“Meditation is not a way of making your mind quiet. It’s a way of entering into the quiet that’s already there – buried under the 50,000 thoughts the average person thinks every day.” ~ Deepak Chopra
I generally try, with varying levels of success, to not pay too much attention to the voices – the thousands of thoughts – inside my head. But some thoughts are harder to ignore than others.
Four weeks before the retreat and one week before the pregnancy test, en route back to California for work, a voice inside my head had clearly said, “You’re going to have a son and his name is Jon Daniel.”
This was news to me. After all, I didn’t want biological children and had recently been diagnosed as fertility-challenged. Plus, I wasn’t seeing anyone. (Well, except for that one final night with the Viking. He had come over, lamenting about the state of his life, culminating with, “I just want a family! I’m meant to be a father!” among other culminations.)
While I knew I couldn’t have a son, I did wonder if perhaps this voice meant that I was supposed to adopt a son. And I was actually excited about that idea.
But, like so many things involving the Viking, I had misunderstood this too. A few days later in my Los Angeles hotel room, a positive pregnancy test confirmed that the proclamation was to be taken quite literally. I was actually going to have a son. And his proclamation was to be taken quite literally too. He was actually meant to be a father. Though, as he would repeatedly remind me going forward: I was not the mother nor this the child he had meant.
Over a year before my own pregnancy, he’d had a quiet pregnancy with the 22 year old. It was, apparently, planned– as much as one can plan a daughter with someone young enough to be their daughter. Near the end of the first trimester, after the first ultrasound, and after picking out a name; they had an argument and she abruptly had an abortion. It devastated him.
I couldn’t compete with that either, not that I was anti-abortion. I had volunteered with “Students for Choice” in college and had always assumed that were I to get pregnant and the timing or relationship weren’t correct, it was a choice I would be willing to make. Of course, I genuinely hoped to never be in a situation to have to choose, and I hadn’t ever been– up until now. I knew the timing absolutely was not correct for my career, and the only relationship that seemed to be happening was the chaotic one between the Viking and the 22 year old. Choosing a termination seemed like it should be the right choice and one that I would want to make as soon as possible. But it’s never an easy choice.
I was only two weeks past conception; yet, I could already feel the soft energy of this new life inside my body. I began to worry if the long hours and heavy lifting required of my current workload would result in a miscarriage. I found myself surprisingly scared of this outcome.
I wasn’t sure if it was because I wanted this baby or if I simply didn’t want to feel responsible for the end of this baby.
I began to talk to the soft energy.
Hang in there. We are almost to the other side of this, and then we will figure out what we’re going to do.
I was surprised to realize that we had already become a “we.”
The day after my Los Angeles project finished, I woke up and the soft energy was gone. I worriedly called my mom, and she told me not to worry, that sometimes all pregnancies go quiet. I said a prayer promising that I would love and have this child if given the chance and later that day the soft energy returned, much to my delight.
Integrity can be defined as the promises we are willing to make and keep, and so the choice was now made. Jon Daniel, whom I would later nickname JoJo, would have to accompany me on what would be his first -and my second- silent meditation retreat, which is commonly marketed as 10 days, but realistically it lasts 12 days– if you understand how to calculate silent meditation retreats.
The retreat is – as the name suggests – spent in silence, with no talking or even eye contact allowed. You do – as the name suggests – meditate, for about 11 hours each day, with 90 other people sitting in clean rows of assigned spaces. You start at 4:30AM and end around 10PM, which offers plenty of time each day to decide that you absolutely hate silently meditating and you desperately plot your escape back into the numbing distractions of civilization. Or maybe that’s just me.
All this is to say that it is not – despite what the name might suggest – a retreat, in any restorative sense. There is no relaxation, no respite from anything that ails you. In fact, in all of that silence and meditation there is nothing to keep you company except for the very ailments themselves– the physical, emotional, and mental discomforts that we often try so hard to avoid tend to view this as an ideal opportunity to come forward with great enthusiasm.
After a few hours of silence without the favored distractions of talking, writing, reading, watching, scrolling, or even cleaning, you begin to get bored. So bored that you actually miss cleaning. After boredom generally comes restlessness, then loneliness, followed by an insatiable urge to check your phone, which is wisely locked away. And for me, by the third day, everything had turned into anger. A lifetime of repressed feelings began bubbling up into a fiery rage with nowhere to go. Every part of me felt consumed by this one emotion: my chest constricting, my hips burning, and my mind seething, especially fixated on the patriarchy and how it creates men like my son’s father and bras like the ones I could no longer fit, neither of which were offering adequate support around this miracle of motherhood.
I’d take a deep breath and remind myself that I was supposed to be meditating, not mentally changing social structures and garments. Instead of screaming about the unfairness of it all – which is what I would have most liked to do in those moments – I would obediently sit in the dimly lit, slightly chilly room, learning to be present – but not react- to everything I felt. It was a practice in accepting challenging experiences like silence, anger, and being female.
This gave rise to the next feeling: shame. I began swirling through years of emotional baggage and this new little Jon Daniel entity was witnessing all of it.
This was not the first impression I had wanted to make on him. Based on his pre-determined name – which seemed Biblical or possibly presidential – I assumed he was the dignified sort. My hope of being a cool, calm, totally pulled together mother who was basically on the verge of enlightenment from doing two – yes, two! – silent meditation retreats was quickly crumbling.
I began apologizing to JoJo by sending him psychic messages, assuring him that I’m not usually like this, I swear. Since I had no one else to talk to during this time, these messages became longer and stronger. I began asking him questions.
So, who are you?
Why are you here?
Why did you choose me?
I wanted him to know that I had also chosen him – chosen to keep him.
No pressure or anything.
I wanted him to know that even though we had only recently met, I was already madly in love with him. Also no pressure.
He never did reply. He was clearly a better silent meditator than I was. Or, maybe he was just like his father– uninterested in a woman professing her love much too quickly, or at all.
We were often supposed to remain entirely motionless for an hour at a time, which is endlessly harder than it sounds (try it). As soon as I would commit myself to stillness, I would suddenly have the most intense need to fidget, to change my posture, or to scratch an unbearable itch which would instantly appear on my head. It simultaneously would be accompanied by every emotion imaginable, most especially anger. I’d try to ignore all of these along with my aching back, my urgent need to check my text messages, and my left foot, which would without fail, fall asleep during every single meditation. And this was all within the first 3 minutes.
I still consider these hours of stillness some of the most miserable experiences I’ve ever had.
The theory of this technique, which I am not at all qualified to explain,is to overcome the weaknesses of the mind and to challenge the misguided belief that what we see and think and feel is in any way real, no matter how real that sleeping left foot feels.
The idea is that we transcend suffering when we no longer associate pain and discomfort with being something bad; instead of trying to avoid difficult moments, we can accept them as natural and frequently occurring parts of life, allowing us to be at peace regardless of our circumstances.
The theory sounded fantastic to me.
Having suffered through my share of traumas, failed romances, significant deaths, and a general horror at the destruction of humanity and our planet– I was eager and willing to work towards transcension no matter what it involved. However, it’s hard to understand how long 60 minutes can feel until you’ve remained perfectly still through each 60 of those minutes. Every second is, as it turns out, actually an eternity. Every part of your body and mind scream to change something about this situation, anything about this situation.
I didn’t know which was worse: the pain of being human or the pain of trying to transcend being human.
During my first retreat, the year before and right after my last major break up, I would cry every day. I didn’t know if it was from the pain of my broken heart or the pain of the solid floor. Maybe it was both.
This went on, day after day, until about 30 minutes into one of those hours of stillness something unexpected happened.
I suddenly realized all of my suffering was in my mind. Like, literally.
For the first time, I truly understood beyond intellectualization- on a deep, cellular level- that everything I saw and felt was just neutral information, neither good nor bad. My mind either exploded or paused – or maybe both – and then almost instantly the immense pain and discomfort from both the physical and emotional all vanished. I knew in a very real way that none of this human experience – including that sleeping left foot – was real, and so it all stopped being real to me. It all stopped hurting.
These kinds of profound insights are part of why many of us meditate. We hope to be changed by some sweeping and transformative experience, and sometimes we actually are changed, at least until we return to real life (or unreal life, depending on how we look at it). Then somehow we forget to remember what we had learned.
Based on my recent choices in men, I had definitely forgotten everything I knew– which is why I was once again back at a silent meditation retreat, back in the middle of so much pain and discomfort, plus now incredibly nauseous and angry- which all seemed very real to me.
We were given 6 hours off each night, but even with my first trimester exhaustion sleep continued to elude me. My mind was in overdrive, the inability to express myself through words or gestures amplifying every stagnant idea floating through it, leaving me especially worried about JoJo’s future.
Did I know how to raise a good man?
Would he be happy without his father?
Would he be safe with his father?
Would he be safe anywhere amongst the general destruction of our humanity and planet?
I decided to spend the rest of my pregnancy making plans to protect him from the violence in his father’s home and the violence in the world. I would get lawyers to help with custody, and then I would get singularly focused on making our whole world a habitable place for a child, for my child, and for my next generation. I knew this was perhaps a bit outside my paygrade, but I wanted – more than anything I’d ever wanted – for my son to be safe.
While I was spending these silent days fluctuating between anger and fear and trying to overcome my sleeping left foot, JoJo had remained quiet and still. I wondered if maybe he was working on his own plans for the world as well.
By the time we left the retreat, I still hadn’t found any radical insights. But, when we arrived back home, I finally felt prepared for motherhood and our future, and perhaps that was a transcension in and of itself.