"Oh, when there's too much of nothing,
No one has control"
During those invariable grade school "what I did on my summer vacation" exercises, I'd often tune out classmates' monotone narratives of macrame dramas or baseball-card flipping showdowns and fantasize that when my turn came I'd solemnly walk to the front of the class and, in response to the teacher's prompt, would utter just one word --"Nothing," I'd say -- and then quietly retake my seat.
Turns out I was onto something.
Having just attended a silent Vipassana (the Pali word for "insight") meditation retreat at Spirit Rock Retreat Center in woodsy Woodacre, CA, I can now report that sitting still and doing nothing was in fact the primary activity on my summer vacation. Going nowhere -- i.e. walking back and forth across a room -- was also prominently featured. Sleeping, at least for me, made only a cameo appearance, leaving that much more time for doing nothing.
The absence of talking or even eye contact among us 'yogis' revealed how quickly we judge others without knowing a thing about them. At the opening dinner, I saw someone cut in line in the dining room, and my mind instantly created a vivid story about what a jerk the guy was. Then I observed, just a few seconds later, that he was one of the cooks, replenishing a colorful salad.
At a retreat several years ago I conjured what the teachers call a VR (Vipassana Romance) with a fellow retreatant who -- I imagined -- was sitting so peacefully she must have been well on her way to Nirvana. Plus she was cute. I decided to meet this person after the retreat. Sure it was a long shot, but it had to be better than the purgatory of JDate.
I came down the mountain and rewarded myself. First, after a week of mindful vegetarian eating -- chewing slowly, making sure to take breaths between bites -- I guiltlessly wolfed down a tasty turkey on rye with mustard from Art's Deli. Second, I arranged lunch with my VR. She insisted we meet at a vegan restaurant, which set off a small intolerance alarm in my head.
As we perused our menus, she waxed poetic about the astonishing peacock-like wild turkeys that had flown and walked among us at the retreat. But I knew the VR was DOA when she began shrieking with the righteous indignation of a Fundamentalist about how furious she was that anyone could even think about eating turkey. Okay, maybe she wasn't shrieking -- these retreats tend to make one ultra-sensitive to outside stimuli. Still...
Doing nothing for a week can be boring and even downright painful. So why do we do it? For one thing, we emerge with clearer eyes, more alertness and sounder sleep. But something more profound also goes on.
On the fifth night of last week's retreat, as we gathered in deep, shared silence in the magnificence of the Spirit Rock meditation hall, our teacher read softly from a New York Times piece by author Robert Wright (The Moral Animal and, most recently, The Evolution of God). In it, Wright, initially a skeptic, described the fifth night of a Vipassana retreat he'd just attended: "I had an experience that... involved ... experiencing the structure of my mind -- in a new way, and in a way that had great meaning for me. And, happily, this experience was accompanied by a stunningly powerful blast of bliss. All told, I don't think I've ever had a more dramatic moment."
When things at Spirit Rock got a bit precious -- what with all the forgiveness, compassion, and loving kindness -- I tended to space out and play with a sneaking suspicion I've long harbored. After the teachers and monks send us off to toss and turn -- with no books, music or TV for distraction -- they repair to a secret party lounge, where they drink beer, smoke weed, crank up Nirvana -- the band -- and crack each other up with lines like, "Can you believe those suckers bought into that mindfulness crap?"
Even if others do party on their summer vacations while we suffer, I'll take the payoff. You don't have to meditate or be a Buddhist to know that out of suffering joy can emerge. As that great American Yogi -- Berra -- said, "If the world was perfect, it wouldn't be."
Some things are perfect, though. Three years ago, not long after my Vipassana crush was crushed, I met the perfectly beautiful love of my life. On JDate.