Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Ten Days: The Story of My Meditation Retreat

[I wrote this while I was a sophomore in high school.]

I must be crazy.

I could be at home sipping lemonade, eating popcorn, and reading a book. Instead, I'm sitting cross-legged in a crowded hall in North Fork, California for a ten day meditation retreat. In order to come to this retreat, I have had to promise to obey five rules. One is to maintain complete silence for the entire ten day period except to ask questions of the manger or teacher. I have also had to agree not to leave the course until the ten days are over.

Our schedule is long: we get up at 4:30 and go to sleep at 9:30. Three times a day we have to sit for an hour without moving, keeping our eyes closed, our legs crossed, and our hands folded. During the other meditation times, we are free to move whenever necessary.

On the afternoon of the fifth day, I am ready to cry. I don't know how much more I can take. The pain in my knees has become excruciating. When the five-minute break comes, it takes me several minutes just to stand up. I hobble over to have a talk with Gregory, the manager.

"Gregory," I say, "my knees are really hurting. Do you think I could be doing permanent damage to them by sitting so long in one position?"

Gregory laughs. "No, definitely not," He says. "The pain only bothers you because your ego identifies itself with the pain so much. It just gives you the idea that you are doing permanent damage to your knees to get you to stop meditating. You have to be strong. Don't give in. In four or five days, you'll just brush it off."

This does not convince me. How come I am the only one with knees that hurt? Whenever I open my eyes, the other people are sitting like statues. I must have some rare genetic knee disability, that's what it is, I think. I'll never be able to walk again if I keep this up.

I spend the next hour session in agony, making up poetic phrases to describe the pain: "The pain in my knee blooms like a mushroom cloud over Hiroshima... A dull, grinding, thudding ache in my lower spine, as if a dentist had begun to bore a hole there with a dull drill... My feet are being dipped in flames..."

After this session I change my sitting policy. As soon as I begin to feel pain creep up in my knees or spine, I ignore the instruction not to move and quietly shift my position to relieve the pain. I feel wretched, however, like I am cheating or doing something very bad. What am I doing at this meditation retreat anyway?

The fear has taken me over. I am ready to quit. The technique is good, I think. Meditation is good. The teachers are good. It's just that my knees can't withstand this constant torture.

My father has told me that if I really want to quit, we will leave, in spite of the contract I have signed. During dinner break, I begin to walk up to him. I plan to say, "Dad?" He will look at me, startled that I have broken the vow of silence. "Let's go," I'll say. "I'm damaging my knees. I want to be able to play on the basketball team this year. Heck, I want to be able to walk!"

However, I never go through with it. When I am about five steps away from him, I stop, turn around, and go back to my cabin. I'll just give it one more day, I think, and if I can't take it after that, then I'll quit.

From 7:00 to 8:00 we watch the evening discourse on videotape. S. N. Goenka, the man who brought this form of meditation to America, is on the screen. His grasp of English is impressive, but not flawless.

"The pain is there," he is saying. "To train your mind to observe it you are made to sit for one hour. Half an hour passes easily, and after that it starts becoming sever, so intense. Again, somehow you manage another fifteen minutes. After forty five minutes, every minute is like an hour. Oh, what a pity, I can't open my eyes, can't even see my watch, certainly now it is one hour over... So unbearable."

When he talks about how much it hurts, I laugh so hard I cry. He is exactly right. I feel a huge relief, as if a weight has been lifted off me. Other people have pain, too. I'm not the only one.

That night at 9:00, after the final session of that day, I stay in the hall. At this time, students are permitted to bring up their questions, concerns, and problems with the teachers. I trust the teacher more than the manager, and I want to make absolutely sure that I am not damaging my knees. There are several other students who also have questions. I watch what they do, and after they leave I imitate them. I kneel before the teacher. He smiles. His eyes are a bright blue, and his hair is cut short. He looks to be about 50 years old. I can tell that he likes all the people who ask him questions, whether they are handsome or ugly, stupid or smart.

"Teacher," I say, "my legs are hurting me a lot, and it's interfering with my meditation. Is it possible that I could be permanently damaging my legs?"

The teacher smiles again, and shakes his head. "No," he says, looking at me with his kindly blue eyes. I have to look away from his gaze. "Everyone has pain in their legs. Just observe the pain with equanimity, and it will pass away."

"Thank you," I say. He smiles again and nods. I turn and leave the hall.

I am finally reassured, and the fear no longer overcomes me. Although I feel like quitting several more times, I resist the temptation. I have overcome my fear and I find that I am finally able to sit for one hour without moving.

On the last day, we are allowed to talk. I have never wanted to talk so much as I do now. Finally, I can speak to the other people in my cabin! I feel as if I know them, although this is the first time I have had a conversation with any of them.

That night, my father and I take a walk by ourselves. We lie on our backs on a large, flat rock. It is still warm from the sun. We watch the stars together, and talk about life. I feel oddly contented. I am so happy to have stayed for the entire 10 days.

I look over at my father.

His eyes are damp and bright, and his face is beautiful.

Friday, November 9, 2007

A letter of thanks to Radley Balko

[I sent this to Mr. Balko after donating money to help him continue his work.]

I think what you're doing is really important. I can't say enough good things about what you've done on the Cory Maye case and exposing that coroner in Mississippi.

I'm frightened by what government has become, and by what we have allowed it to become. As Nock wrote, "It is interesting to observe that in the year 1935 the average individual's incurious attitude towards the phenomenon of the State is precisely what his attitude was towards the phenomenon of the Church in the year, say, 1500."

In trying to change this state of affairs, we face an almost insurmountable problem, on the scale of the black thing in L'Engle's Wrinkle in Time.

Donating money to your site makes me feel like I'm not going quite so quietly into that good night. No matter what happens in the end, I'll sleep a little bit better knowing I raged against the dying of the light in my own small way.