautiful setting, with many wonderful pieces of wisdom. I know many people who have truly benefited from it, and I think it absolutely is a path towards enlightenment (if not perhaps mine). I think if you have the mental and physical and emotional reservoirs for such an experience, you should definitely give it a try. The worst that happens is that you end up a B- student like me, but, even that can yield a lot.
Please note: I love getting your thoughts and feedback in the comments below, but unfortunately this system won't let me reply! If you have a question, feel fee to write me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org