The Monastery Series, part 2: surveil & despair

On July 9, Luke drove me through San Francisco, across the orangey Golden Gate Bridge, and into the summer-dry foothills of Marin County.  The Spirit Rock Meditation Center property entrance was marked by a small sign that said:  “YIELD TO THE PRESENT.”  I guffawed, feeling like I’d arrived in exactly the right place despite the afternoon heat.  Good-humored monks??!  What luck!

After registering, receiving my “work meditation” (also known as cleaning the dorm showers daily), and picking a spot in the airy, spacious meditation hall, I said a tearful goodbye to Luke.  As he drove out of the gravelly parking lot, I exhaled audibly and then marched myself back up the hill to start retreating.  I was ready.   

I was so ready, in fact, that I took up silence before the retreat even officially began.  This wasn’t my standard over-achieving behavior, however.  Having anticipated the silence for so long, I felt motivated to go inward, reluctant to socialize.  I decided to give myself an early-bird permission slip to simply stop talking and hope for isolation.  

Problematically, everywhere I looked, people were greeting each other and even holding conversations (!).  Keeping my eyes cast downward, I avoided contact and sought to appear deeply occupied.  This stance worked.  Even better, it provided a cover for some light reconnaissance on my new colleagues, which I took up with gusto.

I saw three basic categories of retreatant:  

  • The Professionals:  middle-aged and older white folks who wore loose-fit everything and seemed frighteningly peaceful already, even in this pre-retreat phrase.  They obviously knew that they were doing at the monastery, and clearly they were good at it.  (Unlike me.)   
  • The Hip:  younger, quite colorfully tattooed folks of varied ethnicity with enviable hairstyles and tees, sweatshirts, and plastic bracelets displaying mysterious slogans like “dharma punx” “and “the 5 precepts club.”  So cool!  So counter-cultural!  These people obviously knew how to combine meditation with badassery, and clearly they were good at it.  (Unlike me.)
  • The Friendly:  a mixed-age group of sociable, outgoing folks who were chatting away, laughing, exchanging stories easily and making friends.  It was practically a party!  These people obviously knew how to settle into a new group and new situations with poise, and clearly they were good at it.  (Unlike me, of course.)  

This was not encouraging.  

Throughout my surveillance, I did have an awareness that these groups existed only in my mind.  But, like a tired kindergartener, I wanted desperately to feel included in each group AND I wanted nothing to do with them so I could preserve my reclusion. 

It is fair to say that I successfully evaded contact and survived until everyone formally entered into silence that evening.  But internally, chaos reigned:  a riot of inferiority, a private pity party, zinging self-doubt, and outright rebellion were all happening simultaneously.  It wasn’t pretty.

But it was normal - for me.  I see now that I’d simply applied one of my basic life templates to this new situation:  it’s called “compare and despair.”  I fell deeply into comparing myself with my fellow retreatants, creating an inner reality in which I was very inferior (with the accompanying anxiety cocktail, naturally). 

The truth is, I simply wanted solitude.  I craved silence.  I was so ready to retreat!  And at the time, sitting in the Spirit Rock dining hall, I unskillfully made it mean that I was lame and anti-social and weird.  Now, with the grace of passing time, self-acceptance enables me to not make those desires mean anything when I tell my story.  It is enough to simply say:  I wanted to retreat.  And I can send loving-kindness backwards through time to the distressed, anxious, confused version of me who was adapting to a wildly unfamiliar set of circumstances...knowing now that everything was okay, and that the retreat experience was far more powerful than I ever expected.