It was my 16th day of silent Vipassana meditation at Wat Ram Poeng, in Thailand. I wore a white shirt with seven buttons up the front and two large pockets – one right, one left – as well as loose fitting drawstring white pants. Despite prostrating before ornate statues of the Buddha, modest meals and rising at 4 AM to begin my meditation practice in complete silence, I felt further away from tranquility than when I first arrived.
The 15 days prior hadn’t gone this way. Despite my constant challenge to focus inward, I generally felt peaceful and deeply relaxed. To that point my biggest challenge had been the desperate desire to check email and one brief “fuck it” moment when I snuck out of the monastery and walked to a nearby Internet café. When I looked at the pay-by-the-minute computers, however, I instantly thought, “What am I? Crazy?” and went back to my mediation seat at the monastery. No one had noticed that I’d left, so I simply returned to my breath with my eyes closed and a perfectly erect spine. Inhale. Exhale.
The monastery was located at the southeastern edge of the Himalayan Mountain foothills. There was a pervading smell of incense and lush green vegetation, and rooms were decorated with decadent Buddhist adornments that made it all feel like a mystical dream.
That is, up until that 16th day when I found myself pacing nervously in the abbot’s waiting room for my daily check-in.
A gnawing darkness had disrupted my sitting meditations. I could no longer go inward. Instead, I felt a push back. It was as if I were to go any deeper within, I’d find myself square in the center of a place I’d been running from for years. Clutching an offering of incense, I paced back and forth outside the Thai abbot’s golden screen door, past the 5-foot golden Buddha seated in low, green grass and surrounded by a golden gate until he called me in for my check in.
With a nun providing translation, I quietly gave my report about the lack of concentration and suffering my mediation had provoked. Uncontrollable tears streamed down my face. “I am extremely anxious,” I said while kneeling before the abbot and nun. “I’m trying to focus on my breath, but I am distracted by a really dark, anxious feeling I can’t control.”
The abbot laughed hysterically in my face, then he explained himself.
Each day when you’ve come to me, I’ve asked how your meditation is going, and you’ve said it’s fine. That everything is good. You tell me that you met your goal, so I added to your hours. You started with four hours of meditation, and we’ve increased it each day up to the twelve hours I asked you to do today. Now you come here crying.
The reason I laugh is that finally I can teach something to you … the meaning of impermanence.
The abbot told me that, like the rain, we cannot control our emotions. Instead, all we can do is accept them. It’s not our job to control the weather. Instead, we are to find comfort in knowing that storms will eventually pass. The same is true of our suffering. Rather than focusing on what feels like violent torture, we are to rest easy knowing that it will ultimately give way to the sun.
I knelt before him crying, feeling like I was at a breaking point. With snot and tears streaming down my face, I listened to his instruction to return to meditation, breathe through my suffering and observe what happens.
Eager to move through this feeling of impending doom, but skeptical that it would do anything other than intensify, I walked back to my modest room with the wooden bed and mattress as thin as tissue, and a toilet that required a bucket of water to manually flush it. I had spent 16 days obliging my commitment to not read, write, or listen to music. I allowed the verbal component of my brain to subside so I could focus exclusively on my inner journey. Now, I was going back, fearful of having to return into my own darkness.
I can’t recall how long it took, but I do remember that I exclusively focused on my breath long enough that I eventually started to laugh. Just like that, the weather shifted, the clouds broke, and an inkling of peace creaked through. As my heaviness lifted, I experienced a moment of clarity. I realized that after living in a culture riddled with distractions and excessive busyness, where we are taught to medicate our pain, talk through our issues, and distract ourselves from discomfort, I had never learned to sit with agony until that day. Which is exactly what I had gone to Thailand to learn.
I no longer had to fear torment, run from it, manipulate it or pretend to be a magician who could make it disappear. Instead, like when I experience a rain storm, I had learned to take cover and simply wait for it to pass.
Is this something you can relate to? Where in your life do you resist your suffering? Where are you doing a charade or disappearing act with your emotions?
This week I challenge you to stop trying to manage your emotions and surrender to them instead.
Open yourself up to feel your all of your emotions, and muster the courage to sit with them without needing to fix them or change them. It’s not easy, but it is possible. Try to go on your own inner journey, and please share your thoughts and experiences below.
May you be happy, free from suffering, and protected from all misfortune.
As always, I send you my love.