During my years living in Asia, I used to go for meditation retreats in Sri Lanka about once a year. I’d head up into the mountains and install myself in a small hut in the forest for a few weeks or months at a time. I’d then spend my days in near-total silence, sitting for long hours in meditation—sometimes alone in my hut and at other times in the stone hall of the meditation center with a handful of other lost souls.
In many ways, these were idyllic times. I was living in a spectacularly beautiful location, surrounded by lush green forests, mountains, and lakes. I had few responsibilities, only being required to do a little work—sweeping paths, cleaning bathrooms, or making candles—to make some sort of contribution to the community. I was well fed, had a roof over my head, and had all the time in the world to sit and contemplate my navel.
And that’s where the trouble begins.
Because when you spend ten hours a day sitting on your bum, gazing into the depths of your mind, what comes up is not all a bed of roses. It’s not all beatific visions of the cosmos and a feeling of unending peace. Far from it.
What comes up much of the time is a sense of not being okay. Of not being okay with myself, my life, or my circumstances. Not being okay with any of it. When the mind is allowed virtually limitless time to wander wherever it wants, there seems to be a natural tendency for it to go looking for all the most troublesome thoughts and feelings. This means that it’s then easy to wile away a few hours thinking about that unspeakable thing I did when I was a small child, my unkind words to you last month, or the unhappy state I now find myself in—lost in Asia in my forties, sitting in the forest trying to figure it all out.
And the longer you sit there thinking about it all, the more it boils up inside you. There’s no escape from your negative thoughts and no expression for them, so there’s nowhere to hide. You can’t stop the thoughts. And because your life is devoid of human interaction and conversation—not to mention the absence of all the forms of stimulation and distraction that you’ve gotten used to in the outside world—there’s little chance of relieving the pressure building up inside your head. It’s as if somebody had clamped down the lid on the pressure cooker that is your mind, turned up the gas, and left you to cook.
And you cook and cook, turning the same thoughts over and over in your head, talking to yourself, and imagining what might have been. If only I hadn’t said that, then this might not have happened. If only I hadn’t done that, maybe everything would have turned out okay.
After a few weeks of this, you can’t help realizing that there’s no end in sight to this mental torture. It could literally go on for the rest of your life. And with this realization, another possibility starts to present itself:
What if I was okay with all this stuff? With all my stuff? What if I could completely accept who I am? And where I’ve come? And the process that’s brought me here?
And suddenly the mind stops. All that mental activity that seemed so unstoppable and unavoidable suddenly seems to be completely unnecessary and superfluous. I simply don’t need to get on that train of thought that takes me down into all those dark tunnels. I don’t have to bother with that thinking mind that only brings me misery and takes away my peace. Because I’m here. With this. Just sitting on my cushion in a darkened room, listening to the frogs chirping outside.
Here. At peace. Accepting all of it.