for various reasons I put together a few photo essays today:
I like them.
the last installment. part v of why meditate, thoughts on my two 1-week back-to-back meditation retreats: part i, part ii, part iii, part iv, & part v. An abridged version for moderns exists at Shambhala New York.
And that was it. After lunch there was a banquet to close the week, and a bit of a talent show with poetry, songs, skits, and the like performed after the meal. As I enjoyed my desserts, Seth asked (snarkily) when I was on. “I thought you were going to share something with us.”
“Hmmm? What do you mean. I already did. You missed it?” I snarked back.
“Oh, you mean at lunch? The bawling over your hot dog?” As if his words weren’t enough, he brought his hands to his mouth, grasping an imaginary whole foods organic hot dog with caramelized onions and nori, rounded his shoulders, closed his eyes, pulled down the corners of his mouth, and snapped his diaphragm up (he’s obviously done some yoga) which bobbed his torso and head a bit to mimic that ungodly heaving that accompanies a big cry.
It was pretty funny.
We laughed. I’d never met Seth before but, as always happens on retreat, by the end of a week I felt like I’d known the people around me forever, even though we’d never spoken. I was thinking about this on the first day, when everyone felt so strange to me, which I wasn’t used to at Shambhala. I was used to knowing people. But it had been a while. I wondered then how these strangers would quickly unfold as we sat together in silence. And they did. It is like magic.
When the festivities and the retreat were over, I went home and emailed Zka, telling her more or less what I’ve told you. I cleared my schedule completely for the next days, and we had dinners, coffees, drinks, and walks over three boroughs in her last days in NYC. I took her to JFK and we sat quite near a NEW YORK HOT DOG stand while we chatted before her flight. I didn’t cry.
A few times I’ve had to explain to people that because I felt sad about Zka’s leaving does not mean I’m defined by it, or that I’m depressed. As a culture we are so against sad that we’ve forgotten that to feel sadness and let it pass is a fine, healthy thing to do.
It is almost fall now, and I’m more able to stay inside and get things done. I still angle for the sunny spots on the sidewalk because the sun feels so good, but a part of me is relieved by the cooler air and the softer light. See? Even summer girls can adapt.
So, that’s why I meditate. It’s one thing to get it intellectually. And it’s another thing to sit. You really, really have to sit. There’s a great story about the Venerables Mahakasyapa and Ananda, about why the Buddha chose Mahakasyapa to succeed him rather than his cousin Ananda. (Ananda didn’t practice!) Yes, this is a myth. There’s some argument over who succeeded the Buddha, and this story seems more popular in Zen traditions. That’s not the point though. The point is, you have to practice.
The story is pp 123-125.
A few days earlier, while making tea at home and fighting with myself about how to deal with the situation, I thought, “No, I’m not cancelling my plans last minute. Next time.” My quieter, more aware voice silently pressed at me and I knew it was the wrong thing. “Next time. Next time I will deal with it differently,” I said, as if the next time I was in a difficult situation with a friend it would be any easier to take the gentle route. As we know, next time is never now. But I am stubborn.
I find that when I’m having this sort of argument, forcing myself to do the right thing is not really a better option than doing what my ego wants, because until my stubborn ego softens and wants it too, I’ll just be angry, bitter, and annoyed. Canceling my plans for Zka’s last minute change would probably just piss me off more if I forced myself to do it.
And that’s where the meditation comes in. Things shift when you sit on a cushion and watch your mind. When I was up at the first retreat, there was a woman in the next room who clearly wanted the door to my shared room open. It wasn’t even her room, but she kept coming in and opening the door. I wanted privacy, especially as the men at the ashram were more predatory than I’d have liked, and I was trying not to let this woman get to me. That I was clearly getting to her did somewhat soften the situation for me. Though I was in silence and not really talking to anyone at the ashram, she didn’t seem to notice this, and took that I wasn’t chatting with her quite personally.
I came in the room in the mid-afternoon to get something, and she’d left the door open again. As I was about to leave, I wanted to close the door. But something in me stopped myself and left it open, as she’d have wanted it.
Yeah, it’s a little thing, but it’s an example of acting from a deeper place than ego. When I was in the foyer putting on my shoes, I heard her stomp out of her room to go open the door again, only to find it open. I felt a bit sorry for her, and for myself. It’s all in the mind, these dramas. And yes, at retreats, little things like this are amplified, as we don’t have the larger dramas of our daily life to engage, and you really face the reality your mind creates and own up to it.
Sitting the last morning of the retreat, centered, there, all of the sudden an image of Zka’s little blond head bopping in the waves popped into my mind and my eyes welled up. Though I’d been stoic all week, ignored emotions come up when I just shut up and sit. Frustration, anger, fear, anxiety, loneliness, annoyance, sadness, everything. It’s a gamut. I wasn’t teary all week, or the week before. Pretty solid, with a bit of everything mixed in. If I was asked a week or two ago what would upset me, what would hit me hard, I’d have thought a few things. But I was totally wrong. Out of nowhere that morning, Zka’s little bopping blond head just knocked me open. She was the best swim partner ever. I’d look for her when we swam, always nearby but not too close. She always swam about forty feet seaward, close enough to see, but far enough to give space. Sometimes we stopped and came closer, playing in the waves. But usually she was a bit off and I’d stop once and awhile to look for her blond head, then resume swimming.
Then, all the things I love about Zka streamed into my mind, and the tears flowed. I cried because we might not swim together again. Because I had the best summer with her and it went too fast. Because there is no beach in Paris. Because we were the odd couple, and we were over. She’s a night person, and I’m a morning person. Each day this summer when I got up for yoga, the first thing I’d see would be Zka’s email on my phone when I turned off my alarm, which I’d read on the train en route to practice. While most are overwhelmed, Zka was amused by the million emails and texts I sent each day, and knew she was free to answer, only supposed to answer, what and when she wanted. This was usually in a long email written at 2am, which I read by 6a and replied to by noon. And then some.
Zka likes my German jokes. While I love to drive, she doesn’t know how. A German who can’t drive! (I’ve always been partial to German automobiles, though I may never have admit that to her.) She likes cats. I prefer dogs. (Doggie!) She is a dismal scientist (in training) and I am a happy guru. But we are similar in the ways that matter. Zka likes to swim, to roadtrip (chauffeured of course), to eat, to walk, and to talk about the deeper things in life. Zka likes and supports my energy, and I hers. This, perhaps, is the very definition of a friend. Someone whose presence picks you up a bit and makes you happy not only to be alive, but that you are you, and that she is Zka. Though she makes fun of Germans herself, like me, she is definitely more Germany than Greece. She is willing to tell me when I am being dumb (not easy. I bark) and is also patient when it is clear I need to be dumb a bit longer. This is vital in the girlfriend relationship. She is secretive with her heart, and reminds me too much of myself in that way. And while we could always be friends, we would never have this gorgeous summer together again.
What bothered me the most, though, and kept the tears flowing, was not that she was leaving, but that we were shoving each other away. We were both crafting stories about the other to make the loss easier to bear, instead of facing our sadness about the change. We’d both lost parents and loved ones earlier than most, and our fears and pretended strength around loss and sadness were painful and ugly. The walls were tall and hard.
As all of this went through my mind, I did keep going back to my breath, but the thoughts and the tears kept coming. So I let them. She’d be a proud German. I was discreet about it, and no one, even the people around me, knew I was crying all morning. “But I had snot running down my face,” I said later to Seth who’d been sitting behind me all week.
“Yeah, I thought it was sinuses. Whatever.” He replied.
I’m fairly accomplished in the silent cry, because like my friend Emily once said, “You can’t schedule grief.”
When we got lunch, my subtlety ended. I went to Whole Foods and saw a woman grilling organic hot dogs (we chatted. She was an ashtangi). I pretty much had to have one, even though I knew they’d giggle back in the meditation hall. There we ate in silence at long tables. I was in between two guys and across from another. On my right was Vito, a very earnest Austrian with a German accent (oh no). He was a meditation instructor. On my left was Joel, who’d practiced at the center at least as long as I had (years) and was also a meditation instructor. Across from me was Luke, who’d sat to my right all week, and to his right, Seth, who’d been behind me. Then, eating my hot dog, the tears came over me again. Because now people were facing me, it was harder to hide, and then harder to stop.
So, I bawled and bawled into my organic hot dog with carmelized onions and nori. The guys around me were very gracious (all had meditated a lot) and just kind of held the space. They weren’t uncomfortable at all, which was impressive and nice. I cried more on the break after, with tea bags on my eyes at home. It was a lot of sadness. And a little unexpected, I will admit. I had thought I would just get used to Zka being away like everyone else who comes and goes. But that is what meditation is about. Seeing what’s there. What’s really going on, what’s really important. There was not one tear for cave man or ping. Some anger, yeah, but no tears.
Next and last installment of why meditate: hot dog performance art.
This was not the only thing going through my head during the retreat, mind you. In fact, it wasn’t even near top billing. Each time I came around to the fact that my attention wasn’t on my breath, but in any of all sorts of places, maybe only 2% of the time on the Zka annoyance. I found myself thinking about clients, about my dream schedule, about how to get more of what I like and less of what I don’t, about which photos to frame should I ever get around to printing them, about if I could make it to the Vietnamese sandwich shop and back before lunch, about if I should frame photos at all if I’m going to move to [somewhere warm], about my broken sofa bed, about how many beach days are left this summer, about my favorite person in the world maybe visiting soon, about the fabulous trip to Vermont, about OH’s incredible generosity, about an old friend I’d treated poorly, realized (shame), apologized, and am glad to have back in my life, about the nice things I might like to do to for said friend, about how I will ever fit my yoga, sitting mediation, writing, and other centering stuff into my daily schedule every day not just most days, about whether my meditation instructor believed I was really taking an afternoon off to spend with Zka, about if I were going to lie wouldn’t I think up a better one than hanging out with a friend!?, about how I find no honor in getting up at 5am for yoga this week or ever and think that even my usual 5:45am is less than ideal, about my grocery list, about my projections and authority issues and maybe my MI totally did believe me but just thought it was a stupid reason to skip out, about running home for a nap at lunch, about if I can find a good mysore teacher who starts at 7a or 8a, about getting Angela’s package to the post office in time for her to get it before she leaves, about a trip to Paris, about the tremendous power of projection at play in romantic love and how else to harness it, about the possibility of romantic love without projection, about why I have to have a muse to be at all productive, about my best friend from Berkeley, about a trip to Maui, about the amazing retreat I did here about a month ago with a teacher I thought I’d hate but adored. You get the idea. Zka wasn’t dominating center stage, and I won’t thrill you with the knowledge of what (or who) was. It doesn’t matter.
There was space between all of this, understand, and a thousand times dragging attention back to breath. The spaces were sometimes large and sometimes small like claustrophobia. But they were there.
Thursday, the second of last day of the retreat, I left at lunch to go to the beach with Zka for the last time. I wanted to keep silence, just to see how it’d be, and so I could swim in silence. Swimming is very calming and meditative for me, and I wanted to fit it into my retreat somehow. But Zka didn’t show. She said she didn’t get the text until late that afternoon. It was fine, and maybe for the best. When I realized she wasn’t coming, I thought, “Should I go back to the retreat?” But that felt weird as I’d already asked out. And even more, my centered self said, “Go to the beach anyway.” I’d done enough long meditation retreats to not feel I had to prove to myself or anyone I could do the whole thing. I needed to do what felt best to me, even if it’d be a little sad going alone. So I went. I hadn’t been to the beach alone all summer, and I usually went with Zka. So, being there alone, still in silence after almost two weeks of retreat, was, well, even more meditative than sitting on my ass on W22nd Street for hours at a time.
I got iced tea. I set out my stuff. I swam. I dried in the sun. I read a meditation book. I noticed how I felt. I swam again, and felt my breath. I used my discipline to go farther than I wanted to swim. I kept going. I enjoyed being alone. And I missed Zka. I people watched the nutballs. I thought of the stories I would tell Zka about them. It was my usual afternoon at the beach, but alone. I like being alone. I know this and I noticed it again. But I also very much missed Zka. And I was a little bit annoyed by that. So I went back to enjoying my solitude.
I arrived home at about the same time I would have from the retreat. The next day was a new moon, which meant I didn’t have to get up early (there is no mysore on moon day). That was nice. I relaxed a bit before I walked to Shambhala. That last morning of the retreat, after skipping out the previous afternoon, I really settled. I felt better, happier, more centered than I had in the last two weeks (months, years?).
And then came the tears.
This is part iii of why meditate, thoughts on my two 1-week back-to-back meditation retreats:
part i, part ii, part iii, part iv, & part v. An abridged version for moderns exists at Shambhala New York.