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The Silent Treatment
Meditation was supposed to calm me. So why was I so angry?

By Lisa L. Kirchner
Sunday, June 21, 2009

Sweat trickled down my neck, and I fought the urge to wipe it away. A recorded message about love, compassion and goodwill played inside the tarp-roofed shed. I wanted to pull the tape player from the wall and smash it over someone's head. My capacity for love, compassion and goodwill must've left me around the same time my husband had.

Before this trip to India, I'd never heard of 10-day silent meditation retreats, let alone imagined myself, a 40-year-old bottle blonde, undertaking such a thing. But after six months of downward dogs hadn't quelled worries about my gaping, solo future, I was ready to try. Proponents claimed it would replace anger and sorrow with love and happiness. A Web site showed pristine centers around the world snuggled amid calming vistas and sprawling gardens. Knowing little else, I signed up online.

A few days later I was standing in front of a concrete wall facing a grassless scrap of cracked earth, certain I'd flubbed the directions. But a woman beyond the gate ushered me in and handed me a long list of rules. No writing. No reading. No talking. No ... snacking? I spied a car dropping someone off -- if I moved quickly, I could catch a ride back to town. Then I recalled my ex ending our four-year marriage because he "didn't feel like being married anymore." I didn't want to be a person who quit because I didn't "feel like" doing something hard. I watched the car drive away.

After check-in we met in the makeshift shed that served as the meditation hall. A robed man called names, pointed to seats in the neat rows of pillows and started a tape player. The disembodied voice advised us to sit comfortably and focus on our breath making contact with the upper lip. The physical discomforts to come, it said, were manifestations of an agitated mind. Vipassana meditation would teach us to stop reacting, stop suffering.

My reaction was a mild panic. What breath? To feel anything I practically had to pant. I squinted at my co-meditators. Wasn't it a little late for the three white-haired Indian women to be making peace? Behind me I spied a Western chick in full yogic lotus. Please. My legs were asleep. The voice droned on.

I hugged my shins and peeked at the clock on the wall behind me. Exactly 10 minutes had passed. Ten to 12 hours of this a day for the next 10 days?

At 4:30 the next morning, we started again. All I could concentrate on was my screaming case of caffeine withdrawal. When we broke for breakfast, I overheard one of the older women complaining of pain to the robed man. "There is no knee apart from the mind, sister," he said. "But please, sit in a chair until the sitting is more comfortable."

I limped off to the toilet, caught between jealousy and despair. Sure she was old, but didn't everybody want a chair? Ferreting out the pencil and paper I'd stashed, I wrote, "Have I made a choice that reinforces the idea I'm unlovable?"

Back in the shed, buzz saws and an earthmover fired up outside. Apparently they were building the real meditation hall. I gave up even trying to pant and started thinking instead. About my ex. Friends. Family. Bosses. Co-workers. Acquaintances. It felt like a knife was stabbing at my shoulder blades. I moved on to my meditation partners. I hated them all. The rage was visceral; its intensity frightened me.

Over the sound of clanging hammers, another recording likened our efforts to a surgical procedure, a rooting around in the psyche that would extract disease. It occurred to me that when I told people about my ex-husband informing me over the phone that he wanted a divorce, they were amazed at how not angry I seemed. But what they didn't know was that even when things were good between us, I would always find the black cloud in the silver lining and imagine him leaving me. So when he actually walked out, I kept telling myself that I should have been prepared for the pain. The truth was, I wasn't. Instead, it had been festering like a cavity.

The true nature of our unhappiness, the recorded voice told us, is what we choose to do with it. With no other distractions, there was no escape. I had to let my pain -- physical and emotional -- simply emerge. But as cataclysmic as the feelings could be, they did slip away. If I could avoid embroidering these sensations with stories, they seemed to go more quickly. At times I even felt my breath.

Then suddenly, our 10 days were up. By the time the last tape urged us to direct our love, compassion and goodwill outward, my capacity to do just that had returned. If I could come this far in 10 days, what if I kept going for 10 more? I wanted to stay. But the time had come for me to go home.

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