Meditation flunky…

By Haven Lindsey  in  blog  on  10.13.2014

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I was trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again.
And that is why I succeed.”

I love that quote by Michael Jordan. It reminds me to keep a balanced perspective particularly when I fail at yet another meditation retreat. As of this week, my tally for flunking meditation retreats is 3. In fact I’m technically 0 for 3 but nonetheless have logged hundreds of hours in meditation. I’ve taken classes, taught meditation technique in prisons and other settings, I’ve participated in local meditation groups and in exotic places like India and Thailand. However, if I sign up for an actual “retreat” I fail over and over and over again.

My first failed attempt was many years ago. I wanted to experience a three-day meditation retreat. These retreats typically consist of traveling to a peaceful, zen-like setting, surrounded by a great deal of quiet which affords participants the opportunity to reflect, think (or not think) and spend time focusing inward rather than being chained to our distractions of choice and discursive thought patterns. The closest and only retreat option available was billed as an ‘Anger Retreat’ which meant the meditations and discussions would be based on dealing with anger. I tend not to be angry (or so I thought) but I wanted to try a retreat and signed up. We were scheduled to arrive Friday evening for a pot-luck dinner and begin the meditation portion the following morning. I’m not sure how the retreat went because within ten minutes I had gotten angry and left!

Retreat: 1, Haven: 0

The thing about humans is we rationalize everything: our thoughts, feelings, emotions, our actions, choices, views and beliefs. My rationalization for Failed Retreat #1 is multi-layered.

The directions were wrong (this was at a time prior to the advent of GPS devices and even if I had had one, there was no cell coverage at the remote location). Because the directions I received were for a different retreat location I got lost and winded up arriving a couple of hours late, well after dark. With only the moon and stars for light, it was extremely difficult to see. The road was technically a path cut through a field which damaged the bottom of my small, low clearance car. My pot-luck dish which had been sitting on my front seat had spilled due to the rough field terrain. My decision to transport it in a decorative ceramic bowl rather than a plastic bowl with a lid was not a good one; pasta salad was everywhere except where it was supposed to be. I was filled with frustration, concern and anxiety. By the time I arrived everyone was sitting and eating and they looked up and welcomed me with a resounding, collective yell, “TAKE YOUR SHOES OFF!”. (Oh, well hello to you to.) I stepped back outside, holding what was left of my pasta salad with the dressing spilled all over the side in one hand and removed my shoes with the other. I walked back in, shoeless, and asked where to put my salad. The next comment I heard was also the last, How are we supposed to eat this without a serving spoon?”. Holding my pretty ceramic bowl of pasta salad with the dressing all over the place, anxious from being late, hungry and well overdue for a restroom break I realized I had left the spoon in the car. It was so dark I had not seen the spoon lying on the seat and in my late-arriving anxious state and had forgotten about it. At that point I knew I wasn’t going to stay. In fact I couldn’t wait to distance myself from the yelling, shoeless people. I lasted fewer than ten minutes at the retreat I had been so excited to attend and had taken four hours to find. If getting in touch with our anger was the goal, I had quickly achieved it. I took my sloppy, spilled bowl of pasta salad and walked out. I put my shoes on in the dark, peed in the woods, ate a few large spoonful’s of pasta salad and drove home feeling a sense of happiness and relief.

My second failed attempt was approximately one year later. This time it was a ‘Silent Meditation Retreat’. Three days on a beautiful farm full of animals raised as pets rather than livestock raised for meat. The setting was idyllic and peaceful and we began by taking a Vow of Silence Friday morning with the promise not to speak until Sunday afternoon. I’d never done anything like it; it seemed challenging to spend time with a group of people and not speak at all. How would we communicate? Would we grunt like cavemen? Use hand signals like people who don’t speak the same language? Would we laugh and make other sounds? The answers came but not quite what I had imagined: I ended up screaming at the top of my lungs, crying and breaking my vow which resulted in others breaking theirs. Ultimately I completed the retreat and we renewed our vows but the retreat did not go as planned.

Retreat: 2,  Haven: 0

My rationalization for this failure is even better than my first. Upon arriving that fateful Friday morning we learned from Simon, the owner of the farm, that a baby calf had recently been born, had never stood up or walked and was very sick. They were doing everything they knew to do in order to save the solid white calf yet they were gravely concerned. The mother had abandoned her sick baby and the traveling vet was on hand to help nourish her. The cows on the farm were a solid black variety and no one quite understood why the calf was solid white. She had blue eyes and long, white eyelashes. I fell in love with her in less than a minute. During every break I visited her, I rushed through meals and skipped snacks to spend time lying beside her on the hay, breaking my vow of silence by whispering in her ear, saying prayers and stroking her beautiful face. I fed her with the bottle the vet provided and she could barely lift her head as she slurped and sucked on the bottle. She would raise her eyes when I walked into the barn and the vet later commented on the tender bond the calf and I shared.

On Saturday I skipped lunch to spend extra time with her, I had become attached to her very quickly and was already dreading having to say goodbye at the end of the retreat. As I entered the barn she looked up at me, raised her head and struggled and kicked her legs. I watched in awe as she stood for the first time in her life and begin gingerly, awkwardly, walking toward me. I crouched down on my knees and held out my arms overcome with joy as she stumbled toward me, taking her first steps. I had already broken my vow with her and I talked to her and encouraged her to come toward me. She walked the length of the large barn and collapsed into my arms and we fell back onto a pile of hay. I was thrilled and filled with thoughts that she was going to be ok.  She had gotten up and walked, she was going to be ok! And then she died. She had taken her first and last steps. The little calf I loved so deeply had died on my lap.

Often times when a living being dies, the body dispels liquids and fluids. As I held her body, getting covered in what was being released, I cried as I recognized what was happening. Sitting near the doorway, covered in a gooey mess I continued to cry and hold her as the life left her body. Without concern for the vow of silence I screamed, “SIMON!” at the top of my lungs. Everyone was inside eating lunch and despite the silence of the setting it took awhile for them to hear me. Simon came running along with the vet and all of the meditation participants. The vow of silence had been effectively shattered and we collectively wept and talked about what had happened; how she had walked to me in the doorway and died in my arms. Simon leaned over and held the baby calf who was still lying on me and cried. There was nothing silent about it.

People still joke that it may not be good to invite me to a Silent Retreat.

My third failed attempt happened this week. This local retreat seemed like a piece of cake: two hours of meditation each weekday evening and four on the weekend days. How difficult could that be? Difficult enough for me to get up from my front row, dead center cushion and walk out.

Retreat: 3,  Haven: 0

This time my rationalization isn’t nearly as good. In order to commit to the retreat schedule, I altered my work hours to get home in time to take care of my pets and arrive at the location on time. After two hours of the scheduled sitting practice, I planned to drive home, dive into bed and awaken early the next morning to start work early and do it all over again. Except the two hours turned into almost three and a half and there appeared to be no end in sight. I finally leaned over to the woman sitting beside me and whispered, “Do you think we’ll be finished soon?” and she replied, “We’re never gonna finish…”. As I let her frustrated response sink in, watching my toes cramp in the tightly confined space, sitting on the cushion that was too small for me, and feeling tired and hungry I questioned why I was enduring something intended to be a positive experience. I didn’t have a good answer. I made the decision to leave and got up with toes cramping and walked out; I didn’t even finish the first session.

                                             O for 3.  I am Meditation Retreat Flunky.

I think about these failed attempts and then remember Michael Jordan; if he gets to fail over and over and over and still succeed then why can’t I. In order to be successful we need to fail. If we aren’t pushing ourselves with challenges and attempts, we’ll never know what we can accomplish. My failed retreats are adding up but I have experienced many more successes because of it. I’ve failed in order to succeed. If I could wave a wand and change the outcomes of those failed retreats I would choose not to do so. I’ve learned from each one.

And to me, that is success.

Thanks for reading,
~ Haven

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