Little Decisions

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Last summer I was nervous at the start of my very first retreat. Though it was only for five days, I didn't know if I could meditate for hour upon hour each day. Maybe I’d freak out and run screaming from the Center.

In orientation, a skinny guy with a beard explained the schedule. Each morning a wake up bell would ring at 5:15, with the first sitting shortly thereafter. The rest of the day would be spent in periods of walking and sitting meditation, meals, and a work period. It was a silent retreat, so no talking was allowed with my fellow meditators.

Our group numbered about 60. Some of the people were old or out-of-shape or jet-lagged. I looked around the room and saw people who would clearly have a more difficult time than I would. This gave me great comfort.

On the first morning, the 5:15 bell woke me from a sound sleep. It was dark outside. Somehow I got up and survived the first sitting, and the next, and the entire first day. I'd done what I wasn't sure I could do. My knees ached and I'd re-crossed my legs more than my neighbors, but I'd lasted. I was proud of myself, though of course the point of being there was to let go of pride, and if I were really on a roll, to let go of my self.

The second day came and went. The schedule was becoming routine.

On the third morning, the 5:15 bell was most unwelcome. Though I'd gone to bed early, I was tired and desperate for more sleep. Eventually, I stumbled out of bed and arrived late for the first sitting.

I blew off the walking meditation after lunch and took a nap. I was starting to rebel. When I took my place for the afternoon sit, I noticed that a couple of cushions were empty. I'd thought I was the only person having a difficult time, though clearly that wasn't the case.

The 5:15 bell on the fourth morning was a major annoyance. You can't make me get up, I thought, pulling the covers tight and rolling over. Then I began to wonder whom I was rebelling against. I'd voluntarily signed up for the retreat, paid my hard-earned money and taken a week's vacation to be there. No one was making me do anything.

I knew I could examine my resistance in the first sitting, but that same resistance could also have me checked-out and cruising down the highway. The only person who'd miss me was the woman I washed pots with during work period. My meditation sessions were worse on retreat than they were at home. I didn't see much point in staying. This all seemed very familiar, though in a more rural setting.

A number of small decisions had gotten me there. I made one more little decision: to stay.

It often seems arbitrary why the mind makes one choice, rather than its opposite. I'm ambivalent by nature - no matter what I decide to do, I have difficulty doing it whole-heartedly. I'm always holding something back. Yet, for all the ambivalence, I continue my half-hearted stumble down this Buddhist path.

I was already awake when the bell rang on the last morning. When the retreat ended, I got in the car, or should I say we - the self who doesn't like to quit, the sleepy self, and all the other various selves battling daily in my mind. We stopped for ice cream, then all drove home together.


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