Last Sunday morning I sat cross-legged on a yoga mat in the bottom of a mixed-use condo. Around me were a few dozen people—equally divided between men and women, mostly white, most pushing forty—sprawled out in a semicircle. Towards the front of the room a man in jeans and an oversized hoodie read from his notebook. His greasy brown hair sat just past his shoulders. He had a slight underbite and over enunciated at the end of each sentence. The man’s vibe was simultaneously calm and anxious, like a substitute teacher on ketamine. For the next seven hours he was supposed to be guiding us through silent meditation. Observing from the corner of the room I wasn’t sure he had it in him. The whole point of the exercise was to approach situations with a more open mind, but when I threw down the money to reserve the class it came with certain expectations. The website featured hippies in white linen blissed out around a waterfall. The “Contact Us” page had a bearded man with kind eyes and a lady who looked like Stevie Nicks. That was the type of shit that inspires confidence while choosing a meditation retreat. The fact our leader was just some regular fucking guy in a hoodie was a letdown.
When the man finished reading out instructions for the day he rang a tiny bell. The bell’s vibrations echoed through the room. For a moment everything was still then he asked if there were questions. A lady to my left raised her hand. She was in her 60s, maybe even 70s. She slouched in her chair and spoke with a thick Eastern European accent.
“I have done one other retreat,” she said. As she spoke she tugged at her shirt. “When I got home I could not stop crying. Can you tell me why I could not stop crying?”
Our leader was dumbfounded. He flipped through his notebook, looked at the floor, then asked her to repeat the question.
“I could not stop crying after the last retreat. I was quiet. Then I cried and cried. And I want to know if that’s normal?”
After some more fumbling and another plea to speak up, someone else from the group took over. They put a hand on the lady’s arm and assured her that her experience was perfectly OK. All she was expected to do in that moment was feel her feelings. People around the room began to nod and smile. The man looked relieved. He rang his tiny bell. My eyes rolled so hard I nearly fell over. Feeling our feelings and a bell. The Pavlovian overtones to the whole thing felt too on the nose.
The silent retreat is part of the meditation practice I’ve been cultivating for the last four months. Meditation is a tool I’ve been using to combat stress and anxiety, but like most things that are good for me it also kind of makes me feel like an idiot. Every time I do it—without fail—a little voice whispers in my head: you really believe a quiet sit down is going to make things better? You’re mood has ranged from ambivalent to shitty for the past 30 years, but surely fucking…fucking….breathing will fix it! Despite the internalized hesitation most days I still turn on my Headspace app. I try to follow along. I’ve kept at it mostly because whatever I’d been doing prior to meditation was decidedly not working.
In the past half-year my grandma died, my mom had two surgeries, I spent three months auditioning for a dream job I didn’t get, and went on a break with my partner. That in combination with the daily stresses of volatile freelance gigs, a barrage of news about melting ice caps, and the general malaise of everyday existence has felt like a lot. To combat the dread I have been leaning on my friends more than ever, but to be honest all my friends—pretty much everyone I know—is dealing with the same shit. Burnout, sadness, and anger seem like logical reactions to the general state of affairs, and while we’ve all been doing our best to support each other it’s hard not to feel like we’re collectively pissing into the wind. None of us have any solutions. Repeatedly venting the same complaints can feel cathartic, but it doesn’t really fix anything. That's why I downloaded the meditation app. Because at least meditating—even if it turned out to be bullshit—meant I was being proactive.
As best I understand it, the goal of meditation is to experience our essential being. No thoughts. No distractions. Just a calm present moment awareness. Writing about the concept is difficult because by its nature meditation is inactive. The whole point is to do nothing. In practice what that means is for three to ten minutes a day I sit on my couch and listen to a vaguely British voice recording. The voice gives me prompts about trying not to think. There are long gaps of silence between the prompts. Occasionally it asks me to conjure something pleasant like a ray of light or a perfectly round ball. After the practice is finished the recording explains why what I did was useful using encouraging platitudes.
I am very bad at meditation. I don’t particularly like it. But in the time that I’ve been practicing I have noticed tiny improvements. My mind races slightly less. I’m not quite as angry. My sleep has improved a bit. The improvements are subtle in a way that doesn’t feel particularly satisfying, like the flavour profile on a La Croix. Still, they’re something. When I sheepishly brought up the results to a friend they suggested it was a placebo. At the time I agreed, but considering it more...how would you ever qualify something like that? And did it matter? I mean tricking yourself into feeling better is the whole goddamn point.
While I doubt I’ll become a vocal advocate for meditation—it’s not, for instance, something I ever want to bring up on a date—I’ve been trying to kick my hang ups about the practice. Part of that is a decided attempt to embrace the things I find a bit embarrassing about meditation. The flowing nature. The mantras. The spiritual elements. Because maybe embracing something new could alleviate the active cynicism that peppers my perspective. And maybe that’d be a good thing. That’s the mentality that took me to the silent retreat. Prior to the retreat the longest I had gone meditated was ten minutes, but I figured by moving directly onto a seven-hour slog I would acclimatize to the new ideals faster, like jumping into a pool.
When the Eastern European lady had finished her questions, our greasy haired leader started into the day propper. He suggested a few deep breaths to begin and I clocked the other participants in the room. Whenever I’m involved in a group activity I instantly make it into a competition, even if there is no competitive element involved. I briefly wondered whether I would be the best meditator of the group. Then I remembered that I was supposed to be present and tried to settle into breath. For the next hour or so that was more or less it. Things were very quiet. I tried to be present, got distracted, then tried again. While I had started the morning decidedly worried about the experience, an hour after I was rested and alert. I contemplated if there was a way to bring that same sense of hushed calm to my daily life. Then the person two mats over started to snore and our leader rang his bell again. Just like that my serenity was gone. The leader said our next exercise was a visualization technique where we pretended to be a mountain. At that point I made the decision to leave at lunch.
Meditation is—after all—a personal journey.
Graham Isador yelled at a cabbie on the way home. @presgang
Photos by Ted Lam @tedlambphoto