[I would like to apologize in advance for the longest, wordiest post yet, and no entertaining pictures to boot. So bear with me!]
Full disclosure: I kind of hate Elizabeth Gilbert. I say “kind of” because of course I don’t really hate her, I’m sure she’s a lovely person. I can’t even say I dislike her writing, in fact I find it rather entertaining and charming, if a bit overwrought. No, I suppose what I really mean to say is that I don’t care for what Gilbert has left in her wake. How on earth does the Eat-Pray-Love aftermath affect me personally and why should I care, you ask? Good question!
I like to think of myself as a wayfarer and a seeker, so I suppose technically I fall into the spiritual tourist category. Though I also fall into several other tourist categories—artist tourist, textile tourist, foodie tourist, and at times the ubiquitous eco-tourist that the likes of the Lonely Planet touts, who eschews plastic bags and carries a refillable water container and scorns the ignorant masses who litter. There are even medical tourists who travel halfway around the world to get a root canal or some other such procedure for a fraction of the price charged in the US. (I’ll be one of those soon, I’m sure.)
Of course, no one really wants to consider herself a tourist per se, but that’s indeed what we are, every time we leave the known purview of our home city or country. I always kind of cringe when I check the “Tourism” box on a visa application, it seems so tawdry and one-dimensional. (And for the same reason loved being able to check the “Research” box in India—everything I did in India, therefore, took on the lofty aspect of Research. Haggling with rickshaw drivers? Finding the best lassi in town? Buying textiles? All for the communal good of humankind, aka Research.)
Why is this, I wonder? What is so wrong with being a tourist?
There have probably been tourists of all stripes as long as there have been people traveling to faraway lands. (There is even a theory, popular in India, that Jesus himself was a spiritual tourist in the subcontinent. A crackpot theory perhaps, but it does explain how he came up with such Buddhist notions that anyone can be enlightened, that life is suffering, the ideals of compassion, pacifism, etc.) But Gilbert really turned things up a notch in the spiritual tourism department. Read this by Indian writer Gita Mehta and you’ll see what I mean.
Case in point: in the town of Ubud, Bali, you can spot the Gilbert-ites a mile away. Some of them are even reading the book unabashedly in a café—I know, shocking! They read it like it’s an instruction manual. They go to the same healer man, the same herbal medicine lady (naturally, these vendors have struck spiritual-tourist gold), trying to emulate the wisdom and insight—and perhaps even the happy ending—that Gilbert found.
Anyway, what I am getting to in all this is that I had a profound experience at a Buddhist retreat, and I want to share it here, but it’s hard to write about these kinds of things without feeling all self-consciously Gilbert-like. Thus the hatred. You see how that works? (I think this might be what psychologists call “transference.”)
I mean, it’s hard not to feel like you are piggy-backing on someone else’s (widely read) experience, or that it’s all become very trite and packaged and marketed to my demographic. (I’m sure Jesus didn’t have this feeling.) And it brings up the very idea of authenticity—of having an original feeling or experience that you can call your own. Westerners particularly seem to love and cling to this myth, in my observation. Which the Buddhists would say is a symptom of an ego-heavy culture. I agree, but still fall prey to my ego to an embarrassing degree. I don’t want to be lumped in with everybody else, I want to have a Genuine Experience, whereas maybe if I grew up in the East I wouldn’t want to stand out so much.
So when I think about it, really my loathing is not towards Elizabeth Gilbert, or the millions of women who read her book, or the fraction of those who took it so to heart that they decided to go traveling themselves down the same road. Who am I to judge them anyway? And who knows what is in people’s hearts and minds, and what their stories and struggles are? What I truly loathe is this feeling that springs up of moral superiority. It’s just the ego trying to puff itself up and make itself feel better.
Anyway, this is all a very lengthy preamble to try to describe for you a silent retreat that we did at Suan Mokkh Monastery in southern Thailand for 10 days in the beginning of May. In sharp contrast to my schedule in Bali (see The Good, The Bad and the Wormy), here was our daily schedule:
4am – wake-up gong
4:30 – morning reading
4:45 – meditation
5:15 – yoga
7am – meditation and/or dharma talk
8am – breakfast (rice soup and some raw vegetables)
8:30 – morning chores (for me, this was sweeping the walkway around the dining hall)
10am – meditation and/or dharma talk
11am – walking meditation
11:45 – sitting meditation
12:30 – Lunch (rice and vegetables)
2:30 – meditation and/or dharma talk
3:30 – walking meditation
4:15 – sitting meditation
5pm – chanting or more sitting meditation (I usually sat, because I had a hard time staying awake for the chanting and for some reason my throat hurt, even though I wasn’t talking at all)
6pm – evening tea (ie, no food!)
7:30 – sitting meditation
8pm – walking meditation in a group
8:30 – sitting meditation
9pm – back to concrete cell of bed, with wooden pillow
COLLAPSE IN HEAP
So, you’ll glean from the above schedule the following:
- No food after 12:30pm until 8am the following day
- Concrete bed and wooden pillow for sleeping
- Except for when it says “Break” there was literally no break, ie, we went directly from one activity to the next
Needless to say, it was hard. Really, really hard. (Jeff says I could easily add another “really.”) Probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It was not pretty. As the head coordinator, Werner, told us in the pre-retreat interview—who coincidentally sounded exactly like the filmmaker Werner Herzog—“This will not be fun.”
Days 1-3 were basically a complete daze, desperately trying to will my body to the schedule and also withdrawing from caffeine. (There was no coffee or tea. The tea served with meals was made from a bitter herb of some kind, never figured out what.) Lots of nodding off during mediation, sleeping every minute during our breaks, headaches and moodiness.
Days 4-6 I spent an inordinate amount of time doing fraction problems in my head about how much time was left in the retreat. Also spent a lot of time breathing during meditation way too consciously and awkwardly, so much so that my chest and stomach felt an enormous pressure, like I had big invisible weight on them.
I also at one point broke the rule of no writing (you’re not supposed to read, either) and came back to my room after a particularly hard meditation session and had to physically write down every emotion or experience I had felt in the last few hours, in list form, just to keep my head from exploding.
Here is what I wrote:
Pain (categories: sharp muscular, dull muscular, stinging of insects, mental anguish)
(And truthfully I could have kept going on and on, those were just on the very top of my head.)
Probably around Day 7 or 8, I came to the realization that this constant feeling and experiencing is probably what is happening in our minds ALL THE TIME, meaning that we have these feelings and thoughts that either come up from external stimuli, or that we create internally by having memories of the past or fretting about the future. But we are not tuned in enough to notice that all these feelings and thoughts are constantly moving through us, just like the weather or the wind. And none of these reactions are inherently “good” or “bad,” they just simply are.
Here’s an example: at one point, one of the coordinators came over to me during a dharma talk and reminded me to cover my knees (one of the rules is to dress modestly, and keep covered between our knees and shoulders). I immediately felt a red-hot shooting feeling of SHAME, even though the situation hardly merited it. But I just sat with the feeling, and let it go through me, and didn’t try to fight it or make it go away with yet another feeling or make myself wrong or make him wrong. I just gave it some air. And then—poof!—it went away. No big deal.
And I realized that we create all these other reactive emotions on top of the original reaction to a given occurrence or stimulus. And there is where the problem lies. Most people seem to be going around reacting to their highly reactive internal state and maybe not even knowing that they are reacting. I wish leaders of nations could get this point, it seems really vital to being a human and not harming each other. I’ve thought about these things before, and of course read a lot of Buddhist writings about this, and it may not seem like such a revelation. But I think we have to learn and re-learn these things over and over again, and they slowly sink in. (Hopefully.)
On Day 9 of the retreat, the penultimate day, the whole thing was turned up to eleven. We had no dharma talk, only sitting, standing, and walking meditation the whole day long, and only one meal at 8:30am, otherwise just tea. And it was on this day that I really got—in a palpable way—the dissolution of self. I already felt like I was in a lucid dream for more or less the entire day. Then at one point after sitting for some time, I got up from the meditation hall to do some walking meditation, and I wandered over to a little pond and sat on a rock.
And it was there that I had the most profound experience. In reality, I was simply watching the light, the clouds, the water, and the trees. But “watching” is the wrong word, really I felt like I was a part of it. It was so beautiful and surreal, and I felt like my breath was part of it, too. I can’t say that I’ve ever had an experience like that, and I only realized afterwards that there wasn’t any “self” there. I think I must have been sitting on that rock for 30 minutes, maybe 45 tops, but I also had no feeling of time whatsoever, so it may as well have been a few seconds or a few days. It wasn’t like time stopped, it just seemed immaterial and permeable.
Slowly, since the end of the retreat, “normal” life has crept back in, though I still keep that Day 9 experience with me, in particular. It was the Genuine Experience my ego was looking for, only in order to be a true spiritual tourist you have to be willing to throw that ego out on its keister and change the locks.
(Next post will have pictures and be highly entertaining, I promise!)