The Zen of Illness

Lucy sacked out


Sometimes a  formal daily meditation practice just isn’t enough, even if you have been at it for over 25 years.  A retreat can become necessary.  If, like me, you haven’t been proactive and made plans for one in too many years the Universe may provide one for you.

In my case, it was the flu.  My last post was all euphoria and rainbows because it was the first “healthy” day I had experienced since approximately the end of September.  I had been on a rollercoaster both emotionally and physically and was rejoicing that it finally seemed to be over.  I had such a fun day; adventuring with my ever-loyal sister, finding real Greek food, and going to a delightful movie.

Surprise! Within 24 hours of that post I was knocked flat on my tush by the latest strain of influenza.  All of my grand plans had to be cancelled. Big ideas and ambitions were relegated to pages of notes.  It has been a literal, enforced hibernation during the coldest and darkest time of the year.  The dye studio in the garage has remained a mess, grant paperwork is left undone, and other projects have fallen by the wayside.

The meditation retreats I have attended involved intentionally removing yourself from every day distractions for an extended period of time. The whole point of the rituals and customs, whatever they may be, is to bring the meditator into greater awareness of the mind’s patterns and reactions.  Daily interviews with a leader/ teacher/guru are usually sessions for processing the angst and dodging that comes when faced with your own bullshit.  When it is just you and the contents of your head all sorts of boogeymen may make an appearance.

The rituals involved in most meditation practices produce definite changes in neurochemistry  and brain waves through postures and breathing patterns which then induce the sense of calm and, sometimes, euphoria that many meditators report.  Counting breaths, mantras, and chanting help the meditator remain focused.  Sitting in a particular manner is aimed to prevent falling asleep.

There are some meditation techniques involving certain visualizations and mantras that are aimed at digging the spider-webs out of particularly dark corners of the psyche and are best done under the supervision of an experienced practitioner.  With that being said, they all come back around to the basics; sitting still and breathing steadily, watching your thoughts and allowing them to roll on by without grabbing onto them.  It has always reminded me of sitting on the bank of a river watching detritus float by.  Look!  There goes a stick.  And here a leaf.  A beer can.  A turtle.  I am not sure where I picked up that metaphor.

When the ol’ bod refuses to cooperate and the energy is just not there to do more than the basics, if that much, there isn’t much left to do besides turn inward.  Foggy brains and constant trips to the toilet do not allow for intellectual rigor.  Daily distractions and business were ignored due to lack of energy to pay attention to them.   It can be an accomplishment to sit still and remain awake.

I won’t claim major revelations or astounding insights from my involuntary retreat. I did stop railing against being sick and feeling sorry for myself.  I became more accepting of the situation and stopped resisting it.  I had the space to examine and deal with some interpersonal issues that had been bugging me, recognizing and acknowledging the emotions I had been trying to ignore.  I began to reevaluate some projects that were very important to me and realized that they are not as urgent as I thought they were.  I became more grateful for the basics: food, shelter, and friends who care for me.

At this writing I am still sick, slowly shedding the annoying symptoms that have kept me inactive, but more or less on house arrest and still considered contagious.   Life feels like the Fruitbasket Turnover game we played in grade school; a game similar to musical chairs the teacher would have us play when we were becoming too restless.

My Buddha buddies and I used to make jokes about the shock of reentry after an extended retreat.  Things we were numb to before the retreat would be glaringly obvious and grated on our nerves afterward.  It was a further exercise in discipline to avoid overreacting to them; a constant reminder to detach, pull back, let go.  Maintaining equanimity is easy when the environment is quiet and calm and controlled.  The challenges come when we are just another face in the crowd and the world rolls on around us.

It will be interesting to watch how, and if, things in my life have changed when I am back to full functioning again.   I wonder what I will have given up and what I have gained.  I guess I won’t know until I get there.

I have always loved the old Zen proverb about “chop wood and carry water.”  I expect that will continue.