I recently returned from a silent meditation retreat – a place of painful and joyous insights. It was held in a peaceful place, in the middle of nowhere, amidst deer and wolves, caterpillars and snakes. In an effort to force myself to get up and stay up for early morning 4:30 am meditation, I volunteered to ring the morning gong each day.
I set my travel alarm for 3:50 and dressed silently by the light of the little wooden lamp, wrapping scarves around my neck and head – it’s cold in the dark in the woods. My job was to walk outside under the awnings around the women’s dorms, hitting the wooden mallet on the heavy – brass, I think – gong, making it spin and sending vibrations of sound in all directions signaling 4 am wakeup and 4:20 “get yourself to the meditation hall,” for women meditation students.
By 4:30, I was wide awake for morning meditation and took my assigned cushioned spot in the meditation hall. Seated in silence, unmoving, scanning my body for vibrations, my feet would go to sleep. The tingling turned to electric shocks as I worked to notice the sensation, wonder about it, without judgement, and then move on to each area of my body, piece by piece. Working my way up, my back screamed in silence. Notice, wonder, no craving, no aversion, anicca, anicca, anicca* – the law of impermanence.
Meditation continued, alternating with meals and breaks, until 9:30 at night, for ten difficult and wondrous days.
During meals and breaks, I thought. In my head without distraction can be a scary place to live, and so I tried to notice, wonder, and practice anicca with my thoughts. I had painful thoughts of childhood traumas, joyous thoughts of future life plans, and tender fearful thoughts of the impending loss of my dear friend, her third bout with cancer, third type, ever growing. And I cried. Often. In silence. Walking the mowed paths in the meadow and looking out at deer during teatime. Why did he do that? I got this! Why must she go and leave all her children?
I made decisions, changed decisions, and meditated on it.
I must confront my father for his sins against me; I must not confront my father, he can hurt me in other ways now; I am not a traumatized child anymore and my existence no longer depends on the whims of my father.
I must continue my agency job healing moods and personalities; I must leave my job to support myself; I will continue my work, my life's mission, in my own office.
My friend will die; my friend might live with this treatment and that intervention; my friend’s body is dying and I will hold her family in my heart and her soul in my hands.
And then, I meditated some more.
The last night of the retreat was a buffer between the isolation and noble silence of meditation and the hustle bustle noise of the outside world. Talking was allowed everywhere except in the meditation hall. I stayed up late in deep discussion with other women I felt silently bonded to. And then the pain/joy coin hit me in my gut: life is pain and life is joy. Physical aching electrical pain and horror-invoking mental pain and the heart ripping pain of grief. Subtle pinpoint vibration joy and emancipating courageous “I got away” joy and hopeful life without end joy.
And now, I meditate some more.
*Anicca is pronounced uh-nee-cha, and means impermanence in Pali. The law of impermanence says that pain and suffering, like joy and happiness, are impermanent.