When I got out of a three-year meditation retreat about a year ago, a funny thing happened: I had a difficult time proving I was a real person.
I went to the largest wireless company to get a cell phone, but was told, "Our system says you don't exist."
My first reaction was like, "Whoa, the mobile company is talking like the Buddha's Heart Sutra: There is no James Connor. There is no person who wants a cell phone."
Still hoping to reconnect with friends, I returned a few weeks later with a valid U.S. passport, a valid state driver's license, a bank statement, and valid birth certificate. But they were still saying, "We can't help you. Our system says you don't exist."
Eventually they explained that the phone company's security department couldn't imagine anyone could have been living in America for the past three years without a cell phone! And the more I tried to explain that I had been meditating for three years in a mountaintop cabin, the more ridiculous it got.
My quest to prove my existence eventually led me to a small government office in a rural Arizona town to get a new Social Security card. While I waited, I struck up a conversation with a rancher.
This man was among the first people I had talked to (other than the person who had patiently explained what he kept calling "a data plan"). This rancher had a white beard and rosy cheeks like Santa Claus. Every word he uttered was a clue to help me decipher this new world of 2014.
I'm listening deeply... we're connecting... and in the middle of the conversation he just stopped and said, "You're nice."
I tried to explain that I had been meditating for over 1,000 days in a cabin. Meditating on love, compassion, forgiveness, and wisdom.
What's his response? In a slow drawl, he said, "I bet my sheep would like you."
I nodded, unsure of where the conversation was going.
He added, "I'll tell you what I'm gonna do. How would you like to follow my sheep around? I'll give you a trailer and $30,000. And you can take care of my sheep."
So, apparently there's a perk to doing a three-year retreat. Even if you're from New York City, you can become a shepherd.
After some discussion with my girlfriend (who also completed three years in meditation retreat), we decided to turn down his gracious job offer because there was something we really needed to do first. We really wanted to teach people what we learned in retreat. And in particular, the three most powerful meditation techniques, which is something we are currently doing through our non-profit, GoBeyond.org.
I promise more about those techniques another time. Some of you are wondering if I ever got a cell phone.
Eventually, much later -- after the state of Pennsylvania approved our non-profit paperwork -- I finally proved my existence enough to get a cell phone. This meant I spent months outside of retreat not connected in a tech sense. But I could offer people something else.
Time and time again, I would hear the rancher's refrain from people I met: "You're nice." I quickly realized it wasn't that I was doing or saying anything in particular. It was simply that I was really listening.
The more I looked at 2014, the more I could see it. While I was in retreat, the zombie apocalypse had come in the form of people staring at their smart phones. People were texting, tweeting, Facebooking, and Instagraming, but few were really listening. Mostly, their minds were spinning to the next thing they were going to say--as their posting finger twitched--while the next person filled the silence.
Silence. This is one of the things you learn to value deeply in retreat. So much of the meditative path is learning to still the inner voice in your head that pushes you around all day. It's a wondrous thing when you can finally get out of the way and finally be able to listen--because that's when you can truly connect.
I don't know if it's talked about much. One of the main benefits of meditating is that you become a better listener. In meditation you learn to listen deeply, sometimes to the thoughts, sometimes to the thoughts behind the thoughts, and sometimes between the thoughts.
When you come out of meditation, you have a strength and habit of mind that allows you to do the same with people around you. You listen deeply. What are they saying? What's behind those words? And what are they not saying? You find you can connect in more beautiful and more profound ways to people who are starving to be heard.
When I came out of retreat, I wanted a cell phone so I could connect. It turns out, three years without a cell phone gave me something greater. Whether on your smart phone or off -- listen, listen behind the words, and listen between the words. And take time to enjoy the silence. I think you'll find it's better than the data plan.