It pet peeves me when people start blogs and then abandon them. I’ve kept checking friends’ blogs years after their last post, hoping the bug to journal publicly would bite them again. Now here I am, into eight months of not posting. There are many irrelevant reasons why, and I do write elsewhere, on a site that was fashionable in the early 2000s but whose community disappeared after Facebook and after my friends and I got careers or kids. I still interact with maybe a half-dozen people over there, but WordPress is like tagging air with invisible spray paint. The lack of feedback is demotivating.
I just read The Faraway Nearby, a new book by Rebecca Solnit, one of my favorite authors. It’s a memoir, but like a lot of her work, it’s as much about what she has read as it is about what she has done; it’s a memoir of stories themselves. She writes, “Like many others who turned into writers, I disappeared into books when I was very young, disappeared into them like someone running into the woods. What surprised and still surprises me is that there was another side to the forest of stories and the solitude, that I came out that other side and met people there.” Writing as solitary hobby never worked for me–every paper journal I tried to keep I shredded. Blogging was a revelation to me that I could run into the woods of my mind and find not mute flora and fauna but people who met me on the other side of my thoughts.
Speaking of solitude and forests, last week I was at a meditation retreat where the vow of Noble Silence extended to reading and writing. Not talking for a week is easy, but not writing is hard. On one hand, I get it–the whole point of retreat is to sink into direct experience, to watch your story without the identification with it that traps you in the suffering of desire and lack. At the same time, though, Buddhism couldn’t exist without stories–whether it’s the story of Siddhartha Gautama, the teachers’ anecdotes during their nightly talks, the narrative structure of the talks themselves, the story of my life and how I came to practice…
In a Vsauce video I can’t stop thinking about, Michael Stevens quotes Fernando Pessoa, who wrote, “Direct experience is an evasion, a hiding place for those without any imagination. To narrate is to create, while to live is merely to be lived.” ?! Pessoa is the anti-Buddha! My writing practice has made me realize I have the power to create my own story instead of being lived by one, but I’m also all too aware of the less empowering narratives in my mind that keep me anchored in the past.
Solnit says, “Stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice….We tell ourselves stories in order to live, or to justify taking lives, even our own…tell stories that save us and stories that are the quicksand in which we thrash and the well in which we drown.” One of the many oversimplifications we mislead children with is that humans only need three things to survive: air, water, shelter. We leave sex and stories off the list. Without the latter, there could be no learning and no memory (perhaps this is why no one remembers being a baby), but all those needs can kill us in large or contaminated amounts.
Babies must be perfectly mindful beings in that they perceive with direct sensory experience, unfiltered through story. I can’t help but think our “issues” (insecurities, neuroses) begin concomitantly with language acquisition. Stories like “I am ___ ,” “Life is ___ ,” “___ always happens” form as soon as we learn the words for them. I saw a graphic once that looked something like, “Yru’oe slitl albe to raed tihs.” It was from a study showing that as long as the first and last letters of words are the same, people can read them no matter what order in which the middle letters appear. I think this illustrates the danger of stories: what’s in-between our history and our future story (which is only ever desire or fear) becomes a jumble of letters we read according to some preconceived way regardless of what the content actually is. You see what you believe is there. This is delusion, the inability to be in the present moment and see it clearly for what it is.
Last year, I went to an event for mentors of new teachers. The speaker wrote a book on coaching and identified self-reflection and emotional resiliency as two strengths that help beginning teachers the most. When I was student teaching, we had to write weekly reflections for a methods class. At the time, I thought it was the only thing I was good at and that it was the least important thing to be good at. I felt like I was getting away with something when I wrote my Master’s thesis about vocational calling and teacher identity, using my blog as data. I understand now that reflection was the most important thing all along.
Self-reflection doesn’t come easy to everyone. This year, I read Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl for the first time while teaching it to my students. I had no idea that 15-year-old Frank, before she died, went back and revised her journal entries, just in case they got published (she had heard on the radio that people were looking to collect personal accounts of World War II). I asked my students to keep journals while we read Frank’s and interacted with them by commenting on theirs. It always surprises me that this isn’t an easy assignment for all kids. Given the chance to be alone with one’s own mind, not everyone knows how to interact with it. Or this: the first journal I read on the first day of the assignment was about suicide, as if my speech about being a mandatory reporter had been an invitation to a cry for help. I once had a dream I was in my classroom, jumping up and down and shouting at my students, “Writing can save your life!” It was comical, but I believe it’s true.
At the mentoring event, the speaker read a poem called “The Way It Is” by William Stafford:
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
Solnit uses the metaphor of thread, especially red thread, to show how narration creates and how stories connect us, but her most original and beautiful metaphor is this: “I am, we each are, the inmost of an endless series of Russian dolls; you who read are now encased within a layer I built for you, or perhaps my stories are now inside you. We live as literally as that inside each other’s thoughts and work, in this world that is being made all the time, by all of us.”
I’m not writing to hear myself talk here (well, maybe a little). I’m throwing you a red thread from the other side of the forest. I want us to live inside each other like Russian nesting dolls. It’s as intimate as that.
They say when you return from a silent meditation retreat and people ask how it was, it’s best just to say, “Good” and leave it at that unless asked for more. As a blogger, though, I don’t have to wait until people express interest to say what I think. It’s pretty great. And while some things I experienced last week are too personal or difficult to put into words here, there’s much I can say.
I’m sure it’s different for everyone, but one generalization I think I can make is that sitting in silence for a week is a mind-altering psychedelic experience. Think about the highest you’ve ever been, the best sex you’ve ever had, every time you’ve ever fallen in love, and every time you’ve ever been heartbroken or hurt. Now imagine experiencing all those things AT THE SAME TIME and ONLY IN YOUR MIND. It will break you the fuck open.
This was my second year in a row doing this retreat. The first day is like Buddhist college orientation (the retreat is for young adults). Remember your first day of college–the only time in your life when that many strangers freely walked up to each other and introduced themselves? That’s how it is at the retreat, except after you meet all those people, you spend the rest of the week not talking to them or even making eye contact. You wake up at 5:30 every morning to sit in the meditation hall for 45-minute stretches, alternating with periods of walking meditation, breaks to eat vegetarian food and rest or hike, and a teacher talk every evening. You’re not supposed to read. The idea is to see what happens when you have no choice but to be alone with your own thoughts. You know how some people do those cleanses where they ingest nothing but lemon juice, cayenne, and maple syrup for a week? Well, a retreat is like that but for the mind. It’s like flossing your brain.
Sometimes, you floss spontaneous joy out of the gaps–there’s always a point when I find myself thinking, “Everyone should do meditation retreats! My parents, my ex-boyfriends…”–but it’s maybe not for everyone. Spontaneous grief can come out too. Last year, a woman cried heaving sobs in the meditation hall every afternoon. It was hard to listen. I felt a range of feelings bearing witness to a nameless person’s nameless grief. I felt concern. I felt morbid curiosity about what she had been through that made her cry. I felt worried that my experience might be less meaningful because I wasn’t moved to such emotion. I felt guilty for not having a hard time. It isn’t that hard for me to sit for a whole week in silence, which isn’t to say I sit there like some enlightened Buddha. I get bored. I rehash the same breakups over and over. I use my mind as an iPod. I remember telling a friend in high school that I didn’t think I could meditate because I couldn’t clear my mind. I didn’t understand then that that’s the work of meditation practice–you try to clear your mind and fail. Given enough opportunities to fail, the brain eventually repatterns itself. Whatever you suffer from, you practice to learn how to stop.
Retreat isn’t hard for me, but reentry is. What I feel when a retreat ends is even more difficult to describe than retreat itself. The first day of the retreat, I kept making grocery lists in my head. Now that I’m back, the last thing I want to do is go grocery shopping. I feel more alive than ever, which is jarring in a world we’re deadened to half the time. Last year, I tried explaining this feeling to a friend who said a retreat seemed like a lot to go through just to feel out of sorts at the end (this is why they tell you just to say, “It was good”). Since I started sitting retreats, other friends have asked, “Since when did you get all spiritual?” Sometimes, it’s easier to explain to a new friend who I’ve been than to explain to old friends who I am. The answer I rarely give is that I started sitting meditation in 2007 when I was living with an ex-boyfriend who was an addict. The most profound love relationship of my life was ending, and I was terrified of coming home to find him dead. I started meditating to stay sane in an insane situation. What did F. Scott Fitzgerald say about holding two contradictory ideas in the mind at the same time without going insane? In a way, I continue sitting to understand that I once left a man I loved and that I too have been left by men who loved me. I don’t mean to understand why. I mean to understand that.
I’m sure what each sitter flosses out of their brain is different and unpredictable. Before entering noble silence, retreatants say to each other, “See you on the other side.” Historically, I’ve had a hard time with unpredictability, with not being able to see the other side of something I start, especially if I have to commit to starting without that foresight. I wasn’t scared when my parents took me on The Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyland when I was five until the elevator doors shut and a voice said, “You can’t turn back now–mwahahaha!!!” I remembered that as I hiked around the retreat center this year. Last year, one of my favorite things about the retreat was hiking after lunch. Normally, I don’t hike alone. I’m afraid of running into a beast or falling down and hurting myself. I did a few short hikes last year but always turned back, not knowing where the trails eventually led. I suspected they all connected, however, and this year, I was determined to find my way all the way around. It took me two tries, and even on the second, I almost turned back a few times. I hiked up hills of rock and chaparral, under oaks, and through tall grass. I hiked up so high I could see the city and the Richmond Bridge. I hiked behind the hills above the center and past the back entry of a redwood preserve. I kept going. I kept going and going until I realized I had done it–I had made the loop! It was, in fact, a loop; all roads lead home. Alone on the trail, I pumped my fists and cried.
And the last night of the retreat, I cried. I cried and cried. I cried myself a headache that lasted into the next day. I think I might have been mistaken to assume the tears I overheard last year were grief. What drove me to mine was what I think Christians call grace: “the love and mercy given to us by God because God desires us to have it, not because of anything we have done to earn it….generous, free and totally unexpected and undeserved.” Grace came to me in the form of a thought, an idea that finding love is like tuning a radio. The signal is always there, but sometimes it flickers in and out, and other times it’s just static. Even when it does come in, sometimes the song is shit. But on retreat, it’s like you’re perfectly tuned to a crystal clear signal and the station is playing your favorite music. You feel grace and communion and true love, and I don’t care how cheesy that sounds; it’s fucking true.
I’ve been back for a few days now, and I feel…changed.
I’m trying to smile at strangers on the street and to tune the dial of my heart without being afraid or embarrassed of the static.