I was attending a 10 day contemplative prayer retreat.
It was being held in a cold, stark 400-year-old monastery near St. Jorgenberg, Austria, built of rough hewn stones and dark, wooden beams.
We sat cross-legged on floor cushions in rows of two with our backs facing each other for 25 minute sessions of complete silence and total stillness. There was no moving, no twitching, no sneezing, no talking, no facial expressions and, above all, no thinking. The 25 minute sessions were broken by 5 minutes of meditative walk as well as by breaks for lunch and dinner, which were also conducted in total silence.
Overall, we would sit for 10 hours a day for the entire 10 days.
“You would not be able to do this on your own,” our teacher challenged, adding that we wouldn’t be able to stand the physical, emotional and sensory deprivation apart from the group.
“You can to this because you hold each other up,” she said.
We hold each other up?
To me, as an independent woman who didn’t think I needed anybody for anything—let alone to hold me up in meditation—the teacher’s words sounded downright insulting.
“If you were on your own, you would fall over,” she reiterated with surety.
All my life I had shunned the idea that I needed anybody for anything. I could take care of my sister when I was a three-year-old. I could take care of my brother when he born. I could take care of my PTSD father when my mother would jerk her chin in his direction and tell me I was the only one who could handle him. I could get to school on the bus on my own, do all my homework on my own and even go to my own high school graduation on my own. Eventually, I would marry a man who would pretty much let me parent our children on my own.
I was independent. I didn’t need any help. I had my pride.
On the fifth day of the retreat, I felt a twinge in my back and when I tried to get up from my cushion I had such pain that I couldn’t move. In fact, it took two male retreatants to help me up while I hobbled around for the five minute meditative walk and two others to help me back down to my cushion when the time came. All told, it took four people to help me get up and down from my cushion that day. I couldn’t even get up the stairs to the water closet by myself.
So much for not needing help.
When I spoke with the teacher about the pain in my back she told me that God wanted to meet us in intimacy but that we were covered in pride.
“God is breaking through your pride,” she said, tapping me on the back of my shoulder. These were words I did not want to hear. Couldn’t God be more delicate?
We talked about the option of my staying in my room for a day or so to see how it went, of getting someone to pick me up and take me back to Munich or of just letting it work itself out through the meditation.
“You should get up off the floor though,” the teacher said, “and use a chair.”
A chair? No thank you. I absolutely did not want a chair. If my pride was going to be broken I wanted it done on the floor along with everybody else. No chair.
I spent the next days during my meditations trying not to think about the pain in my back.
“The pain is a distraction,” the teacher said. “Keep the focus on your breath.”
By the end of the seventh day things had not improved. If anything, they had gotten worse and I began to wonder if I maybe should have taken the option of going back to Munich. That night, when I showed up for the last sit of the day, I walked into the meditation room to see that my cushions had been removed from the floor. A chair—the only chair in the room—stood in their place.
“The chair is a distraction,” the teacher said in her maddeningly predictable way when I told her how ashamed I felt of having to sit on it. “Besides, shame is just pride wearing a different cloak. Keep the focus on your breath.”
By the end of the retreat, the pain in my back was nearly gone. And while I was limping somewhat, I was able to walk slowly from the monastery into the village so long as someone else carried my pack for me.
Before I left though I went to each and every person in the room who had silently helped me during the sittings, had carried my food over to me and who had even helped me up the stairs into the toilet. In particular, I thanked the man who folded and unfolded my chair six times a day.
“I couldn’t have done it without you,” I told him.
“Oh, no worries,” he responded. “I didn’t think about it. I just kept my focus on my breath.”
He volunteered that he had always been a very prideful man and that it had been easy for him to think that people in need were somehow weaker or less than him.
“So, you see,” he added. “I couldn’t have done it without you either. You helped break my pride.”
I heard the teacher’s words anew.
“We all hold each other up,” she was saying. “We all hold each other up.”
Author: Carmelene Siani
Editor: Renee Jahnke