One of my don’t-call-it-a-bucket-list items for this year was to attend a retreat. I didn’t know what I meant at the time. I’m not exactly the white-towels-and-green-juice kinda girl. Also not into chanting or prayer beads or sun worship or fasting or self-flagellation or tithing or obeying rules for my sexual activity. I’m rude and irreverent, I swear a lot, I’m a feminist, and definitely down with the gays. Scriptures of any stripe might as well be chloroform, and houses of worship hold about as much meaning to me as supermarkets and bowling alleys. Given all of this, not a lot of churches would have me even if I did believe in God. Which I don’t, and I think that’s maybe a fundamental requirement.
But this is something I wanted to do anyway, because if there’s anything in this world that I worship, it’s alone time. So I booked a stay in an Airbnb Airstream outside of San Francisco and signed up for a course in somatic experiencing at the Green Gulch Farm branch of the SF Zen Center. What is somatic experiencing? I wasn’t sure at the time, I just needed a course that fit into my scheduled weekend. But it ended up being serendipitously useful, because somatic experiencing is all about staying in the moment with your body — something that was nearly impossible for me before I stopped regularly meditating a few years ago.
Back in the day I used to meditate regularly. I really felt that I’d come home to something after the complicated experience of leaving the Mormon church. But eventually the experience of sitting still and tunneling down into my breath became overwhelming, and I gave it up. I’d meditate in a bullshit way from time to time — never more than a few minutes at a time and always superficially — but it was no longer a capitalized Practice.
Shortly after I quit my desk job I found myself thinking about my old practice. I have never been able to fully explicate all the reasons I quit my job, but they were not happy reasons. To friends I may have simply expressed that it was a stressful environment, and I might also have let them believe that starting my business was closely linked to my resignation — but they were not really related. I quit my job with no real plans, much less starting a business. The stressful environment, even, was not the most fundamental reason why I quit. I quit because of serious interpersonal conflict. And when I really confronted that reality, I had to wonder if I would have been so severely impacted if I’d still been practicing at that time. Practice provided a special lens through which to examine my experiences and environment and reactions, and I lost that when I stopped practicing. I could see the truth but only from a distance — it wasn’t intimate anymore.
So I attended this course with the hopes that it would provide some resources if I decided to practice again in a serious way. I stayed with my social anxiety instead of letting it carry me out of the class and away from all those strangers. I talked to a very cool lady from Oakland, and another cool lady from Manhattan. I listened as others in the class talked about abuse, illness, injury, divorce, estrangement, unemployment, homelessness, death, anxiety, fear, anger, exhaustion, alienation, worthlessness, depression, isolation, and war. I didn’t contribute much myself and I could feel the teacher wanting to draw me out, but like any white girl I just can’t even in those settings. I still got quite a lot out of it, though.
I also went to the beach. I drew a little, wrote a little, and mostly just tried to be still for a while. I envisioned with perfect clarity the changes I needed to bring my life into balance. And then I came home and fucked it all up.
That’s the problem with retreating. You slip into another level of consciousness that makes everything seem open and timely and honest, but it’s all bullshit and a lie. So you think, never again will I say goddammit in front of my child, I shall not ever be annoyed in traffic, I will rise early and contemplate meaningfully the writings of Shunryu Suzuki before sitting before my organic unsweetened muesli and almond milk, eating just enough and no more and then placidly walking to work at my nonprofit start-up, or perhaps I will drive in my tiny electric vehicle but I’ll make a donation to a carbon offset company to compensate for the production materials. But what really happens is that eight minutes after you walk through the door, your kids start fighting over who gets to use one of twelve identical lead pencils, you get pissed off and yell THEY’RE THE SAME DAMN PENCILS JUST STOP, for breakfast you eat three bagels, two with factory-farmed cream cheese and one with non-organic peanut butter, and down a pot of coffee which makes you jitter and jump through your day until you go out with friends where you gossip mercilessly for three hours, swearing up a storm and telling several outrageous lies while consuming four margaritas and two shots and by the way that was dinner.
So what is retreating good for anyway? I could give you something laden with corporate mindfulness buzzwords and maybe that would be inspiring, but the only reminder I got out of this retreat is that meditation practice is a serious fucking drag. It’s boring, it’s painful, it’s a lot of sitting and doing nothing with very few insights along the way, it’s itchy and your ass goes numb, you’re far too aware of the roll around your midsection, and there are a hundred more productive things you should be doing, it’s basically a complete fucking waste of time and that’s exactly why I need it.