Things are not always easy at the Southeast Vipassana Center for Buddhism in Jessup, Georgia.
A 10-day meditation retreat was rapidly becoming my personal hell as I was trapped, subjected in silence to the deafening chatter of my own churning thoughts. We’d taken vows of Noble Silence- no speaking, no eye contact, no touch, no writing. 40 of us were completely alone, left to grapple individually with the demons we’d packed in our mental luggage.
For me, my biggest demon, the one who carried the most violent emotional wallop, was my ex-husband. Mid-way through the process of a nasty divorce, here is an example of my thought cycle:
How can I possibly clear my head and focus on nothing when he left me for her? They’re living in my house. Sharing the bed we once laid on! How can he do this? Why doesn’t he love me anymore? What’s wrong with me?!? OK, OK- focus on nothing. The sensation of my breath against my nostrils… OK… That guy next to me keeps coughing. Jake Gyllenhaal. Focus on Jake Gyllenhaal- wait! No! Focus on nothing! What’s wrong with me?!? Gah!
etc. etc. add infinitum.
I must’ve packed my insomnia too along with my emotional baggage, because it certainly came along for the ride. Laying there in the top bunk, I’d twist and turn dreading the gentle chime of the inevitable 5am gong, calling us to sunrise meditation. I slept fitfully, if at all.
We were allowed to ask our Teacher one question each day, and in tearful desperation and exhaustion, I broke my silence to implore my most burning desire: “How can I let go?”
The Instructor smiled benignly and told me that I would let go when I was ready. Irritated at this Fortune Cookie advice, that night I tossed and thrashed my way into another restless dream- or so I thought…
This dream was different: I was meditating in my dream, but not in the Meditation Hall- I was alone, outside, in a sunny field of pale green grass. As in wakefulness, I could not concentrate, and I noticed a woman walking though the grass towards me. A tall elegantly thin black woman, she wore a robe of many different fabrics stitched together and had a massive headwrap on her head. As she approached, I got the sensation that she was very, very old- her skin was make of the most finite dust particles. I could tell that she was Of The Earth, and instantly knew that she was God. (The same way you totally know Morgan Freeman is God in the movies.) The woman smiled gently at me, and reached into my chest cavity, into my heart- there was no pain, only peace- and she pulled out a massive plume of deep purple smoke when she removed her hand. The smoke then became a silk scarf, which she tucked away into her headwrap, blending with the myriad other scarves, and she said, “You are not alone. I will carry your sorrows for you.” She walked away, leaving me in utter stunned silence. This was the first silence I’d known in years.
I woke the next morning fully rested and completely calm. The anxieties from the life I’d lived yesterday were a thing of the past, and I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that I truly did not have to worry anymore. Of course I continued to struggle with my demons, but it’s more of a playful wrestling match now. I know I’m Not Alone, and I can push these thoughts away with the confidence that someone who loves me unconditionally is shouldering the weight.
I’m still a terrible Buddhist, and an even worse meditator. But ever since this amazing moment, it’s much easier to dismiss the disruptive thoughts and focus on what’s really important. Like Jake Gyllenhaal.