Lately I've been getting that feeling with unnerving frequency. I've been feeling doubts about how I spend my time, doubts about the state of gender equality, doubts about what success looks like and what it actually is, doubts about the future of the planet...you know, the small questions. They pop into my head and I suddenly feel like I'm looking over the edge of a high precipice. Everyone else has safely distanced themselves from the ledge, and there I am with a foot on crumbly ground that might fall into the sea at any minute. My heart beats faster and my breathing gets a little shallow. I peer over the edge, and I wonder how much longer the ground will hold.
I know, it sounds dramatic. My emotional tone is sometimes like Woody Allen trapped in Lululemon pants. I'm sure my buddy, Laurel, would be glad to attest to that.
Because I'm not at the ledge, at all.
I'm nowhere near it. I'm actually mostly driving my white minivan (aka Big Marshmallow) padded by safety on all sides. But lately, I've been wondering if I've somehow gotten snared into the 2013 version of The Feminine Mystique.
Is it just me?
It turns out, this is the perfect question to take on retreat, which would not surprise my teacher, who would probably say something like retreat is the right place for all questions.
(Zen is so weird like that, so empty, so pointless, really, that there is space for anything and everything under the sun. I don't really get it, and if I did I probably wouldn't end up on retreat.)
Because if you're lucky, you've never been on one of these retreats.
They are long, physically challenging, and excruciatingly boring. You only end up at one of them if you've exhausted all of the other options. (Note: this was not my first retreat. I got to the point of exhausting all my other options sometime in 2001, and since then, I don't waste time with the other options, or at least I waste less time with the other options and then I just go because it works for me. I can't explain it, and half the time I don't even believe it will help, but I just go). The lingering feeling is that retreat is good, very good (the blog I wrote before leaving proves that I was actually looking forward to this experience). But it's kind of a trick of the mind, because before it is good it can be hard, very hard.
When I packed the car on Saturday I was all happy like I was about to go do something fun. I had even invited a friend, a real girlfriend road trip. Fun. And then the sitting began. And it was long. Physically challenging. And, excruciatingly boring. Relief came in the form of silent, brisk walking in a circle around the edge of the conference room in which we were sitting. Consider yourself lucky that you weren't the friend I roped into this.
Because what good could ever come of sitting still, in some degree of discomfort, for a really long time? I'm not exactly sure how I would describe it, but the word basic comes to mind, basic good.
1. Food tastes good.
I experienced this the last time on retreat too. It turns out sitting still and attempting to focus your mind is actually physically draining. I think the last few times I felt that kind of hunger was after delivering my third child and after running a half marathon. I'm not kidding.
When that kind of hunger meets simple, well-prepared food...well, I think it could be one reason why the monks say that enlightenment comes cleaning the rice bowl. No big mystical thing. There is just simple comfort in basic needs being met. Period. Nothing extra. Just that. The delight of food when you are hungry.
2. What you need to do is clear.
There are instructions for everything. How to sit down, how to stand up. When to bow. Even what to say when you meet your teacher. No need to be creative or stand out or be "attention getting" whatever that means. When you meet your teacher you say your name and tell your teacher what your practice is (the teacher will even tell you what your practice is--it's counting your breath). The only think you need to know is your name. Check!
You don't have to think. This is the point. When, in your adult life, has someone told you not to think? People say don't worry about it. But what that sometimes feels like is that what worries you is not really important to the other person. This is different. Something else is allowed to be in charge. In fact, thousands of years of tradition has figured this out for you. In Silicon Valley terms, this is "big data;" generations of information passed down in a specific set of instructions. All you have to do is show up and let the process work you. This is simple, but far from easy. The hard part is believing that just following the instruction is enough. That somehow, saying your name and stating your practice will somehow help answer all of these big overwhelming questions. I'm still not sure how I feel about this. But one thing I am sure about--I know my name. I have no idea how my presence on the planet might contribute to answering those big hairy questions, but at least I know my name. In the spirit of doing what I can--when the minimum requirement is knowing my name--at least I have a place to start.
3. You are not alone.
We were given time to ask questions after sitting. One woman said, "Here's the thing, when I get bored, I have all of these things I start to think about. Things I kind of like to think about. What's that about?" Another woman said, "When we practiced with our eyes open it got boring. And I started finding these animals in the pattern of the carpet. I saw zebras and I thought of my autistic son and what he sees." Another woman, one of the priests there said, "I saw those animals too." And there was great comfort in that. We were all bored. Our minds all did the same things when we were bored. They wandered, they looked for an interesting story or decision to chew on. We realized we all live with this kind of mind, and just knowing that minds do this can be reassuring and helpful.
So is it just me living with my Woody Allen in Lululemon pants in my head? Well, I think the answer is probably yes and no. Yes, other people are being harped at by other voices inside their heads, and probably yes, there might be other women wondering if they've somehow landed in a post-feminist gender role fun house. And well, as for Woody Allen in Lululemons, I hope the voice in your head is a little less neurotic than that. I hope you don't worry about doing enough for your kids, or doing too much for your kids, or if it's ok to buy strawberries that aren't organic, or if the kids on the other side of the highway are getting a decent education, or if the one plastic bottle of water you just bought is going to be the thing that tips our environment over the edge, or gives you cancer, or chokes a seal or something like that. I hope you don't have a friend or a loved one who is facing a serious health challenge. I hope no one you know lost their child, or their mother, or their brother. I hope you never suffer these losses yourself, and I hope you never worry if your about whether or not your life is on the right track, because I tell you, that particular one can really get my Woody Allen stuffed into Lululemon pants going, because of course, if I'm not on the right track it must be all my own fault. Well, anyway, if none of that ever bothers you, consider yourself lucky. You'll definitely be able to resist when I reach out and ask you if you want to go on a retreat with me. For the rest of you, I promise I won't lie and tell you it's really super fun. That it will be awesome and you'll feel so empowered (not that I have a problem with you feeling empowered). What I can tell you is that it will be good, basically good, and that if all you know about your life right now is your name, well that will be a very encouraging place to start.