Written by Alexander Greco
May 10, 2019
The monk walked me through the sunlit hallways of our retreat facility. It was a sprawling wooden building, something like a minimalist’s fortress-temple in the middle of the woods. My guide was a young Tibetan man around my age who’d immigrated to America, and began working at these retreats while still studying Buddhism. I got to know him a little while we talked at the orientation, several days before I went on the five-hour drive to the middle of the North Pacific forests. Now, however, there was no talking between us.
The monk walked me through the compound, silently weaving through a honeycomb of stained wood and white painted walls. I tried to keep track of our path through this building, but I quickly lost track of where I was at. Eventually, I was brought to the door of my room—the small, squarish space with one small bed, a nightstand, a clock, and a window. No lamp, no mirror, no personal bathroom—nothing.
The monk opened the door to my small bedroom for me, and I walked inside. The monk held up two fingers. I nodded. The group meditation would begin in two hours. I closed the door behind me, then turned to my room and looked around. There wasn’t much to look at. I took off my backpack, and sat down on the floor, not entirely sure what to do.
I folded my legs, and shimmied around a bit, until I felt I was in a comfortable position. Then I closed my eyes. And I sat there in silence.
I was very self-conscious of myself there. I’d only been practicing meditation for the last year. I’d never gone to a retreat like this before. The fact that I was here, sitting on the ground. It filled my mind. I was sitting still, in a building full of people I don’t know. On this hardwood floor, in the middle of the woods, in complete silence. For ten days. Somehow, this was all supposed to “work”.
My mind stretched across those ten days, watching a small fraction of infinity unfurl. For ten days, I would be that small infinity, stretching on. For ten days, I would be completely silent. For ten days, I would be completely silent, in a building in the middle of nowhere, with complete strangers, all of whom were also silent. That was my existence.
In an effort to ignore the hardwood floor,
And then I wondered about why I was even here. I was here to, what, clear my mind I suppose? I was here to solve all my problems, right? I was here to fix myself, to be a happier, more wholesome person. I was here to live a better life.
I was here to be silent, to clear my head out of all this garbage, yes, yes that was it. I was going to come here to clear all that bullshit out of my head. Erase it all—that’s what meditation is for, right? It’s for clearing all the stress out, erasing the anxieties.
Yes, that’s what I was here for. That’s what I’ll do. And so I sat. And I sat. And I sat.
Breathing, yes, listen to your breathing.
So, I inhaled, and I exhaled. I inhaled. And I exhaled.
And I listened to each breath, fighting the urge to count the breaths, or make some inner commentary on how a certain breath sounded. I listened to each breath, and I felt my body as it moved, and I felt the room around me.
And I realized for the first time since I’d driven up here that it was rather humid here. I didn’t think there was any air-conditioning here—it was all open-aired, somewhat Bohemian or New Agey—but I suppose that was supposed to be the effect. Take it all in.
Just take it all…
All the humidity, all the clammy hands, and all the sticky hair. All the muscle groans and strained spine, and all the ringing ear and itching nose, and all the distant insect sounds and pollen-filled air. It was all so clear, and all so simultaneously focused, and all so simultaneously distracting, and all these distractions were all so good at making me twitch or reposition, or think, and rethink, and monitor, and worry, and wonder, and walk through thoughts I’d thought days ago, wondering always, and wondering, always, “Why?”
And why was I in this room?
Yes, yes, I know, I’d gone through the list myself. We’ve gone over this, to clear this trash from my head.
Then why aren’t you doing that? Look, you’re thinking, you’re not supposed to be thinking.
Hey, calm down, it’s okay. Calm down, we’re here to get rid of the stress.
Right, right, you’re right.
Clear your mind.
Yes, I’m clearing my mind.
Okay, good, good.
Clearing my mind. Clearing my mind. Clearing my mind.
And for moments, there was silence.
I listened to my breathing. I felt the sensation of my skin. And I quieted my mind from all the internal clutter.
I could feel the thoughts threaten to erupt—like a violin bow coming dangerously close to the string—but I did not think any thoughts.
Oh, but how they silently hummed, and how the tear of a squealing note almost escaped several times. How the thoughts tried to be thunk. How the long tensions threatened to erupt.
If only I could think just one thought, I thought, and maybe just pay attention to that thought. Focus, right, and don’t think about anything else? So I sat and thought, well, what one thing would I want to think?
Bills? Love life? My life goals? What I want to do next week?
What was the most important thing I could be thinking about?
Well, I could be thinking about any number of important things, and god there were so many important things to choose from—and so many important things that overlapped in ways where you couldn’t think about one without the other (and god, were those things the worst!—those nests of spiteful misfortune and bad luck, where filthy, diseased hydras lurk in swamps of modern grievance).
Car insurance, rent, scholarships, grants, loans and debt and bills and credit, and repainting the bathroom walls so it wouldn’t come out of my deposit, and my statistics class I’d be taking when the semester began, and the spot where my hair has begun to thin (I’m only barely 21 now), and did all the booze and late night cigarettes do it? Was it all the stress, compounding onto one another? And wouldn’t all that stress affect everything else I had to do? Wouldn’t the raised cortisol, the difficulty sleeping, the straining brain, and the constant drag of anxiety ruin the rest of my life? And what would my mom think? What if I don’t do well in classes? What if the last few years were simply a fluke, and it would all fall apart spectacularly in the next year? One stumbled test, and I might be reeling for the rest of the year—who knows what might happen? Who know what rock I might break my ankle on? Oh, god, a broken ankle. Imagine an actual broken ankle. What in the world would I do? Who knows what river current might drag me down while I’m still padding through this mess without a boat? And then what would I do? What would I do for money? Where would I live? How would I live? How would I pay for the necessities of survival? How would I keep my hair from thinning if this whole world simply collapsed?
What a monster. What a hydra.
No. No, I shouldn’t think of those things. I shouldn’t dare think of those things, not while I’m here—not while I’m trying to get rid of the stress.
But maybe you should meditate on those things, maybe you could discover some deep, dark secret about the meaning of life—or something.
No, that’s not how it works—you don’t focus on the negative, you don’t get distracted with thoughts, you don’t stress yourself out.
What do you do then?
You stop worrying.
But there’s so much to worry about.
That’s why you’re here, to stop worrying, so you can go back to normal life, and…
And find all the same old worries.
Yes, perhaps, but you’ll be better equipped to—
To cope with them? To deal with them? To think about them?
What sort of plan is this?
It’s our plan, now sit and meditate. Come on, we’ve been meditating for a year now—we’ve been trying so hard—why can’t you meditate here? Why can’t you do this? Why can’t you—
We’ve been half-ass meditating. We came here to get better at meditation.
Right, right—that’s right! We came here to get better at meditation, so we could meditate better once we went back.
And look at how well we’re doing.
It’s only been [I opened my eyes and looked at the clock]—
It’s been twenty minutes. Of sitting.
It’s been twenty whole minutes? [I was still staring at the clock]
Twenty whole minutes.
But… But we’ve barely been meditating.
Like… No, really, we’ve barely begun.
What will we be like in 10 days?
What will we be like in another twenty minutes?
I was in fact silent now.
My brain sort of stopped. I felt a small amount of panic. A somber, frantic sort of remorse.
I’d already fucked up, hadn’t I?
I’d fucked up from birth, I was sure of that now.
This life had been one long tunnel of fuck-ups leading to this fuck up, I’d realized that.
I was born into the mouths of the hydra. At the hospital, they must have been smiling in wait between my mother’s legs.
Two heads bit onto my feet and pulled me out. All the others wrapped around my body, and they’ve been constricting just tightly enough that I’ve been gasping for air, but I can’t do anything to stop them.
And now, you can’t even sit down to meditate.
Well, give it a try, I told myself, we have ten days to figure this out—we’ve only been here twenty minutes—
Half an hour.
—and we’ve been practicing for a year—
Half ass practicing.
Ten minutes passed by? [I looked back at the clock]
How? What happened?
You were thinking.
But… but I wasn’t even thinking about anything that mattered. Why… What am I doing?
The hydra squeezed until my spine cracked. A numbing, irritating, cold, hot sensation rose from my pelvis. I could feel it spread like wings near my kidneys, and a hellish winter breath billowed up my throat and into my head. My eyes watered from the chill and the burn, and the gripping, grasping, constricting pressure of a thousand worries. I couldn’t keep the rain from raining.
It won’t leave me alone, will it? There’s no escape.
No, maybe there’s not. But we’re here now. We’re right here, in this room, sitting on a stranger’s floor in a stranger’s forest. So, try.
And, so, I did.
I sat. I closed my eyes. And I didn’t think.
For a long time, I could still feel the great beast engulfing me in its gnashing, burning, frigid pressure. Its teeth lazily tore at my body like a pack of wild dogs. The furnace in its belly burnt my eyes, and the rain wouldn’t stop raining. But I just sat there, and let myself feel it.
I felt my body. I felt myself resting on the ground. I felt my chest rising and falling, rising and falling. And I felt the world smothering me in its infinite coils.
And then I felt the air against my skin. I watched the light hitting my closed eyelids. I mapped the movements of quiet sounds.
I sat there, feeling the world, feeling myself, feeling whatever my mind thought I should feel. And I sat there for second after second, minute after minute, feeling and watching and waiting, and giving in to the world I felt. Perhaps, I thought, if I did this long enough, I might feel the Earth spinning in the void. If I watched myself long enough, I might watch myself sleep in the soil. If I listened long enough, I might hear the sound of nothing.
And suddenly, I felt the coils no longer.
I was silent.
And all I saw was black. All I saw were the back of my eyelids cutting the sunlight of the rest of the cosmos off from my pupils, severing the beams of oceans of photons. All I saw was the flesh of the back of my eyelid, staring back at me.
And I decided to embrace the silence—that’s all I could do really—and fill myself with it, and feel myself in it, and watch myself feeling it.
But there was still nothing.
Perhaps a calm.
But not a happy calm.
Not a victorious calm.
Not an enlightened calm.
Just less blustery winds.
And I still wasn’t sure what I was doing there.
But I embraced that.
And, nonetheless, I sat.
And stared at my eyelids.
And then I tried something different.
I decided to focus on the darkness inside my eyes. I tried to focus on the silence in my ears. I tried to focus on the emptiness in my head.
All my attention of the world around me waned, and my awareness of the world inside my head blossomed. Slowly, the reality in my head eclipsed the reality outside my head. Slowly. Slowly. Slowly the moon crossed over the Sun.
And there was only the silence, the dark, and the emptiness, with fringe coronas of an external reality.
Everything was still. Everything was empty. Everything was nothing.
Pure, pure silence.
And then, there was a humming.
A howling storm inside a vast empty cavern—a numb, midnight-blue, frigid hellfire of silence.
And then it went quiet. And there was nothing there.
I saw something.
Eyes. Staring at me.
I opened my own eyes. There was just the room around me. Nothing more.
I closed my eyes again. And I was in the void of my head. And there I saw the eyes again.
Violet and indigo, and ultraviolet and gamma-ray eyes. They were glowing eyes in the dark, staring into mine, beaming into the holes in my skull like two supernovas focused at my retina—beaming a crashing river of thoughts into my head. It was so much information, all streaming into my thoughts, or perhaps it was my thoughts streaming into my thoughts, wreathing in quilts of the color spectrum that danced and hummed and shook and shattered.
It was the Truth. I don’t know how I knew; I don’t know what told me so, I don’t know why I believed it, I don’t know what caused me to believe it, but I knew it to be so.
I saw the Truth staring at me with indigo and ultraviolet eyes. I saw myself staring back at me. I saw my self in and of myself. I saw my eyes looking into my eyes. Between my eyes and my eyes, between the black holes staring into our black holes, where all the light disappeared into our retina, was an infinite space. Between my self and I was an infinite mirror, an infinite, lightless pit, and an infinite, empty space. There, in the space between our eyes. That was the Truth.
Something greater than myself, something greater that I was a part of, rose in the space between our eyes. It was a vast thing, a voluminous thing, a cascading and rampant thing. It was the hydra, but it was something more. It was a machine that grew between my self and I like wildfires and swarms of ants—a machine made of letters and numbers, and the crawling insects that formed the shifting architecture carried grammatical nuts and bolts, and division rods, and axles of integration, and the wildfires carried seeds of trees in screaming hands of industrial decorum. My skull bulged at its limits—squeezing diamonds of quilted thought, pushing at the cage around my brain—as I witnessed the mechanisms of gods and daemons and artificers of cosmic muse, and of the architecture that remains ignorantly omniscient and blindly omnipotent.
For a moment, only the briefest moment, I was my self, and I was the universe staring back at its self through an astronaut’s suit of carbon, iron, calcium, oxygen, lipids, proteins, and strings of chemical archives.
And then I opened my eyes.
And I was in my room again.
There was a knock on the door.
It was time to go meditate with the others.