In 1977, in the middle of my life, which had become an extended, ongoing crisis, I asked the owner of my favorite Indian restaurant if she knew anyone who meditated and could teach me. She wrote down the name of a place in Barre, Mass., that had just opened.
When a neighbor gave me a zucchini from her garden and two weeks later I found it in the linen closet, my mother immediately agreed to stay with my two young kids and my husband, who thought this meditation thing was a great idea, was completely onboard. They knew this was an investment in their future.
I called and without any thought, signed up for a 10-day Vipassana Meditation silent retreat. I knew no one who meditated, and I had never heard of Vipassana anything. And the capper: I had never been silent in my entire life. I’m told I even talked in my sleep.
It was March and cold. I arrived with my down pillow and all my sweaters and wool socks. The sign in the lobby of the main building said, “Retreat in progress, please observe silence.” My room was in an outbuilding, and the narrow twin bed had one Army-issue blanket with moth holes, and the note taped over the sink said, “Please conserve water.”
We were all given yogini jobs, and mine was to vacuum the third floor with an old Hoover. We awoke to a gong at 4 am, and by 5, after a hearty breakfast of bergamot tea (Bergamot tea! Whoever heard of bergamot? And why does it taste like my mother’s Evening in Paris perfume?) (And where are the pancakes and bacon?), we were sitting in a football-field-size room with high ceilings and burgundy curtains that blocked any light that might have tried to materialize.
I had bought a zafu (meditation pillow) in Northampton on the way there, but couldn’t figure out exactly how I was supposed to actually sit on it. I copied everyone’s moves. I cracked my neck, I stretched my legs, I sat straighter than I had ever sat, I closed my eyes, and then a little bell tinkled, and I thought, Oh good, now they will begin the teaching.
But there was no teaching. After about a minute I opened my lids, and to my shock there were 140 professional meditators surrounding me, and I was the only imposter in the place. OK, I thought, I’ll just do what they’re doing, but my hips hurt, so I quietly shifted on my zafu, shut my eyes again, and in less than a minute my knees were cramped, and once again, as quiet as I could, I changed their position. The 50 minutes was sheer torture.
There was a 10-minute break between all nine 50-minute sittings. Lunch was an hour, and we were instructed to have no eye contact. No talking and no eye contact, the two things I thrive on and do automatically.
I sat across from a guy who is wearing a T shirt with Edward Munch’s “The Scream.” I wanted to poke him and say, “Cool shirt. That’s precisely how I feel. How about yourself?” But instead, I looked down at my yellow something that was stained by turmeric and tasted like lentils gone rogue, and fantasized about the IHOP I saw down the road.
All these foods and all these terms are part of the lexicon now, but in1977 in rural Massachusetts and West Hartford, Conn., everything felt foreign and suspect.
Each night there was what they called a dharma talk. Jack Kornfield, one of the teachers, told the story of a golden statue of the Buddha that was found after several monks chipped away all the concrete covering, and explained how it must have been hidden hundreds of years before to protect it, and how that’s what we do with our own Buddha nature, our own goodness. We cover it with layers of protective coating so we won’t get discovered and therefore hurt.
Each day I start to breathe in a new way, and each night the talks are filled with so much wisdom, wisdom I have never heard before.
By day seven, I actually have grown to love the food, the silence, and even the sitting. And on day 10, as I am packing to leave, I realize I am dreading going home.
Re-entry is difficult. I try to keep the habit of meditating going, but there are kids and doctors’ appointments and work and meals and carpools, and I begin to drift back into the craziness of juggling everyone’s life, with mine at the bottom of the list. I have one kid who is sick, I have one kid who gets no attention because of the kid who is sick, I have a husband whose business is going down the drain, my mother is starting to get old, and my sister lives too far away.
I sign up for another 10-day retreat. This time I come home renewed, refreshed, and even though the kids are scared I might leave to become a monk (which was definitely a possibility after the first one), I am more in love with them than ever.
I start sitting on my pillow early mornings, I begin to write, I find out being poor is what I’m really good at, and my husband — who has always been a rock — is so happy to have his equal partner back again.
Over the years, when things get out of hand I know I just have to re-up for silence. The place is still there. The turmeric and bergamot tea are still there. And with COVID on the rise again, it feels as if another extended crisis is impending. I might just need a trip to Barre. Where the wisdom awaits.