Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Never Mind Nirvana - I just want to survive (this)

A white hot pain is corkscrewing my hips. My joints alternate between screeching fire at me and whimpering piteously. Severe sleep deprivation makes me hallucinate about pouring iced coffee into my eyes and inserting frozen Ibuprofen pills into my knees. This is Day 1 of my quest for a Whole New Way of Being.
I’m sitting cross-legged with thirty-nine others in the meditation hall at Benburb Priory in County Tyrone, on a Zen Buddhist retreat, on sesshin. Up ahead of me are marathon meditation sessions of around eight hours daily, mercifully with breaks in between. This retreat lasts five days, a sort of taster, it could be said, for the mega sesshins of up to three months.
All I have to do is focus on the breath and keep bringing my attention back to it every time the mind wanders. Try it for two minutes and you’ll see how formidable a task that is. After tens of thousands of attempts to do just this, an image, a vividly coloured image forms in response to my exasperation. I see a butterfly flitting nonchalantly from flower to flower, from thought to thought, and only seldom and only momentarily does it land on the breath, my connection to the Here and Now. I plead and coax but it flits on oblivious. How long can this go on for? Furious, I reach for a fly swat and kill it. I’m alone now with the flowers/thoughts and still no closer to the Here and Now.
In the afternoon I join my co-retreatants in a spot of voluntary work in the garden. My job is to weed the rocks around the pool at a shrine to Our Lady of Lourdes. We work in silence. I get distracted watching tadpoles in the murky waters while I’m uprooting weeds and slip. Wet jeans and boots give me a welcome excuse to withdraw to my room to change and, it must be said, to lie on the bed. There’s still another four hours of meditation to go and I’m utterly exhausted. At 4.00 I’m back in the meditation hall, the zendo, and in despair. I don’t have the stamina it takes to see this to through. The final session of the day finishes at 9.20 and that seems so far away that it might as well be the 25th century. After tea I return to my room and when the others are filing back into the zendo at 7.30 I’m already in a deep sleep.
Day 2 and exasperation gives way to a weary resignation. That butterfly is never going to remain on the breath no matter how much I wheedle. So I turn to face the first of my demons: anger. I rage against regimes that impose solitary confinement as punishment on prisoners. This is inhumane, barbaric. From the darkest recesses a voice scoffs, “But you volunteered for this, my dear.” Furious, I spin around; I see nothing but barren scrubland. Movement catches my attention and there, cowering behind tumbleweed is a target for my fury: the handyman who messed up the wallpapering job I paid him for and scarpered. Out comes the machine gun. Next is the vet who gave my cat Thelma a less than dignified death. A malevolent grin settles on my features and out comes the machete. On the distant horizon I see those-who-shall-not-be-named and advance toward them loading my RPG. And then the butterfly lands on the breath.
Is this the insight I was hoping for? Am I a psychopath? More demons leer at me, ones whose nature I prefer not to disclose. This is hell. Never mind Nirvana, I just want to survive, to get through this sesshin. I promise myself that if this continues for one more day, I’ll pack up and wheel my suitcase down to the bus stop.
Day 3 ushers in the unexpected: energy and enthusiasm. Yes, I can do this, I tell myself as I set out with my co retreatants on our morning stroll. All forty of us black-clad figures file out in silence toward the wooded slopes of the nearby forest. A small child stares, eyes as large as two moons and mouth a perfectly formed O. “They’re weird,” she says to her mother and I’m inclined wonder whether she’s right.
Today is different. Mentally I’m bouncing down the rocky path and gambolling through the glades. Could THIS be it? Am I really out of that dark place and in the light, maybe just a few steps away from enlightenment?  Joy arises spontaneously; I love my companions on this journey; I love the whole world. Returning to the zendo, I’m hopeful that the butterfly will settle on the breath. But no, it’s as evasive as ever. The difference is that now I’m neither exasperated nor resigned. I just notice. Without the histrionics, the scenario is flat but at least it doesn’t leave me questioning my sanity. I collapse into bed wondering – and fearing – what the following day will bring.
Day 4 and I wake feeling ragged and sore. This roller coaster of emotions is gruelling. My hips are sending out warning signals so I take two Ibuprofen as a precaution, but there’s nothing I can do for the mental fatigue. I troop back to my mat in the zendo defeated even before the day starts, in my efforts to gain focus.  Over the course of the next eight hours I go off on a few more trips but the plot is nowhere near as disturbing as Day 2. Impatience and acute boredom gnaw at my determination to remain on the meditation mat. How many times can that butterfly land on the same flowers? How many times can I think the same thoughts?
Day 5, the last in this sesshin. I’m astonished to notice sadness that it’s coming to an end. Without realising it, I was developing a cosy familiarity with my own mind, or was it my spirit, because in Japanese sesshin may be understood as an opportunity to “touch the spirit.” Here in Benburb I’d been offered a refuge, a safe place among caring people in which to do just this. Finally, on this, the last day, the butterfly responds to my entreaties and alights on the breath long enough to fill me with a deep tranquillity and vitality, unlike anything I have ever experienced before. Those demons are far away now but they will come again. The difference is that now I’m grateful in the knowledge that I faced them down day after day and survived. That thought gives me courage. And for this, this courage, I would do certainly it all again and hopefully will.

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