It sometimes seemed we were two ships passing in the night—occasionally meeting at home to make sure the milk was still fresh. My husband Jay was a busy CEO and, in addition to my law career, now that we were empty-nesters, I had taken up enough hobbies to be a one-woman overnight camp.
When I wasn’t taking guitar or tennis lessons, I was running a film festival, meditating and zydeco dancing—all solo or with friends. Determined to reset our marital clock, I came up with a shared activity.
“Honey, how does this sound? Cultivate Inner Stillness for the Winter Solstice. It’s a weekend workshop at a vegetarian retreat in a former monastery.”
Keeping one eye on the Eagles game and the other on the Dow Jones, Jay reluctantly agreed, with the caveat: “Hamburgers when we get home!”
Jay heard “vegetarian.” I’m not sure he understood that this wasn’t just about learning to love kale. It was an entire weekend of silent meditation at the venerable Garrison Institute in the Hudson River Valley. I was excited about sharing my fledgling meditation practice and hoped it would bring us closer.
In retrospect, what was I thinking?
The weekend in Beacon
After fortifying ourselves with cheesesteaks, we left Philadelphia on a Friday afternoon in December and headed to Beacon, New York. During the drive, Jay calculated how many sporting events I’d have to attend with him to even the score. Meanwhile, I secretly worried about how I’d be able to stay silent for hours at a time.
After a dinner of tofu curry, eaten in the refectory at long, wooden tables, 25 of us beginners gathered in a classroom. We shared our reasons for meditating, which mostly were for stress reduction (although the neurologist in the group admitted that he was hoping for “enlightenment”).
Our teachers Derek and Jane were a serene married couple who’d been students of a charismatic Tibetan monk, famous for bringing Buddhism to the West (and infamous for finding bliss in the beds of his acolytes). There were also about 175 hardcore meditators at the Institute, attending an advanced workshop in the former monastery’s main chapel, presided over by a giant golden Buddha that was perched where a crucifix had once hung.
That evening, Jay and I made our way past the communal bathrooms to our assigned sleeping quarters: a tiny, austere former monk’s cell. No lock on the door. Twin beds with clean but rough sheets. This wasn’t in the brochure. My husband graciously did not state the obvious: We could have stayed in the luxury hotel down the road for half the price.
“Push the beds together, it will be fine,” Jay said.
He grabbed one end of a bed and I grabbed the other. It wouldn’t budge. Apparently, this system was good for keeping the monks in line. It was not going to be a romantic getaway.
At silent breakfast the next morning, 200 hundred strangers ate hard-boiled eggs and cheddar-fennel biscuits in uncomfortable silence. Jay and I suppressed an overwhelming desire to giggle every time the silverware clattered. At our first class, Jay and I sat in “pharaoh pose” in uncomfortable straight-backed chairs. The instructors reminded us that we are human “beings,” not human “doings,” and explained how meditation can create welcome detachment from our constantly churning “monkey” brains.
“Sit with your eyes open and label all thoughts that pop into your head as thinking, and send them gently on their way,” instructed Derek.
Hard but revelatory
Observing my continuously streaming thoughts was boring, hard—and revelatory. My mind seemed to be one long “to do” list, mixed with thoughts about meals past and future. Visions of veal marsala and chicken tagine floated by.
Is this what I’ve become, I wondered? A rotating menu board? Meanwhile, I could hear Jay’s sighs and feel his skepticism radiating hotly next to me. I labelled my critical judgment of him as “thinking” and sent that thought bubble on its way.
After a lunch that Jay pronounced “rabbit food,” we practiced walking meditation. We were told to walk as slowly as possible, while keeping our eyes on the ground. This meant shuffling around the grounds at an excruciatingly slow pace, in a light winter drizzle.
“I feel like an extra in The Handmaid’s Tale,” Jay whispered, as he slipped back to our room.
During the next indoor meditation, the instructor told us to “give in to the boredom.” Easier said than done. Given my penchant for multitasking, I seemed to have not just a “monkey mind,” but an entire jungle of chattering chimps. Meanwhile, Jay’s rhythmic breathing beside me signalled he was in his happy place. Sound asleep.
Sunday morning Yoga was pleasant enough, although the teacher mystified every man in the room with her references to “lifting one’s pelvic floor.”
Stepping outside the comfort zone
As our weekend retreat drew to a close, I was tempted to think it hadn’t been worthwhile. But then I realized it had served an important, albeit unintended, purpose.
Yes, I can meditate now with my eyes open, and remain silent throughout an entire meal (I might even return to the Institute at some point and try the advanced workshop). But the more valuable takeaway was that if something is really important to me—even if it means no Wi-Fi, TV or meat for an entire weekend—my husband of 30 years is willing to step far outside his comfort zone to make me happy.
The next time we take a trip together, however, it will be somewhere with 500-thread-count sheets, a wine list and no silent marches in the rain.
On Sunday night, we took one last peek at the giant golden Buddha and headed home, where we threw bacon cheeseburgers on the grill and watched an Eagles game on TV. Namaste.
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image 1: Wikimedia Commons; image 2: Pixabay