Letter from a Retreat


First Person

How not to meditate.


Photo: Michel Royon

Martin had a long pair of navy-blue socks that he wore when it was cold. He wore them in the morning before sunrise, and usually took them off before noon.

We were doing a silent, shamatha meditation retreat in the foothills of the Himalayas. The retreat was led by a stern Zen monk from Japan. We referred to him by his honorific, Venerable. Venerable was tall. It was hard to determine his age. He might have been fifty years old, at most. He wore aviator-style glasses. He had square front teeth. His eyes tilted a bit down at the outer corners, down toward his ears, giving him a sad, warm, sexual look. He was handsome and he was stern. He told us that if we learned to sit shamatha, we would no longer have nightmares, and all our anxieties would reveal themselves as mental disturbances and nothing more. He asked us to consider, when we were feeling anxiety, if that was really bliss. Really look at it, he said, really ask yourself. Actually, I don’t think he understood our practice, but I think he’d gotten some instruction, and I was a little offended and a little uneasy that he’d come and sit here and insult us—suggest vaguely that his style of Buddhism was superior. But maybe I was imagining it.

On the first night of the retreat, Venerable told us that ego is like a vampire. Martin, whom I was secretly dating, raised his hand and asked how, if he was to think of his ego as a sneaky vampire, he was expected to relax. The phrase “sneaky vampire” got stuck in my head. The question seemed like a comeback. It made Venerable seem, all at once, ridiculous. I was afraid, while Venerable answered, that I would start laughing, so I didn’t hear his answer. The next person asked a question. I was still thinking “sneaky vampire.” Then I broke. I started laughing. Each time I got my laughing under control, it would explode again, worse, when I thought, “sneaky vampire” while looking at Venerable’s handsome face, noticing his elegant comportment. Venerable was answering an Australian paraglider’s question about light. “Ah, light,” he said, “that is a big subject. For that, come and talk to me in private.”

Martin and I had begun simply, on the first morning of the retreat, during the second session. Venerable started us before sunrise. Our second four-hour session began at eight and ended at noon. I took the glasses of a local Indian villager and slipped them onto Martin’s cushion. This small gesture doesn’t sound like anything.

The place where we were meditating was a small Tibetan refugee colony. I think about six hundred Tibetans lived there. On the hillside above their houses was a monastery for Westerners, where we were. It had been built by Tibetan Buddhist monks who had moved to town when they outgrew it. Above the Tibetan refugee village was a village of Indians. Westerners didn’t go up there very often. In fact, I had lived in the village for months before I even heard of the Indian village. I went up to look around. I sometimes walked up to get my whiskey there, but usually preferred to take the longer walk to the whiskey store on the edge of town. Something about the Indian village felt sinister, in the way some very small towns do.

So this Indian man coming down from the village to the monastery was an unusual man. He was a guest. We treated him carefully, with a mixture of respect and condescension. He was about fifty years old, and he looked older. I’d had tea with him one time. He was strange. He—I don’t know how he got started coming down to the monastery, but once he’d discovered it, he’d made it a part of his life, and while we had tea, he gave me instructions on Buddhism. They were the beginner’s hodgepodge; he’d seen me do something wrong, and so he corrected it. Anyway, he was a poor villager. He took his spectacles off to meditate, and he closed his eyes, as did Venerable. Martin left his glasses on, and kept his eyes open, as our guru did. By slipping the Indian man’s glasses onto Martin’s cushion, I’d created a situation of potential awkwardness. Martin felt that. Sitting on the cushion, staring at the glasses, reminding himself he wasn’t supposed to move, remembering when the villager had advised him—breaking the vow of silence—to remove his glasses during meditation, Martin recognized the sparkling ludicrousness of his situation. And he had an image of very sad, German-style, inexpensive glasses. He laughed. Later in the day, during lunch, he got me back. We went on in this way, torturing each other wordlessly. It escalated.

The jokes, when they were at their best, had a lightness, an inevitability. They came without forethought. I wound up sitting beside Venerable at dinner. Venerable’s attention was diverted, and Martin poured salt all over my eggplant. We had an unspoken aversion to—even a taboo about—wasting food at the monastery. We just didn’t do it. I looked at Venerable. I admired him. I started to laugh. When I realized I had a new problem—my laughter was worrying Venerable—I laughed harder. I remembered the sneaky vampire. I choked on my tea, and it came out of my nose, and I sort of threw up on my eggplant. I laughed until I cried. Venerable seemed concerned.

During a walking meditation break the next day, I grabbed Martin’s two wool socks, which, bundled together, were the size of a football, and I threw them at the Australian paraglider. They hit him square across the face. He looked, for a moment, like a boxer who has taken a right blow. His head was thrown into profile, his mouth came open, and saliva—I guess from all the quiet introspection and light—traced out left to right.

The Australian snapped out of his meditation. He strode up to me, and started to yell. He was really angry. I stopped laughing. I felt so guilty, so crazy, so bad at meditating. Venerable was right to be concerned. It was only the third day, and I had thrown a ball of socks at a complete stranger! I was just washed over by shame.

Martin broke his vow of silence when the Australian paraglider walked away. He touched my arm and said, “Oh, Amie. You always take things too far.”

Amie Barrodale is soon to publish her first short story collection, You Are Having a Good Time.