How I Learned Humility from trying to “Out-Meditate” Someone.
I woke up at 5 a.m. on the second day of retreat, and after a simple breakfast of oatmeal porridge and green tea, headed to the meditation hall for a day of contemplation with my fellow retreatants.
The day’s practice consisted of periods of silent sitting alternating with mindful walking. The only interruptions were a lunch of salad, freshly baked wheat loaf and a vegetarian soup and then later that evening, a light dinner consisting of soup, bread and fruit or dessert.
I needed the retreat. I run 3East, a unit dedicated to the treatment of suicidal adolescents, and the work is filled with helping young people overcome the suffering of enduring misery and unrelenting suicidality.
The tension of weeks of work continued to evaporate as the day progressed and I looked forward to the evening sitting session before heading off to bed. As the summer light faded the evening birds settled from a day of chirping and singing. Their song had been a delightful source of anchoring attention, and when they stilled, the flickering candles on the altar at the front of the hall barely overcame the darkness that brought with it drooping eyelids and a desire to sleep.
When the session ended, people left the hall one by one, and I fought the desire to head back to my room to sleep. I wanted to sit for a little longer. Pay attention, notice drowsiness, notice that you just had the thought “pay attention,” and get back to your breath.
Struggling with sleepiness, I noticed anxiety, which quickly relented as I refocused on my breath.
Where were you all day? I asked my breath. Always here, answered the breath as I counted breathe in (one) breathe out (one), breathe in (two) breathe out (two) breathe in (three) breathe out (three)…
More people left and again I started to fade.
Soon there were only three of us left in the hall, and a gentle moonlight meandering in through the windows added a touch of wonder to the moment and then the next moment and the next. A summer breeze seemed to come out of nowhere, creeping in through the semi-opened windows, teasing the curtains to join it in a dance.
Oh the joy, the whimsy, the universe at play! One person got up and left quietly, leaving just one fellow traveler in the room with me.
The thought floated by—I wonder if I will be the last to leave? My ego chimed in: you can be the last to leave!
Pride awakened and joined the ego, saying you will have sat here longer than anyone else. I noticed these thoughts, and then gently let them go. Naughty mind, I thought judgmentally and then judged the judging.
Back to breathing. Behind me, the person was sitting behind me to my left. In the gloom of the hall, I glimpsed the outline of my companion through the corner of my eye. They were sitting so very still, although every now and then I sensed them moving rocking back and forth. Half an hour passed. I looked down at my watch. 11:03.
Ego and pride came back—you can do this, you can out-sit them. I protested, this is not about beating anyone! This is not a competition, and besides I have to be up at 4:45.
I can let it go! I decided to call it a very late day and immediately noticed joy arise. My companion had taught me an important lesson that day. He or she had given me the opportunity to notice my rigid attachment to a goal, to notice pride and ego, even while on retreat.
Thank you my companion. My heart exploded with loving kindness for the lesson. With that I got up quietly, straightened my cushion, put my hands together, and bowed slightly towards the altar. Then, I turned to my left with the intention of bowing with gratitude to my teacher. I did so then, realizing only in that moment that there was no one there.
Instead, a large potted shrub in the back of the room swayed gently back and forth in the occasional midnight breeze. I bowed and smiled at the mischief of the universe, and the plant seemed to smile back. I committed to stop by to say hello in the morning.