The Buddha slipped out of his palace in the middle of the night to become a spiritual seeker. But disentangling from the modern world to go on a meditation retreat, says Enlightenment for Idiots author Anne Cushman, can be a little more complicated.
A few days ago I was chagrined to get an email from the Registrar at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, reminding me for the third time that I had not yet sent in the paperwork and payment for my upcoming month-long meditation retreat.
It’s not the only thing that has fallen through the cracks lately. I recently handed in my manuscript for a book about mindfulness practice for yoga practitioners – galumphing across the finish line just before deadline — and here’s one thing I can tell you for sure: writing a book about mindfulness is not the same as living a mindful life.
Everywhere I look is chaos: piles of unwashed laundry, piles of unanswered emails, friends not called back for months, dead grass in the yard, prehistoric pasta growing mold in the back of the fridge. My upper back is in knots and my sacrum is askew from hours at the computer writing about yoga postures; my brain is overloaded with words about wordless presence.
Going on retreat is like re-enacting on a small scale the renunciation of the Buddha when he slipped out of his palace in the middle of the night to become a wandering seeker, without waking his wife and son to say goodbye (or even putting an auto-response about his impending absence on his email). I’m longing to sit under the soaring dome of the meditation hall as winter rains drum on the roof, to do walking meditation through hills dotted with spring wildflowers. I’m ready for a shamanic journey into the wilderness of my heart and mind. And I’m fantasizing about all the things that won’t be there: Credit card statements. Impenetrable applications for health insurance. An unread copy of Social Media for Dummies.
My hardcore meditator friends have been sitting months at a stretch in mountain hermitages and Burmese temples, riding the samadhi elevator into deeper and deeper levels of absorption. Meanwhile I’ve been juggling my formal practice with my life as a divorced working mom of a 13-year-old boy, struggling to remember to stay present as I take out the recycling. I’ve gotten special permission to sit the month-long retreat as a commuter, coming home at night to keep my family life going. It’s a rare opportunity and I don’t want to blow it.
I fire off an apologetic email to the Registrar and hit Print on the registration forms.
My computer informs me it is looking for my wireless printer, which is sitting on the desk a few feet away, its lights blinking enigmatically. The printer has been odd lately — fulfilling certain requests enthusiastically, ignoring others altogether, mysteriously waking up in the middle of the night to crank out documents that had been sent to it days before. This time, my computer lets me know after a few minutes that the printer is “offline.”
After restarting both devices and muttering a few off-color mantras, I call in my partner, Teja — a guitarist and qigong teacher with computer chops he picked up in his years running a recording studio. After a few minutes, he informs me that my printer driver software is four generations behind.
Well, of course it is. Software Update had rudely interrupted me again and again while I was writing. I always clicked on the button that said Go Away I’m Busy Writing About Mindfulness.
Teja begins installing my new drivers. After a few minutes he asks, “Is your modem always this slow?”
Oh, right. I vaguely recall a voicemail from Comcast a few months back, telling me my modem needed replacing. I dig up the voicemail and follow its instructions to an online upgrade.
But what is my Comcast password? I can’t remember—and they can’t send me a re-set message because the email address on file belongs to an account I closed two years ago after it was hacked by someone in Liberia (who greatly alarmed my 91-year-old father with their mass email about my mugging in Madrid).
Comcast offers me a password hint: What’s the name of your favorite pet? Easy! I triumphantly enter the name of my cat, the only pet I’ve had in the last 40 years.
I try again, with a capital letter.
Could it be Teja’s cat? Or the horse I owned when I was 11 years old? Or the one I’d had before that, that my father bought when I was 9 because she had the same name as my mother, then sold after she bit me and scraped me off under a tree?
No, no, and no.
A text chat box opens up from a Comcast representative: What can I help you with?
I want to go on a silent retreat!!! I type.
Who is my favorite pet? I demand.
Nothing on my screen but what my son calls “the spinning beach ball of doom.”
“Well,” Teja points out tactfully. “Your modem is really, really, slow.”
I call the phone number at the bottom of the screen. Due to high call volume, a recorded voice informs me, my wait time will be 53 minutes.
Well, at least that’s better than when I called my insurance company recently and was told that my wait would be 917 hours. I think of my psychotherapist friend who came off a silent retreat a few years ago—feeling practically enlightened—and while driving home got into a screaming match on her cellphone with her Internet provider. I key in my phone number to receive an automated call back.
Just then my friend and business partner, Janice, shows up at my door. She is there to discuss the online meditation and yoga course we are planning through our site Awakening As Women on the theme of “Creating Space.” (How do you create space and ease in the midst of your busy life? We offer helpful tips…
We crank through our list of challenges: The website. The delivery platform. The social media–especially challenging for the two of us, who suffer from what Janice has dubbed MDD—Marketing Deficit Disorder.
The phone rings.
“We can definitely get you a new modem,” the Comcast representative assures me. “But we notice that you don’t get cable service—just phone and internet. Would you like to upgrade?”
“I don’t watch television,” I tell her.
“Yes, ma’am. But we have a special offer that will save you ten dollars a month over what you are paying now—and will deliver 179 channels of programming.”
No! I want to go on silent retreat! I will happily pay you ten dollars a month NOT to deliver me 179 channels of programming! Instead, recognizing her accent, I ask, “Where are you calling from?”
“I am in Kolkata.”
Calcutta! Janice and I traveled there together, six years ago, when I was doing the final research for my novel, Enlightenment for Idiots. We boated down the Ganges past the Ramakrishna ashram. We took a night train to Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha got enlightened under a tree 2500 years ago. Along with monks and nuns from around the world, we prostrated ourselves at the roots of that tree and the mysteries that it represents—these human bodies and hearts, this improbable and fantastic human life.
Get off the phone! I want to tell the Comcast rep. Get on a train to Bodh Gaya instead! I’ll meet you there!
Instead, I tell her I don’t want the upgrade, but to send the new modem right away.
The new modem still hasn’t been delivered. But the cable box for my upgrade arrived in the mail a few days later. It’s sitting on the floor in the corner of my office, still in its package, the gateway to an almost infinite world of distraction.
Maybe, when I get back from retreat, I’ll have time to send it back.
As a writer and teacher of yoga and Buddhist meditation, Anne Cushman explores the poignant intersection between the inspirational ideals of spiritual practice and the gritty, comical, chaotic, and heartbreaking details of ordinary life. Visit her online.