Zanny Merullo Steffgen
The Mind in Retreat
I bet I am not the only one who has a lot on my mind these days. Not only am I still reeling from the big changes in my life the last few years (my experiences living in a developing country, becoming sicker than I’ve ever been in my life, leaving a place that felt more like home than anywhere else ever has, the jarring difference between my new home in a ritzy ski town and my life in Cambodia), but also I’ve been stuck in a dizzying state of contemplation ever since I had to stay home for three months. Since then, the tensions in my country have threatened to boil over into real catastrophe, the pain of conflict and division is felt even in the most remote corners of the US, and COVID has torn its way through the world, leaving suffering and mourning in its wake. Of course the recent election brought up an array of emotions: worry for the state of our nation, disbelief that so many Americans could have voted for Trump after all he’s done the past four years, anxiety when the process was stretched out for days, relief when Biden was the projected winner, the pain of a president who becomes more dictatorial each day, the uncomfortable knowledge that this is a big step but we still have far to go, the fear that comes with the threat of violence and the understanding that Trump’s supporters don’t disappear when he does, the conflicting desire to understand those whose opinions are different from mine but also knowing that Trump’s actions have gone too far for me to accept anyone who agrees with him. All of this on top of the normal daily pressures of adulthood, the normal ebb and flow of emotions. Since I am lucky enough to have six weeks off of work right now, I thought I would take all this to a Buddhist retreat in the mountains, sit with it, try to work through it and get enough space from social media and mundane life to ground myself and find the pulse of life again.
Crestone Mountain Zen Center is nestled among the hills and trees on a road lined with retreat centers, stupas, and angel gardens. I have always felt of spiritual places that they have an aura of positivity, not only because perhaps divine energy stops by once in a while, but also because the collective intentions of all those who gather there to practice or worship create a kind of light, a break in the clouds found over places where there is pain and confusion, violence and anger. I chose to make my retreat at CMZC because I had been to Crestone with my family on a road trip for one of my father’s Buddha books and remember it as being a funky, hippie town. The retreat center offered comfortable rooms and three vegetarian meals a day, as well as talks from the head monk twice a week. The drive there featured changing scenery–once I emerged from the set of mountains I see every day there was an arid flatness with occasional small country stores, a giant sparkling reservoir, the small city of Gunnison where I stayed the night, then winding roads through farmland where Trump flags waved from wooden posts, then sandier ground and the appearance of a horizon lined with mountains, and the sand dunes that seemed at once otherworldly and as if they belonged perfectly at the foot of snow capped peaks. The town itself was just as I remembered it, with a couple cafés, “alternative housing,” tarot card readers, and locals who sported dreadlocks. The Zen center was the only of the half dozen on the road open to retreatants, although I didn’t have access to any of the buildings apart from an enormous dome and my bedroom because of the pandemic. The grounds were neat, criss-crossed with trails marked with cairns. My bedroom was simple, with a low mattress, desk, skylight, and tea station. Three times a day I would walk to the main building to pick up a tray of food, then return to my desk to eat. Breakfast was oatmeal or granola and yogurt, lunch and dinner usually consisted of a delicious soup, piece of gluten free toast, salad or fried tofu. When I arrived I had the sense, although not unpleasant, that I was headed for a doctors appointment or a gym session.
I should mention that Zen Buddhism is not a practice I particularly identify with. I have tried it before and read some of the teachings of its great masters, but it has always seemed a little too rigorous for me. Although I admire those who dedicate themselves to waking up at 4:30 in the morning and sitting for hours in meditation, I have always thought that that kind of restrictive practice almost becomes a thing of ego. A little bit of “I hold myself back from all worldly pleasures and torture myself with little sleep and long sessions of zazen (meditation) in order to reach enlightenment.” To me, it’s just another form of attachment, this time to asceticism. Even so, as soon as I arrived I wrote myself a strict schedule and did my best to adhere to it for the next three days, hoping to break myself out of the lazy rut I had fallen into since lockdown.
That first night, after only one 30-minute meditation session, some journal writing, and a couple hours of reading Deepak Chopra, I began to entertain myself with all the excuses I could come up with in order to leave and go home. “You know, I think I forgot my medicine, I’ve got to head back…” “Four nights is too much time here, I can’t afford it…” “I miss my husband too much, I think I’m gonna go surprise him.” To be fair, I had cut my mind off cold turkey. I had gone from election week, where I checked my phone every two minutes to see if there were any updates, planted myself in front of my computer to watch sit-coms for some easy distraction, and drank margaritas every day, to sudden stillness. I turned my phone off and hid it in the closet, I had no computer, and no one to talk to. My mind acquiesced to my first order to focus on meditation, but then it slowly began to rebel, until it was pounding on the walls of my head, begging for some distraction from the pain of facing itself. I was tempted to turn on my phone and put on a Youtube video. Instead, I opened Grapes of Wrath, which I had brought for entertainment emergencies such as this one, and let myself fade into its world of Ma frying salted pork and the men cursing and fixing trucks. I couldn’t sleep that night.
On my first full day I woke up to my alarm at 7:30, far earlier than I had ever chosen to wake up in my life, and felt like shit. My head was pounding with exhaustion and confusion from my anxious dreams, my stomach was nauseous from being up so early. It took all my mental strength to shower and then sit down at the desk with a cup of green tea and not go lie in bed. I wrote a few sentences in my journal about how terrible and frustrated I was. I had breakfast at 8:30, tried and failed to rein in my mind during a 30-minute meditation afterwards, and then got out a pen and a yellow legal pad and made myself write until lunchtime, even though every word felt stale and my mind was filled with criticism for my writing, for my lack of control of my mind, for the dark, sticky depression that greased up the corners of every thought. My instincts told me that this was not the time to give in to that darkness as I have for the last months, but to sit with it and push myself to be uncomfortable until it passed. I had already checked my phone twice at that point, desperate for one last hit of connection to the greater world. I managed on that first day to make it until lunch time writing and stretching and drinking tea. I held my mind in a jumpy meditation for 15 minutes until I started to doze off, then wrapped myself in a scarf and coat, pulled on my snow boots, and took a nice, long walk.
As I walked, I noticed. First I noticed the intricacies of nature around me, how the freshly fallen snow looked like pieces of a cotton ball that someone had torn up, how the rocks that framed the trail looked like they were made up of dozens of smaller rocks. Then I noticed my immediate sweaty fear when I had to walk over slippery logs that served as bridges across the cascades of water and sharp icicles. After, I noticed how quickly my mind slipped back into a kind of constant narration, imagining scenarios and taking them as far as I could before other thoughts popped up. I noticed how my mind liked to wander into dangerous territory as if to torture itself: preparing for the pressures of work already, fretting about my husband’s immigration process, playing out how my conversations with the insurance company could go during my fight with them to cover a specialist appointment. A sort of calm settled over me when I kept bringing my mind back to what was in front of me, when I noticed I had a choice.
That night I grew terribly bored of being in my own head. I couldn’t write any more words, couldn’t read any more words, couldn’t think any more words. I went to bed at 8 o’clock.
The next morning I awoke from an angry dream and stewed in that anger for a few minutes. Anger is not an emotion I feel very often, and if I do it’s only for a second–if a guest at the restaurant demands something really obnoxious, or when my husband tells me about someone mistreating him at work. I figured maybe those little spurts of anger had been buried deep within me, and released in my ridiculous dream where I let it all out by yelling and screaming and stomping my feet. After breakfast I sat in meditation for half an hour, breathing in good fortune and breathing out all the anger. I rode a bit of a high until lunch time, suddenly inspired to write, suddenly filled with a sense that I was blessed.
I managed to sit in meditation for half an hour after lunch, although it was a painful half an hour where I squinted my eyes open to check the clock every few minutes. My walk was a long one, to a stupa several miles down the road that I only found after two or three wrong turns. The road revealed a view down to a sandy valley, with mountains that made a ring around it as far as I could see, some peaks so tall and snowy I mistook them for clouds. As I walked, little ideas and realizations came to me out of the silent hole I had created in my mind. “What if,” I asked myself, “when I return home, instead of imposing these same standards on myself for meditation and contemplation, I strive to keep 33% of my anxiety and dark moods and let go of the rest. And I try 33% harder to meditate each day, to wake up early, to avoid drinking, to get a little more movement and eat more nutritious meals. Just 33%. I can do that.”
That night I streamed the talk of the center’s head monk, hearing the bells ringing from the zendo near my room, then much louder through my headphones a few seconds later. The talk was pretty much unintelligible, the mumblings of an old man who spends far too much time in his own head to express himself clearly. He came up with all these words and phrases–insidenss, path of interiority–that made sense to him and left me throwing my hands in the air. Afterwards I only managed to still my mind in meditation for fifteen minutes, feeling the greasy frustration creeping back in. I found some solace in the words of Pema Chödron that night, as she wrote about the ways we get stuck in our own reactions and storylines, how these can become like an addiction. Her advice was to notice your triggers and label them as that, to try and stop your mind from spiraling, to let the energy of moods move through you without holding on to them and letting them thrash you mercilessly.
The next day was my last full one in retreat, and although I felt a steady sense of calm that I could come back to, I also felt afraid. “What happens when I leave here and enter the world again? What happens when I have to work through the noise of daily life to find this stillness again?” So I tried to sit with that fear, not to make it out to be a big bad monster, and not to deny it either. I sat in a morning meditation, wrote without holding back to the point where my hand cramped up, ate lunch and sat in another 30-minute meditation. I walked along the road with no destination in mind, and ended up at a somewhat rundown angel garden, with statues of religious figures from every tradition, and a teepee where written instructions told me to stand and imagine becoming my “higher self.” I like the idea of a higher self, because, although I know it technically means a spiritual higher self, an essence, I feel that I already am one to the young woman I was when I set off on my journey of discovery after high school. My experiences since then taught me not to trust my moods, and although I still have my highs and lows, they are closer to neutral now, even by a little bit. I’ve had plenty of adventures since then, the path of what I want to do with my life has narrowed considerably. I found a counterpart who makes the days more fun and full of love, I’ve known great joy and great pain. And I imagine the next level of my higher self helping the world in some way, passionately committed to creative projects, closer to the peaceful being I am in some moments during meditation. These thoughts brought me to another stupa, where I discovered a shrine to Dorje Yudronma, a Tibetan deity and world protector whose energy felt playful and wise as I sat in a little hut dedicated to her.
That last night I managed to meditate for 30 minutes for the third time in the day (no small feat for me), completed a drawing in colored pencil, pored through Rumi’s poetry to find some new words that fit the blossoming joy I felt in me from the past few days. I couldn’t sleep that night, anxious to get on the road and both excited and nervous for re-entering society, but I was ok with it. I didn’t let my insomnia bother me, I lay with it until sleep dragged me into its embrace.
It’s been two days since I arrived at home, and I feel some of the old patterns entering my mind again. The drive back passed quickly because I tried to spend most of it in the moment, although the first hour I almost veered off the road a couple times because I struggled to multi-task (look out the windshield and operate the pedal and steering wheel). Every person I interacted with along the way, I tried to direct loving kindness to. When I got home I felt restless, not knowing what to do if I was consciously avoiding TV shows or scrolling through social media. I tried to watch a movie with my husband, but it felt too loud and fast moving for me. Today I woke up and looked right away at my phone for a moment, became too impatient with the news to read all the way through each article, and still haven’t meditated. But it’s ok. I am trying to be just 33% better, and when I feel the surging of impatience or frustration in me, I pause and take three deep breaths.
I went into my retreat as if it were a doctor appointment or gym session because I expected to put myself through something difficult in order to get some health benefit out of it. What I remembered as I began, though, is that you don’t gain anything from meditation. All you do is stretch your patience, try to sit in the place in your mind where the pulse of the world is, that low vibration that is always present but gets disguised beneath music and conversation, news headlines and social media posts, and all the messy emotions that come attached to each of those things. I didn’t learn anything or gain anything, I remembered. I remembered to notice the things that set me off (hold music while I’m waiting to fight with the insurance company, the irritation when I knock something off the counter or spill my morning coffee), I remembered to notice the impulses I have and to not always indulge them (a second batch of nachos when my stomach hasn’t even digested the first, googling every question that comes to mind as I’m reading, opening social media when there is nothing else to do), I remembered that I am capable of having a peaceful mind, and although it may not be possible every minute of every day, it is always something I can come back to. I remembered that the story I have set up for myself and how my life will move forward is one I am not married to, that the vast majority of what happens to me is beyond my control and the limits of my imagination, that my only real job in life is to push myself a little bit, to strive to improve but forgive when I slip, to be open to the infinite possibilities that each day can bring.
The mind is rocky, uneven territory, and trekking through it can be incredibly painful and frustrating. I believe it’s my duty though, to myself, to the world, and to my loved ones, to keep pressing on. I don’t pretend to own some great wisdom, I don’t pretend to be better than anyone else because I pursue meditation retreats and spiritual practice. In fact, sometimes I feel absolutely nuts when I take away the distractions I am used to and face what’s actually there, sometimes I think I’d be better off living in ignorance of the hidden edges of my mind. But, beyond those distractions, beyond the false world that is social media and the internet, beyond whatever words I can ascribe to my experiences, beyond meditation, beyond daily life, beyond the rocky terrain of the mind, there is a nothingness that looks something like peace. I hope to meet you there someday.