I honestly thought I’d be writing this article about the seven second fart that left me gripping my sides desperate for composure as I doubled over my lotus legs.
Frantically, I jammed my mind with morbid thoughts, hoping they’d mute the hysterics that were nearly shaking me off my meditation cushion.
It was more of a toot than a fart. One of those that sounds almost like a door creaking open, high-pitched enough to sound cartoonish.
I was shocked it’d come from me, and during the first 10 minutes of the very first meditation. The silence was still delicate, every single sigh echoed in all 100 ears threatening each student’s attempt to organize the unruly buzzing of their own humanity into the teeny tiny box of silence.
There I was, sweating with the effort of not busting wide open into a mess of silence-shattering laughter, facing what I thought would be the most unfortunate moment of the retreat.
I have never been more wrong.
I thought I signed up for this retreat for the same reason I do every other “spiritual” exercise— just wanted to know myself better. I told myself I had no expectations, but looking back, it’s painfully obvious that I was actively looking for something. Like most humans on planet Earth, I sometimes feel fractured. Like I’m missing some vital part, and if I could just get my hands on it, I’d suddenly understand the nature of the universe.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t exactly aware of the desire I had to put myself “back together.” Even more unfortunate, was that I’d willingly, even enthusiastically introduced myself to an artificial environment where nearly every detail of life was out of my own control. Now, not only was I seeking something I wasn’t even aware I wanted, I’d also given the treasure map to someone else.
We weren’t allowed to speak, laugh, make eye-contact or facial expressions, and even hand gestures and exercise were off limits. Men and women were separated by caution tape.
There were however three people who were allowed to speak. The two retreat leaders and a recorded Indian dude (let’s call him George) who spoke to us each morning around five, chanted to us throughout the day in a language I doubt anyone in the room sufficiently understood, and walked us through a “discourse” every night on how to live the “right life,” derived from Buddhist teachings—after we’d already meditated in silence for roughly 12 hours a day, and were nearly starved for stimulation. The brain as a sponge makes so much sense to me now.
I knew the silence would be uncomfortable at times. I figured I’d experience boredom, possibly loneliness. I was prepared to watch my mind twitch. And my body beg for movement. I knew that my throat would ache for the smallest vibration of the tiniest sound.
What I wasn’t prepared for was handing over my autonomy, my humanity, the very thing that makes me a distinct and sovereign being to a trio of “spiritual authorities” in exchange for a subscription to “the way things should be done.”
On the second day, during the discourse we were told that what we were actually undergoing a metaphorical “brain surgery” and we could expect it to be painful and difficult. I took vague notice (with just a bit of fear) of the “no pain, no gain” mantra of traditional religions.
On the third day, during the discourse, as George laughed at the silliness of praying to a “God” hoping to reach a “heaven,” I felt compassion for others in the room who’d come to this retreat thinking it welcomed people from all walks. Because that is, in fact, what it’d said on the website.
Around the fifth day (I’d know for sure, but we weren’t allowed pens or paper) we were told that if a starving man comes to us asking for food, we should instead teach him the meditation we’d learned.
The next day, during a time allotted for questions, I asked the female teacher (the only one I was allowed to talk to) if it was normal to be having an internal experience that felt downright rebellious maybe even a little disgusted.
The question barely left my lips when the teacher smiled and said that I was having a “negative” experience because I was, in fact, “more advanced” than the other students, and that my experience was something that usually happened only after repeating the retreat several times. Hmm.
Though the answer appealed to my ego, again it sounded too much like other spiritual authorities I’d met who constantly validate “negative” thoughts or experiences by saying that the person suffering is so close to “God” that the dark, “evil” energies are trying to sabotage them.
It was at this point I mentioned that I was turned off by the religious tone of the retreat, and I let her know that I wasn’t comfortable with someone telling me where “heaven” is or how to get there. It’s for this reason that I choose not to subscribe to a religion at all.
Here, her energy changed a little. She looked at me, and said through nearly pursed lips, “Heaven only exists inside of you.”
So, I smiled, took a breath and managed to add light-heartedly, “It seems to me that we can’t possibly know that, though it’s a beautiful idea.”
What I wanted to say was this: Hmm, look, I don’t give a shit if heaven is a McDonald’s play place for someone, the bottom line is, I don’t want someone making this decision for me, regardless of whether I agree with them or not. And I definitely don’t want this information administered in a way that borders on hypnosis.
But instead I opened my heart and waited in silence for her response.
“George has told us that heaven is a place inside of ourselves. And he is a very advanced and evolved spiritual master,” she replied.
Disturbing, I thought. This feels a little fanatical. I’ve never heard new-agey lingo sound so traditionally religious. I told her then that I was thinking of leaving.
She let me know that this was completely my own decision, and if I wanted to leave, they would support me, but that with time, she was certain that I would see the wisdom in the teachings.
So I stayed. Even though I felt like a dry leaf one gust away from being ripped from my branch to float unceremoniously into a smelly gutter. My heart felt strangely…empty. My mind felt…swept. And my body felt…pointless.
The next day I built a teepee out of twigs. I made a heart out of grass where I placed three seeds. I struck myself out 38 times, feeling less real every time my stick-bat sliced through the air, missing the rock over and over again by millimeters. I realized that I can say “shit” in four languages, but “I love you” in seven.
And then it happened. On the seventh night, I was slouched over on this curbish piece of concrete, contemplating writing topics. The infamous fart/toot I thought I’d write about now seemed like years ago and unworthy of an article, but I realized that it’d become a bright spot on my brain, a place I could go when I felt barely there; it always brought me back to Earth and her dirt.
But as I left the toot behind and continued to mull over topics, my thoughts began to band together. And like a conveyor belt at the grocery store, my thoughts were passing by, but I felt almost incapable of really interacting with them. Then they began to take on the rhythm of the morning chants.
I felt alarmingly…apathetic. Bland. Banal. Like life is that song played too often on the radio. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s just that it’s not great either. I usually change the station.
That was it. This was getting serious. Rather than risk my creativity and the loss of my enthusiasm for well, everything, even temporarily, I decided that I’d leave the next morning. My house was 10 hours from the retreat center, and living in South America, late night travel in a strange city can be risky.
Because I’m from Iowa and we’re all about manners and her trappings, I thought it was only right to let someone know I’d be leaving.
So I made another appointment with the woman teacher. We met in her office and I told her that though I appreciated her guidance, this retreat wasn’t for me and that I’d be leaving the next morning. She asked, “Don’t you want to purify your mind?”
I said, “Honestly, no.”
I added with a small smile, “I actually kind of like dirt.”
Her face fell. Her next line floored me.
“Well, I was going to ask you to leave anyway, your bad energy is affecting the other students and the disrespect you’ve shown me is intolerable. Please, don’t wait until morning, leave now.”
My heart skipped a beat. I actually felt a jolt of fear run up the length of my spine. There was something very uncomfortable about something so cold coming from a woman who just days before told me that she’d been practicing “loving kindness meditation” for 30 years.
After an audible swallow I said, “Is there a possibility I can stay until morning? I live 10 hours away. I don’t know how I disrespected you, but I apologize if you felt that way.”
Her gaze was unflinching but not at my eyes, at the door behind me.
“During the meditation you put your feet towards the gurus. That is a sign of disrespect. I must ask you to leave. Now.”
She stood up and spread her arms wide taking a step towards me like she was herding sheep from the room. I opened my mouth to reply, and she screamed, “Leave!”
Twice more she yelled for me to leave, and as I scrambled from the room she nearly slammed me in the door.
After seven days without speaking, this felt like a black burn on a raw and tender heart.
I’ve never felt so violated. At my core, I felt wounded. Like someone had just…fractured my soul.
Could this be why we all feel fractured? Because we too often give our power away. We trust him or her or they, more that we trust…me. I. myself.
We let him or her or they tell us what works, what’s right, what’s better. And a piece of us dies. The piece that should’ve stood its ground and said, “No. This. This, is what’s right for me.” Instead that piece goes away. It hides. It shuts off. Shuts down. Eventually it splinters and then fractures.
Because we are.
I nearly ran down the hall to my room where I threw my things in my bag and headed to the door. A shocked and sympathetic assistant who’d heard the whole thing offered me a ride to the mall (and also an explanation for the teacher’s outburst; she was apparently suffering from an advanced stage respiratory illness and hadn’t been feeling well).
I took a taxi from the mall to a cheap hostel.
And that was Day One of collecting my pieces, myself. I started by asking myself, how do you feel about what just happened? I concluded that the fart had saved my life and would make a good intro.
Also, “Spiritual Authority” Is a dirty Oxymoron.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Travis May