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November 11, 2019

Japanese Gangsters, Porn & Weed: a 10-Day Silent Retreat.

The intake volunteer from the Kyoto meditation center asked me three times on the phone if I thought I had the emotional mettle to complete the 10-day silent retreat.

Leaving partway through, she said, would be detrimental to my well-being, not to mention disruptive to the other attendees

I assured her I was a perfect candidate. Since my mid-teens, I’d been interested in all things New Age. I’d dabbled in rolfing, Reiki, and rebirthing. I knew about chakras and channeling; I’d spent a weekend coming down off various recreational drugs at the Siddha Yoga Ashram in the Catskills, and I was a dedicated Iyengar yoga practitioner. A 10-minute headstand in the middle of the room—not a problem. Besides, 100 hours of seated meditation could not be any more difficult than sleeping beside a man I barely knew.

Though he spoke little English, only reached up to my shoulders, and had a drinking problem, I’d recently married a Japanese gangster, a yakuza, two decades older than myself. I had done it as a last-ditch attempt to stop flailing and make something of myself—I was 25 and needed to get a grip. Though I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, the real reason I’d married this man was because I was seeking safety in the arms of danger, the one thing I had consistently proven adept at.

Two weeks later, I found myself in the hills of Kyoto, evaluating the 10 other people undertaking this quest with me. They were mostly middle-aged Japanese women who looked comfortable and relaxed, as if a 10-day silent meditation retreat was something they did on a regular basis.

There were two other gaijin (foreigners), a male and a female, besides me. The woman was a bespectacled redhead who appeared to be about my age. She wore grey sweats and a button-down cardigan, her curly hair in an unruly bob. I took her as an exchange student from some fancy university, or perhaps an English teacher. Someone who, unlike me, had her sh*t together.

The male (the only male at the retreat) had his sun-bleached hair pulled into a ponytail, wore jeans with ripped up knees, and a faded Grateful Dead T-shirt. A crystal hung from a leather strap around his neck; he looked like someone I would have dropped E with at a full moon party in Thailand. I pulled my white cotton shawl tight around me and feigned disinterest in him.

I’d brought my most enlightened articles of clothing along for this retreat—fisherman’s pants from Bangkok, flowy batik tops from Bali, my karate pants from Osaka—in the hope that my disguise would fool people into thinking I was a woman who walked her walk, talked her talk. Someone who knew what she wanted to be when she grew up.

The retreat rules were straightforward. No speaking or eye contact for the entire 10 days. The only exception to this rule was that we were each allowed to ask the sensei one question if it pertained to our meditation practice. No exercising was allowed, except for strolls around the grassy back yard area, which was divided into male and female sides by a bubbling brook. No reading. No writing. No phone calls. No sugar.

And though it wasn’t specified, I understood this also to mean, no sex or masturbation, both of which were fine by me. Ten days to sleep by myself—this alone was worth any discomfort 10 days of self-realization may stir up. My new husband’s feet only reached halfway down my shin bones when he lay on top of me—a sensation I likened to nails on a chalkboard.

There were only two of us in the spacious tatami room, me and a Japanese woman with long greying hair and a collection of silver rings that lent her the look of a kind sorceress. Besides one large window facing north into the hills, and our futons, which were laid out with crisp linen sheets and a barley-filled pillow, the room was bare.

~

When the 4 a.m. gong sounded that first morning, the sound of the monsoons on the roof gave me a womb-like, insular feel. I couldn’t believe I was waking at four—only two months before, I’d be stumbling home drunk and high from work at my hostess club.

Morning meditation was from 5 to 7 a.m., and although we were supposed to have our eyes closed, I couldn’t stop sneaking glances around the cavernous wooden hall. Raver Guy sat alone on the left side of the room, the one reserved for men. Though he was wearing jeans, he looked surprisingly serene and relaxed. The woman who sat in front of me, directly in my line of vision, remained upright and still. Unmoving—like a veritable Buddha. I poked her spine with imaginary needles to see if she’d move, projected all my hatred and self-loathing onto the back of her glossy black head.

By hour two, hot, sharp pains shot through my knees, my spine began to ache with the fatigue of staying upright. I deftly crossed and re-crossed my legs, hoped no one would notice me writhe around on my folded cotton blanket. Another hour until our vegetarian breakfast—I could not believe this was only the first morning.

By mid-afternoon on day one, (at which point I had already sat for six hours,) a mess of jingles played in my mind. A three-score loop on repeat.

“You deserve a break today, at McDonald’s,” Madonna’s, “Like a Virgin,” and the “Gilligan’s Island” theme song: “The weather started getting rough, the tiny ship was lost…”

After dinner, which consisted of miso soup, a cup of tea, and a piece of fruit (the theory behind the light dinner being that since we weren’t expending much energy we didn’t need to eat too much), Mr. Goenka, the Burmese founder of Vipassana meditation, instilled his wisdom upon us in the dining hall via a video recording.

I experienced no glimpses of mental stillness that day. No cessation of the fluctuations in my consciousness. Not even once.

Day two was excruciating. Halfway through the afternoon sitting it dawned on me why and how it’s so easy to train animals using food motivation—the mere thought of the banana I was going to have for dinner kept me from running out of the meditation hall and straight back to Osaka.

The year before, I’d convinced my best friend at the time to come to this very meditation center to dry out. She was a young American junkie who worked both as a hostess and a drug mule. Although the staff had tried their best to convince her to stay, she’d lasted only two days, and soon ended up in a Bangkok prison.

I had to keep it together.

On day three, the first day’s jingles were replaced by the face of the Glad garbage bag man from the TV commercials of my childhood. He loomed large, and with disturbing frequency. I focused on my inhalation and exhalation, but no matter how many times I pushed Glad garbage man aside, his tanned face and white suit refused to dissipate. Why did this garbage-bag-advertising, white-haired man feature so prominently in my subconscious?

After lunch I found a note, written in loopy English letters, on my futon. You look like you’re in pain. Don’t give up.

I was angry and frustrated that my façade of breezy enlightenment—the one I had tried so hard to project—had been uncovered. Someone (I figured most likely it had been red-haired English teacher) had seen through me.

I began to question and doubt everything about myself, while at the same time I tried to convince myself that committing to a man I didn’t love was better than continuing upon my well-worn road of self-destruction.

Halfway through day four, those long hours of sitting began to wear me down. I longed to be anywhere but with myself.

That afternoon, for the first time since the retreat had begun, I lined up for my Q and A. I was shocked. The sensei was American—he looked like a fair-haired version of Christopher Reeves. I’d expected a wise, old Japanese man of the “Karate Kid” type. I’d formulated a mental list of what I deemed to be intellectual questions at the beginning of the retreat, but my list had denigrated to one simple request:

“Are we allowed to use the chairs?” I pointed to the row of fold-up chairs at the back of the room.

“You are here to learn independence,” Sensei answered.

Independence? That was all he was going to give me? I wanted a clear yes or no. I didn’t want to get all confused and wonder if I’d made the right decision or not. I did that every time I looked at the ring on my left hand.

I thanked him, and then, trying my best to hide my meditation-induced limp, walked to the back of the hall, kept my eyes averted, and pulled a chair off the top of the pile. I was thankful everyone’s heads were bowed and eyes were closed. I felt like both a failure and a fraud.

Halfway through day five I went into full-blown sugar withdrawal. Images of brownies and chocolate croissants antagonized me while I tried to untether my mind. Bottles of Coca-Cola drifted by, causing me to salivate. It got to the point where a few times a day, usually mid-afternoon and late evening, I would lock myself into a toilet stall and lick toothpaste off my fingers like a junkie.

Day six I broke the rules. Silence and no eye contact I could handle, but no exercise was torturous. Being active had always been my outlet, my way of connecting to myself. If I wasn’t mountain biking, hiking, or at some cardio class at the gym, I was running. I figured a few secret sit-ups in the corner would go unnoticed. I’d only gotten about eight reps in when a volunteer loomed above me.

“What are you doing?” she asked in fluent English. “There’s no exercising allowed.”

I struggled for an answer in mid-crunch. “I’m sorry,” I said. “My back is so sore…”

She knelt beside me. “We are only asking that you give us 10 days. You are here to work on your subconscious. Please, try harder.”

I cringed in humiliation, felt like a child being reprimanded by my father.

Day seven, food and sex fantasies hijacked any hope of mental stillness. The meals at the retreat tasted alright, brown rice and miso soups, sautéed greens, and tofu with tart umeboshi plums and sliced daikon, but I craved food that had substance, spice, and character. Garlic, and onions, and red chili peppers—all the things that tended to heat and agitate the nervous system—the reason they weren’t on the menu at the retreat.

I yearned for calorie-laden, fatty food I could bite into—hamburgers and steaks. Visions of cheesy anchovy pizza and penne arabiatta tormented me for hours until those eventually gave way to fantasies of Raver Guy and I naked and entwined on a stretch of white beach. This scenario was followed by visions of muscular, tattooed men—a whole group of them—rubbing me down with olive oil.

Before long I was fantasizing about that same group of men engaged in hot prison sex with one another.

“You made it to day seven,” said Mr. Goenka during the video presentation that night. “Congratulations. By now, you are probably all thinking about pizza and porn.”

What? I almost spat up my miso soup. Did he say porn? How did he know? I sneaked a furtive glance at the other women. From the slight upturn of their lips and the smile lines around their eyes, it looked like I wasn’t alone in my deviant thoughts.

Could it be that I wasn’t the only woman in the room who’d lived recklessly? Who had made mistakes and taken wrong turns? Was it possible that perhaps the others in the room also held secrets and self-doubt close to their chests? Could it be possible that my self-recrimination and self-doubt were normal?

It struck me then that, quite possibly, I was a part of a greater whole. Maybe there was a larger, unseen force that buoyed me, carried me on its current. These women in the dining hall were a part of it. The person who’d left me the note, the volunteer who had reprimanded me, Mr. Goenka—they were all a part of it.

Slowly, I began to reframe things. It wasn’t all at once like all the pieces of a puzzle coming magically together. It was like one corner piece fitting, and then a straight edge piece, and then another. When the edges filled in, I was able to start putting the center pieces of myself together. There it was. Not an answer, but a visual.

I was doing the work. I’d showed up.

I’d excavated the darkest corners of myself, and I was still here. There was something to be said for that.

On the evening of day eight, Mr. Goenka paralleled our experience at the retreat to that of a surgical procedure.

“It’s as if you are cut open now, about to be stitched up,” he said. “The surgery has been performed, but now we must apply the healing balm. And that balm comes in the form of a few more days of meditation.”

It was not unlike Savasana, the resting posture at the end of a yoga class, the way it worked on the nervous system and the deepest layers of the body. With this image of a healing balm in mind, I allowed myself to fully relax into the practice for the last two days of the retreat. Sitting became easier not just physically, but mentally as well. I even experienced a few fleeting moments of stillness.

On departure day, the code of silence was lifted and we mingled over breakfast—got to know our fellow practitioners. The woman who had sat so still and upright in front of me, the one I had performed mental voodoo on, turned out to be an American saxophone player from Brooklyn. My roommate was a university teacher who taught French philosophy in Japanese. Red-haired girl was a British med student on a school break—she’d written me the note of encouragement. Raver Guy was from California. He pulled me to a quiet corner outside, confided that he had an outdoor marijuana grow-op in the hills not far from where we stood. Could we get to know one another?

Did I want to run away with Raver Guy? Hell, yes. Did I go? No.

I went back to my yakuza husband, but I did so with equanimity and a new-found understanding of who I was and why I made the choices I did.

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author: Dhana Musil

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