In two days, I’m teaching my first meditation workshop. As I’m planning my class and designing exercises for my students, I can’t help but think of the beginning of my own journey with meditation. Eight years ago, I was in what I considered “a slump” and I was looking for anything to take away my crippling depression, anxiety, and harsh self-judgments.
Back then, I had quit working in social work, and I had a job in a cubicle (insurance billing). I filled my days listening to a lot of self-help audiobooks and podcasts. One day, I heard an interview Oprah did with a documentary filmmaker. This movie was about a vipassana meditation program in a men’s prison, and the interview went into detail about how this style of silent meditation was beneficial to the inmates. Maybe it was a moment of clarity, maybe it was a moment of desperation, but I thought that this was going to be the one thing that could fix me.
Luckily, there was a vipassana teacher in my area who offered these one day silent workshops of yoga, walking in the woods, and of course, sitting meditation. This retreat center was nestled in the Ozark mountains. Accomodations were simple. Cob houses constructed of clay and straw, vegetarian meals, and compost toilets. I prided myself on being a little bit of a country girl, but this compost outhouse scenario was upping my anxiety levels already. At the beginning of the day, our teacher Joy instructed us on how to properly dispose of insects with an “insect liberation device”–a laminated piece of paper and a jar. She didn’t kill insects; this was a catch and release type situation. Again, my heart jumped up in my throat. You mean, I need to shit in an outdoor closet on stilts, and I can’t kill these winged swarming devil monsters that are flying all around? I thought she had to be insane.
I was very worried I had inadvertently joined a cult, and I was on the lookout for anyone serving Kool-Aid. There was still a part of myself that wanted to stay and gain some sort of benefit from my time here so I chose to stay open-minded despite my screaming reservations. The day was filled with silent yoga, silent meditation, silent walking, silent meals, and well…more silence.
I found myself sneaking off on our nature walks to talk to other people. Many people respected the “no talking” rule, but I feverishly looked around and finally locked eye contact with a fellow panicked retreat member. I moved over to her, avoiding the gaze of Joy, and attempted to start a conversation.
“Compost toilets! Am I right?!”
She completely ignored my statement, and went into her frequent meditation habits, how this wasn’t the type of meditation she’s used to, blah blah blah…who cares lady!?…this was not the distraction I was looking for. I didn’t want to listen to more hippie windbags. I needed to express myself…my pain! Deciding I would rather be alone with my internal dialogue, I excused myself from her to continue my nature walk. I started walking along this cobblestone path toward a pond, and I spotted a very large black snake about a foot away in some tall grass. It was the largest snake I had ever seen outside of a zoo. It was what my grandmother called a “chicken snake” which is kind of a general term for a non-poisonous, snake who mostly ate mice, rats, and bird eggs. I knew it wouldn’t bite me, so I tried to slowly walk around so as not to disturb it.
All of a sudden, it darted across my path in a blur. I ran the opposite direction, flailing my arms around, and screaming various expletives that are echoing throughout the Ozarks and River Valley still to this day. I’m positive. Other retreaters gathered around in genuine concern for the screaming spectacle I had created. Then, seemingly out of nowhere instructor Joy effortlessly coasted up beside me.
“Holy shit! I was walking and this snake ran out, and it was so friggin’ huge, and it went right over there…maybe we should kill it or catch it because it could hurt someone, and….”
“I ask that you return to silence.” Joy spoke with calm, yet her voice landed in me with such force. Joy grinned and slowly floated away along with the others.
I was dumbfounded. Return to silence? I began to fizz with anger. Who the hell is she to tell me not to speak? I quickly dart my eyes around to find the other chatty Cathy that spoke to me earlier. She was picking up leaves and gazing at them. Great! I was abandoned! There was no one to listen to an entertaining story, joke, or complaint. There was no sounding board for cheeky one-liners. Just silence.
I had to get out of there.
I started formulating my exit strategy. *Now, is the perfect time. Just grab your things while all of these crazy people are looking at pebbles, and hit the road.* I began thinking about how long it would take to leave unnoticed. I fantasized about driving away, leaving a cloud of smoke and gravel behind me, and looking in my rear view mirror to see Joy and everyone else fruitlessly running after me and pleading, “No! Don’t go!” I would have laughed maniacally, “Too late, fuckers! I have escaped!”
Bumblebees started buzzing around me. They dove in close to my ears and then quickly swooped up. Where was that damn insect liberation device when you truly need it?! I try to flap them away while running around in circles–in silence, of course. Tears began to well up, and I stopped running.
The bees were going to dive bomb. I stood motionless with tightly closed eyes as they buzzed around my head. They flew near, and then flew away. Whether I ran in circles like a mad woman or stood still like a stone, they remained. Even if I had driven off that day, there would always be those bees. There was always something out there to fear or run from. In reality, I was not running from bees, snakes, and outhouses. I was running from myself, and there was nowhere to hide.
I stood and cried in the woods feeling helpless. Through my tears, I notice this tiny blue streak on a nearby woodpile. It was a skink with an electric blue tail. It’s a common lizard to see in wooded areas of Arkansas, but I had never seen one with such bright colors. I sat and admired this tiny lizard, and watched how the sun reflected off his iridescent scales. Suddenly, another one joined him on top of this log with fiery orange flecks, and they basked in the sun. I stared at them for several minutes amazed and also surprised that I had grown so fascinated with a reptile considering my previous track record with all “non-cuddly” creatures. For a few moments, my mind just stopped. I was not thinking about nature, lizards, or my own internal struggle with peace. I became an observer, not only of my current experience, but of my self as well.
Suddenly, Joy rang a bell to signal the end of our nature walk and the end of the day. I glanced back at the log, and my lizard companions were gone. I shuffled back towards the cob house, and I noticed I was smiling. I smiled, not because I liked nature, lizards, or meditation, but because I was fully present for the first time ever. It took a day of dragging myself kicking and screaming to get two whole minutes of focus and presence.
I had spent a lifetime of analyzing, judging, and badgering myself into behaving or thinking what I thought I should. It just took this one moment where I made the choice to stop and to just be. I felt strongly that if I could do that in the face of my fears, I could do it anywhere. My whole life changed with just that one sweet taste of peace.