Easy does it one day at a time live and let live there but for the grace of—whatever. The AA slogans were running through my head like so much white noise, devoid of meaning or succor. My head pounded; my left leg was permanently asleep from sitting still for an endless series of forty-five-minute intervals; my chair creaked annoyingly, breaking the deathly silence every time I shifted. I wanted nothing more than to escape to a crowded, smoky, loud saloon, order many shots of a brown sticky liquid, and down them one after the other until this fucking voice in my head shut the fuck up. I was experiencing a pain so prolonged and exquisite that I prayed for a root canal, a death in the family, nuclear Armageddon, anything but this torture. It was day two of a four-day vipassana and Twelve Step meditation retreat.
My best friend, Pedro, God damn him, was the one who suggested I come here. He thought that after three months of white-knuckled sobriety I might find some peace. But when I arrived at the retreat house, a plain midwestern ranch house, the leader of the retreat announced, “The person who was supposed to lead the Twelve Step portion of the retreat has had car trouble and will not make it.” Her voice sounded like a barking drill sergeant. “We will be sticking to a straight vipassana format: alternating sitting and walking periods, with no talking, reading, journaling, TV, music or eye contact.”
Suddenly, Twelve Step meetings didn’t look so bad. I went looking for my fellow addicts. Surely we will band together and insist on coffee and donuts, inspirational sharing and the serenity prayer. Turns out I was the only recovering person at the retreat. As silence drew down on our sangha of meditators, I had the cold sweaty realization that I had been dropped WAY behind enemy lines, alone.
I had made a twenty-five-year career of not being present. I was the black belt of denial, the Jedi Knight of unmindfulness. I went to extraordinary lengths to avoid listening to my own inner voice, marched to the very gates of hell rather than deal with life on life’s terms. Even when I cleaned up, I continued to desperately reach for candy or TV or Sudoku—anything that might protect or divert me from the truth of this moment. But here I was now, stripped of all diversions, silent, naked; this was not at all what I had in mind as a “retreat” but rather a full-throttled propulsion into unvarnished . . . me. Boredom, knee pain, fantasies, sleepiness, TV theme songs, rage, peace, muttering, screeching—and only five minutes had passed in a forty-five-minute session. Hogtied and struggling, I craved only oblivion.
“This is not working,” I confessed to our leader during a private interview. “There is no serenity or peace in this process. All I can think about is Jack Daniel’s. And murder,” I added darkly, trying to stare her down.
“This is your first time meditating, isn’t it, son?” The leader chuckled, and I hated her for it. “You are exactly where you need to be. Just pay attention. And lighten up!” she ordered.
My one escape during the day was an evening cigarette. My fellows frowned on the dirty habit, so I would hike out to a corner of the property and enjoy a lovely . . . mindful . . . in-breath out-breath . . . smoke. I have since quit, but I honestly think that mindful smoking could be a very direct path to enlightenment. Tobacco leaves were certainly the closest I got to a bodhi tree that weekend.
On the last night of the retreat, wrung out from seventy-two hours of epic silent battle, I took a smoke in my little Eden, and I just . . . stopped . . . struggling. In that moment of surrender, I was given sweet insight into powerlessness, unmanageability, letting go and turning it over. Twelve Step slogans and sharing suddenly made a little sense. Sitting on my butt for three days was perhaps my most authentic attempt at a searching and fearless moral inventory, essential for recovery. And what had I found? The truth of suffering and the end of suffering, enfolded in the Dharma and the Twelve Steps and my own squeaky, yappy, overwrought, drama-queen monkey mind.
And as quickly as the satori came, it blew away with my last puff of smoke. I turned back to the ranch house, facing another forty-five-minute sit. “Take it easy,” I smiled. “This too shall pass.”