On the Big Screen in Onalaska

We are at a meditation center for a ten-day silent retreat. I use the word retreat so that people will get a sense of what I mean, but everyone here calls it “a course” because it is terribly hard work. We are up at 4 am, in bed by 9:30pm, with ten hours of seated meditation in between. In theory, one is supposed to be meditating the entire seventeen-and-a-half hours, but this is difficult because one likes to nap.

We arrived here in Onalaska, Washington on the winter solstice and will stay, all 120 of us, until New Year’s Day. It is the darkest, coldest, and for some the loneliest, time of year. Loneliness visits each of us for different reasons, but separation is always at its core: separation from loved ones, from those we have lost, from the lives we had hoped to lead. And during the holiday season especially, there is a separation from the natural order. Year’s end is a time for taking stock, a time when the energy of the plant is in its root, waiting, growing stronger before it can send up new life. For many of us, though, the energy of drawing inward and downward has been replaced by the profligate spending, overindulgence, guilt, expectation, and obligations of the holidays. It feels like a privilege to be here at this time, engaged in the work of quiet contemplation and introspection to which the darkness and the coldness lend themselves.

It is difficult to explain what can happen to your mind during a ten-day course. Evolutionarily speaking, our brains were designed to keep us out of danger, to anticipate the attack of whatever might be hiding in the bushes. Its job is to analyze the past and to project many steps ahead, to remain vigilant against would-be threats, to imagine the worst and to plan accordingly. Unfortunately, our minds have not evolved to modern life, which is why when you receive a negative performance review from your boss, you have the same physiological response as you would if you were being chased by a lion. The mind still believes that everything is a life-or-death scenario. And given that belief, it will do anything to prevent you from quieting it down. You’ll die if I don’t keep watch. So in the beginning of a course the mind revolts. It creates problems you don’t have to show you how essential it is to your survival.

It tells you that you left the stove on at your house 90 miles away and that if you don’t drive home right now to check on it, you will return in ten days to a pile of charred rubble. It tells you that your grandmother, whom you love more than almost anyone on earth and who was in perfect health when you left to come here, is definitely going to die during the ten days that you have chosen to turn off your phone. It will remind you of every person you have ever wronged, even the ones from junior high, and tell you that they are still very upset with you and that the only way to fix it is to think about what you’ve done and to make yourself feel as bad about it as you can for as long as possible. It will make you ravenous for the bacon lettuce avocado and fried egg sandwich with herbed aioli that comes on homemade gluten-free toast at the French café two blocks from your house, which you could be eating right now if you weren’t trying to meditate. It recruits your body to stir up trouble, sending headaches and nausea, pains and spasms to places you’ve never before been aware of. It will wake you in the middle of the night from a dead sleep to insist that you write down the phrase “Vim Vigor and Wim Wenders went for a walk in the woods,” and it will keep repeating it over and over inside your head until you go quietly mad.

This is why we call it a course instead of a retreat.

If you work diligently, though, if are kind to yourself, if you thank your addled mind for doing its job the best way it knows how, it will slowly, over days, begin to quiet down. And without the constant chatter of the mind, without its deluded panicked urgency, you have access to what is stored in the body. It is not uncommon to be meditating and then to be overwhelmed, suddenly and powerfully, by an emotion or memory, which come up like bubbles to the surface of a still lake.

During my first course, I began to cry without preamble in the meditation hall because I had an awareness that my dog, Roshi, whom my husband and I had rescued, was going to die. Not that day, or even soon. But someday. And as one of the people responsible for her, I would have to preside over her death, and I had never presided over the death of anything before. It was not a worry sent by my scheming mind; it was a knowing. I cried for the day she would leave us, and the sadness moved through me, and then it was gone.

A few years later, at my second course, I walked back to my room one afternoon and saw a doe and her fawn foraging in the patch of grass outside the women’s residence. The fawn, gentle and rust-colored, reminded me of Roshi, who had died six months earlier. The loss had been enormous; I had spent more time in her company than with any other creature, including my husband. I had loved her and cared for her and she had relied on me and I had attended to her lifeless body as had I feared years before that I would have to. But she had died peacefully in her sleep after a day at the river, her last sweet gift to us. We buried her by moonlight on my parents’ property and it was beautiful and good.

Six months after her death, I still felt the rawness of her absence. When I saw the fawn, I felt as though Roshi was there with me and that it was time to finish missing her. I wept, ten feet from that beautiful creature, and the sadness moved through me and then it was gone.

Part of the magic of this place is that it is a dedicated meditation center, so the grounds are hallowed and peaceful. The center is surrounded by ranch land where cows are pastured for food. Though I am a ravenous carnivore at home, we eat a vegetarian diet here. Everyone walks quietly on the land and no one has violence on their lips, so the wildlife have no fear of us.

It is part of our meditation practice to sit for an hour at a time without moving, so we are able to remain still for long periods. It is a regular occurrence when deer are roaming the grounds to find five or ten meditators standing motionless in a circle around them, like a human sundial. The deer do not startle. Their heads perk up and their ears rotate at the sounds of the neighbor’s tractors and nearby dogs, but their experience with humans on this property is a harmonious and unthreatening one. I am often part of the sundial and can get close enough to the deer to hear their teeth gnashing clumps of grass.

Growing up, I had never heard anyone speak of Grace or sacraments. Jews do not use these words nor do we, as far as I can tell, have terms analogous. It is only from reading Andre Dubus and Barbara Kingsolver and Henri Nouwen that I am beginning to understand what these words mean, and I am glad to have a way to describe experiences that were previously indescribable. Here’s the closest I can come: when I see a deer, it feels like God is looking right at me. It feels like I am receiving the qualities of stillness, quietude, gracefulness, curiosity, and gentleness from the deer as sacraments—the same sacraments I receive from being at the meditation center at this time of year. When I am in the presence of the deer, I feel held by these qualities and by the force from which they arise.

This course is my third, and one afternoon I find two adolescent deer, without maternal supervision, lying in the grass outside of my bedroom. I have come across many matted down deer beds in fields of tall grass throughout my life—which is to say evidence of deer having laid down—but I have never witnessed a deer lying down in front of me, in its most vulnerable state, unafraid.

I think back to the previous course, almost a year ago to the day, when I saw the fawn that reminded me of Roshi. This stirs up the well of unfinished sorrow that I have brought with me this year, a pain unimaginable by last year’s standards. 

During one of the evening lectures, my meditation teacher describes four different kinds of people: those who are born in darkness and spend their lives running toward darkness, those who are born in light and spend their lives running toward darkness, those who are born in darkness and spend their lives running toward the light, and those who are born in the light and spend their lives running towards the light. We aim to be in one of the latter two categories. My husband, my favorite person on earth, has for many years been running toward the darkness. I believed, for all those years beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he would follow me into the light. It was my long-held belief that any person, given the opportunity, would choose a life of celebration and happiness over a life of misery.

One day three months ago, it became clear to me that he was never going to make that choice, due either to an unwillingness or an inability, it matters not. I knew it to be true in the way that your body knows things your brain cannot reconcile. And so I left.

The sadness does not move through me. It rests on my chest like a weight that grows heavier with every breath. It is the first time in my life that I have more pain than I have resources to deal with it. I am a ten gallon tank into which someone has tried to dump forty gallons of heartache, and surely it will kill me. Most days I hope it does.

I have come here to try to unburden myself, to pour off a few gallons of the overflow, to lift a few pounds from my chest. At least once a day I have had to walk out of a group meditation so that my sobbing does not disrupt the others. I go back to my room and heave into my pillow. I can feel the grief moving, but it is not like before. Staying with it, looking it square in the eye, is not enough to make it go away. That is the difference between sadness and grief. But I am learning that it is the staying with it that matters. You don’t need to make it go away, you need only let it rip you open to see what happens next.

It is hard not to feel that loss is everywhere. As I get older, I see that it is as much a part of life as living is. For so long, life is about acquisition: knowledge, understanding, skills, friends, possessions, relationships. Then, it becomes about letting go. Over and over and over. And this place helps with that. It is painful, but it is also a great help to have a time each year set aside for saying goodbye.

Every day here is a lesson in impermanence. As I walk to the meditation hall at 4:30am, the crescent moon still hangs from the night before. The tall tufts of unmowed grass at the edge of the walking paths are crusted with frost. By lunchtime, the frost has melted into fat drops that cling to the sides of vertical stalks in defiance of gravity. The moon is a memory. The deer come most afternoons and I sit on a bench and watch them groom each other and chew their cud and play for most of an hour, a mug full of hot tea tucked between my legs. There is a wistfulness to my gaze. The deer will be gone soon, just like the moon, the frost, the life I had hoped to lead.

When I walk out of the meditation hall in the evenings to the fully starred night sky—a privilege denied to me in the city where I live—I often burst into tears. The beauty travels to all the places where my heart is broken, and it can be too much to bear. The tears come because the sky is so vast and I am so small and life is a miracle and one day I will be gone, like everything else.

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