A Vipassana retreat experience.
The coordinator handed me my room assignment. 7A. That meant there was 7B and 7C. The woman I had shared a ride with to the retreat had gotten room 38. No A B or C. It was her first time too. So, why did I have to share? I snuck into the other building to check out 38. It was sunny and open with spacious rooms. I was jealous. I was angry. I walked back up to the coordinator’s desk and politely asked “Are all the rooms shared?” She smiled and said yes, they were all shared. That was a smile I was going to have to get used to.
I hadn’t shared a room with anyone in more than 20 years. And this was more like a cell directly in front of the bathrooms with their metal doors just a few feet from our “door,” a curtained gesture towards privacy. There was no place to put my things, my roommates had both of the hangers above their beds and there was one teeny bedside table but not near my bed. So, I slid my things underneath my bed. I had to share. My work had begun and I hadn’t even started to meditate.
Soon after the noble silence had begun, my roommate pulls out her neon pink clock and sets it on the coveted bedside table. Tick tick tick. You have got to be kidding me. There was no way I was going to be able to sleep. I started to obsess. Surely, this was as forbidden as food or reading material or the Ganesh necklace I turned in at the start of the program. I had even turned in my watch! During meditation, I felt helpless, hopeless and assaulted by this clock and my thoughtless roommate. I had been given no choice. Couldn’t they hear the damn thing? Finally, I got the courage to ask the coordinator. I planned my words carefully and she showed me great sympathy. She smiled. Yes, her expression told me that she too would be annoyed. I was vindicated! She said she would ask about it and took down my name. My name? Shouldn’t she ask for my roommates name? Alma! It’s Alma who has broken the rules. Nevertheless, I was so proud of myself for not just putting up with something, for asking for help and getting it. I walked to breakfast literally tearing up in pride.
Later that day, I pulled back the curtain and looked toward the bedside table. What!? There it sat staring at me pinkly and ticking away. Had the coordinator not yet spoken to my roommate. Perhaps, the deed would be done later in the day. Each time I went back to my room/cell to get a drink of water or pee. I would check. And there it would be. Ticking. Ticking. During meditation, I envisioned the coordinator approaching my roommate and Alma looking incredulous as she seemed utterly ignorant of her infraction. How could someone not be bothered by that sound?Perhaps, I’m just more sensitive to things. Shouldn’t everyone be? Later that day, I pulled back the curtain….PINK! There is was. Was the coordinator going to make me sleep through another ticking night? How was this possible? As the sun began to drop behind the tall pine trees, I pulled back the curtain one more time before bedtime. Still pink. Still ticking. Dejected, I resigned myself to sleeping under my extra pillow.
The next day, I passed the coordinator a few times expecting her to tap me on the shoulder and let me know how sorry she was and that she had finally gotten rid of that blasted pink clock. But she never did. I didn’t understand how she could forget. She seemed to understand how deeply I was suffering. After one more night under my pillow I screwed up the courage to approach her.
She replied, “Yes, I asked the teacher and he says it’s a question of tolerance.” I had to ask her to repeat herself. First of all, I didn’t realize the teacher was going to be asked and make the decision. Now, I was known as the one with a problem, the intolerant one. I’d had this insult wielded at me before when I refused to allow my ex-husband’s friends smoke in my house and my yoga studio. YOU ARE INTOLERANT, he yelled. Am I? At the time, I seriously considered I was the inconsiderate one. Second of all, isn’t tolerating too much what brought me close to a break down and finally to this 10-day meditation silent retreat/torture in the first place? Why do I have to tolerate an illegal clock? Why isn’t Alma the one having to be confronted.
I went into the meditation hall and started to cry. Why is it that I have to tolerate everyone? I had asked for what I needed which is hard enough and I was being told, suck it up. But I was right and Alma was wrong. I cried and hoped no one saw me and I silently hoped someone would take pity on my suffering, especially the teacher.
The coordinator had said I could make an appointment with the teacher and address the issue with him. Damn right I will. During the day, I thought of what I would ask and how I would ask. Why I had to tolerate everything. But then, I don’t know what happened, but by the end of the day and 11 hours of meditation all I could think of was how grateful I was to have my pillow to keep my head warm, to shut out the ticking of the clock and the sound of the metal doors clanging in the middle of the night. And I realized this made me stay in the meditation hall as there was no way I wanted to or could meditate in my room. I had no temptation but to focus on why I was there, to meditate. I was still confused about toleration what the bigger lesson was.
As I said before I’m really good at tolerating bad shit and it had gotten me in trouble. I was trying to figure this all out. I decided to ask the teacher about the pain in my back.
“Do I tolerate the excruciating pain or go sit at the wall?
He answered, “You could go to the wall.” There was no room by the way, it was full. “But, they (referring to the now inhabitants of the wall) are all choosing to escape. If the pain is going to cause damage-“
I interrupted, “No, it’s not going to cause permanent damage.”
“So”, he replied, “ you can just sit with it and let it know you aren’t going away- be neutral – and it will change, morph, disappear.”
I had voiced my desire for the clock not to be there. And just because I didn’t get what I wanted didn’t mean I was wrong. It was about not escaping the things I hate or clinging to the things I enjoyed. I was making myself crazy my righteousness and victimhood. The clock never stopped annoying me but I found a way to live with it. Besides, who wanted to meditate in that dark, musty cell two feet from the very busy bathrooms when the meditation hall was beautiful and spacious and tranquil. I had been handed a situation that made me look at what it means to tolerate and find a different response than being a victim or being right. Because at that point my suffering was at the hand of my own mind more than from a ticking clock. I curled up into my little bed, covered my head with my pillow and slept soundly. And the pain in my back? It changed, it morphed, it disappeared.