When the first bell sounded, I reached for the mug of Starbucks coffee chilling on the window sill, prepared the night before to fortify me against the cold and darkness of Massachusetts in February, but also the piercing sadness that can come with solitude. The coffee tasted bitter. My mind hunted for something important to think about, a shard to keep me from sinking into nothingness, which is what the teachers of this silent meditation retreat seemed to want to happen to us all when they told us not to pay attention to our thoughts and “just breathe.”
In my little cell of a room, I felt like Edmund, the innocent man falsely imprisoned on an island in The Count of Monte Cristo. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins”—this line from T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” repeated in a hollow way, along with the recognition that I didn’t actually read the lines in that great poem but in another book that I happened to leaf through one day. It was painfully clear there was nothing essential to think about and possibly nothing substantial to me, except this persistent grasping. There was a vow of silence, an intention to withdraw from the world of striving for a week, to receive what is given instead of insisting on what I want. And there was this counterforce that vowed to defy it.
Several times a year, I go on silent meditation retreats to remember. Smirti in Sanskrit, sati in Pali, and drenpa in Tibetan. All these words for mindfulness literally mean to remember. Christians speak of the “recollected heart.” They all point towards that state of “re-membering” or “re-collecting” — gathering together the usually distant parts of ourselves, letting the head, heart, and body all touch. I go on retreat to remember there is more to life than I think. As strange as it may sound, what is remembered is what it is like to be a child.
To be continued….