A couple of weeks ago, I spent one of my few summer weekends sitting on a cushion, staring at a small patch of floor.
I didn’t play golf with my friends, as I might normally do. I didn’t see art or a movie or a concert, I didn’t read the Sunday section of the New York Times, I didn’t open a book. My Saturday and Sunday weren’t spent doing any of the exciting or relaxing things I might normally do on a sunny summer weekend. Instead, I spent my two precious days off from work indoors, alternating sitting on my ass and walking in circles. For hours and hours and hours.
Whenever I tell people that I’m not going to be available over the weekend because I’ll be on a meditation retreat, it seems they usually assume I’ll be blissed-out in a mental spa, or laying on a hammock at some swami’s idyllic estate, or engaged in some kind of new-age therapy session.
When they tell me that it “sounds nice” and wish me a “relaxing time,” I usually just say thanks and leave it at that. Because to explain what I’m actually doing for those two days cut off from the world—silently sitting on the floor and walking around in circles—well, how would anyone understand why someone would ever want to do that? It sounds a little crazy. Hell, it is a little crazy.
And I know the second I say the word “meditation,” people get all kinds of ideas that I’m tuning in to some mystical plane, or shutting off my mind, or riding the snake to Valhalla.
But the truth is, I’m mostly just staring at the floor while all kinds of thoughts come whizzing into my brain.
I hate to spoil anyone’s illusion (okay, maybe I don’t), but that’s what going on in those hallowed meditation centers, or at least in most of the good ones. We sit on our butts for twenty minutes without moving. Then we walk silently in a small circle for twenty minutes. Then we return to the cushion to sit again. Then we walk. Sit. Walk. Sit. Walk. It goes on and on and on and on. Can you imagine anything more boring?
And that’s the naked truth: meditation is boring, and the decision to do a weekend-long meditation retreat is to choose to be bored out of your mind for an entire two day period, rather than enjoy the fruits on offer in the wonderful outside world. And sure, you may catch some relaxation or humor or bliss during the retreat. But also pain (both physical and mental), struggle, annoyance, anger, but mostly Boredom (yes, with a capital B).
Here’s why. Because if you (and I do mean you) do this for long enough, diligently working with the technique (though you may feel like you are consistently failing), if you just keep sitting and walking, sitting and walking, sitting and walking, then something will happen.
And here’s where things get slippery: it’s not entirely possible to explain exactly what happens, but not because it’s something exotic and mystical. It’s just because words can never accurately describe a real experience.
What I’m talking about is not your mind shutting off and entering into some calming plane of thoughtless being. It’s not your soul merging with the great Universe, whatever you imagine that to be like. It’s much more ordinary than that. And it doesn’t solve all your problems. It doesn’t mean you’ll never again feel anxiety or irrational anger or self-consciousness or self-loathing (though it may help with all that).
What happens is that you get a sense of who you are, who you really are, behind all the stories and machinations, behind the neuroses, behind the habits and beliefs, behind all the things that make up the person you pretend and wish that you are. You get a sense of your authentic self. And all the sanity, clarity, goodness, humanity and home-ness of being in touch with that authentic self.
I can’t satisfactorily describe it—I can only put myself in a position to experience it. So I sit and I walk, and I sit and I walk, and I sacrifice 20 minutes of precious sleep every morning to stare at the floor, and I give up an entire summer weekend to hole-up in a room to do it over and over again: sit and walk and sit and walk.
And people will think it’s a little crazy. Hell, it is a little crazy.
But once you have a true experience of why you’re doing it, you know that spending your time any other way is even crazier.
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Assistant Ed: Renee Picard/Ed: Bryonie Wise