In the months before I left for retreat, suicide bombers blew up 200 marines in Beirut; death squads and right-wing mercenaries were on attack in Central America; and the United States invaded Grenada in “Operation Urgent Fury.” It was 1983, and I was 36 years old. To me the whole world felt like an urgent fury, driven by uncontrollable passions and full of conflict, not only in the world but also in my personal life—in my shouting matches with my mom and my stepmom; in my fraught relationships in my collective house; and in my turbulent love life.
I worked with several peace groups, and I joined a direct-action affinity group protesting cruise missiles. But with family and friends I shocked myself with my own bursts of violence. Just three years earlier, when my mother came to visit me, I had pulled her hair and slapped her face. The next year, when a boyfriend took up with a new woman, I went to the stoop of his building and smashed a glass brick he’d given me as a gift. “It’s a warning,” I informed him from a nearby phone booth. “If I see her walk out your door, I’ll knock her down!”
Through meditation and therapy, I was learning ways to contain that fury. And with casual acquaintances, I had a warm and generous persona. But just before leaving for retreat, after a housemate rebuked me for my slovenly housework, I began shouting at her and then seized a pitcher of orange juice and, with a swing, splattered the kitchen of our Berkeley commune.
On this three-month silent retreat, I urgently sought peace.
Several weeks past the official start of the retreat, I arrived at Insight Meditation Society in the evening, cold and exhausted after my flight from San Francisco and a chilly ride to Barre from the Boston airport. I hadn’t been in Western Massachusetts in eight years, not since my dad died in a dreary ward of the North Adams Hospital. I breathed in the leaf smells of autumn that still carried sense memories of antiseptic and sickness.
A staff member guided me to the evening meditation, passing through a special hall for walking meditation, its stained-glass windows a reminder that this Buddhist center had previously been a Catholic novitiate. I stood in the doorway of the darkening meditation hall, a capacious, high-ceilinged room easily accommodating the rows of meditators, at least a hundred of them, ensconced in shawls and sitting on cushions. I had attended a number of ten-day retreats in California, but the prospect of months of meditation suddenly felt creepy—the quiet in the hall shouted at me, the stillness of the sitters made me want to run, and I was filled with skepticism.
On the dais at the front of the hall, facing the rows of meditators, sat the teachers—Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, Jack Kornfield, and Alan Clements—three of whom I had studied with before. Jack gently tapped a wooden mallet against the lip of the great bowl-shaped bell, sending a chime echoing through the silence. Trying to sit tall, I lowered my shoulders. Sliding my palms along my thighs, I gripped my knees. I fought to find my breath. Please, I thought, may I find some peace.
At the end of the evening, Alan sent us off by telling us “My Burmese teacher U Pandita asks, ‘Did you fall asleep on the in-breath or the out-breath?’” Right.
I knew the challenging daily schedule—spare, highly scripted, with 12 or more hours of meditation in alternating periods of sitting and very slow walking, all in “noble silence” that even precluded reading. I’d struggled on other retreats to keep moment-to-moment mindfulness not only during formal meditation but also as I ate, as I brushed my teeth, and during everything else. But to notice an in- or out-breath at the moment of falling asleep—give me a break!
The next day, I was given my daily chore. Everybody had one. Mine was to clean the bathroom. It was the teachers’ bathroom on the second floor and, as far as I could tell, was off-limits for students except as a cleaning job. The heavy door resisted easy access, but I finally pushed it open. It was a large and impressive bathroom: the white tile walls and floor gleamed; the old-fashioned toilet had a chain flush; and there was a heavy porcelain bathtub.
A bathtub. That morning I had rushed through a frigid shower in the dormlike annex where I was housed with other students. A warm bath—that sure would have hit the spot.
But I was here to do a job, and I would do it in style. On my knees, I began with the tub. I pushed up the sleeves of my turtleneck, doused the bottom with gritty Ajax powder, and lunged into scrubbing. A TV ad from my childhood jangled into my mind: “Use Ajax, the foaming cleanser. . . . Boom boom . . . ” I scoured the gray film of dirt just at the waterline below the rim of the tub. Coughing in a cloud of powder, I went on the attack, picking out the dirt in the crack where the spigots were attached to the tub and fishing out knotted hair clogging the drain. Could anyone ever have scrubbed this tub with such intensity? “Boom boom, the foaming cleanser . . .”
With the force of my cleaning, thoughts boomeranged. I’d show them—my mom, my stepmom, my old boyfriend with his new sweetheart, housemates who criticized my housekeeping. All who had said without saying it that they were onto me, that I was escaping from responsibilities in the world, that I had gone off the deep end with this meditation business.
But what exactly was it that I was going to show them? That was less clear.
One night, after Jack rang the bell, he began chanting:
Namo tassa bhagavato arahato samma-sambuddhassa . . .
Oh no. I thought I was coming to a place with a no-frills approach—no robes, no bows, no chants. Meditation only.
Buddham saranam gacchami . . .
“This is what we chanted every morning and every evening,” Jack told us, “with the Thai Forest master Ajahn Chah.” OK, fine. But this was definitely not for me.
I kept at my sitting and walking meditation, and I strived, doggedly, to pay attention at all times. As the days passed, I looked forward increasingly to going back to my job. There, no one could see whether I was sitting up tall enough or walking slowly enough. In the privacy of the bathroom, I felt more at ease. After a few weeks of cleaning the tub each day, I began to actively fantasize about taking my own deliciously warm bath.
Every few days, I met alternately with Jack or Sharon for a practice interview. In my conversations with Jack, I sought comfort. I told him about my dad’s death and the memories called up for me by the New England autumn.
On the third week, when I opened the door to Jack’s room, I was shocked to see a stranger. There she sat, diminutive, with her puff of red hair and white shawl, right next to Jack. He introduced us and told me, “As a teacher trainee, she’ll be sitting in on our conversation. This is her first training interview.”
I spoke to Jack and avoided meeting the trainee’s eye. “With pain from the cancer in his bones,” I said, “Dad drove the family car into a tree. At the hospital, he told me how mad he was at himself for bungling the suicide.”
Jack nodded, “That must have been hard.”
Then the trainee barged in. “Don’t you think it’s time to stop feeling sorry for yourself that your father died?” It took all the restraint I could summon to keep myself from grabbing her and shaking her frail shoulders.
After that interview, whenever I passed her in the dining hall, I looked ahead blankly; when she was up on the dais in the line of teachers, I pretended not to see her. When I sat down to meditate, I kept picturing my revenge. I imagined meeting her on the second floor in the hallway while on my way to my job in the bathroom. I would pick up her little body and, in a single thrust, pitch her down the stairs.
I was ashamed and scared of my violent thoughts. And I was increasingly angry at myself for being angry. Here I was at a retreat where one of the trainings was to imagine generating a feeling of metta, or “lovingkindness,” and to silently send it to yourself, to others, even to your enemies. There was no way in hell that I could trump up this pretense. One morning a month into the retreat, I tried to follow the steps of the exercise, but I couldn’t work up any kindness, and certainly not love.
In a talk one evening, Joseph described the assault of Mara the Tempter on the meditating Buddha-to-be on the night of his awakening. At one point, bristling with pikes, arrows, and swords, battle-axes and clubs, the soldiers in Mara’s army stormed the renunciate sitting beneath the Bodhi tree. “But the Buddha’s meditation transformed the onslaught of greed and hatred and delusion into wisdom and compassion,” Joseph said. “We don’t have to fight to overcome these forces. Instead, through awareness, we allow their energy to teach us their laws.”
It was hard, even frightening, to meditate with that hateful energy. I tried to sit still and let it teach me, but as a novice in the art of awareness I became increasingly agitated. So I focused fiercely on my breath coming in and out of my nostrils. Week after week, I concentrated so hard, I started getting nosebleeds.
Late one evening, when I sat down and closed my eyes, a rush of violent images arose on the screen of my mind: turbulent figures in battle. In ocher, green, and vermilion, nightmare scenes returned in each meditation, Bruegel paintings in motion—men, women, and children being butchered; gibbets and gallows; carrion buzzards wheeling. The brutal images evolved to Goyaesque disasters of war. Then they moved on to Guernica.
Panicked, I told Sharon in an interview, “Something crazy’s going on.” I described the unrelenting film—raised hatchets and thrusting bayonets; flaming buildings, flailing arms, severed heads.
Sharon listened, unimpressed. “You’re very concentrated, going deep.”
“But what should I do with all this?”
“Just notice,” she said, “and return to your breath.”
“My mind is spewing up the whole history of war. And you tell me just to notice and return to my breath?” My voice rose, shrill.
Sharon answered, unperturbed, “You might try the lovingkindness meditation.”
“Do a phony exercise, ‘sending out love’ I don’t feel?” I crossed my arms over my chest.
“Just give it a shot,” she said. “I bet you’ll find your own way in.”
“Maybe.” I conceded begrudgingly. It probably wouldn’t help, but it could hardly hurt.
Despite my initial failure, I had tried several more times to muster love or simply kindness to send out. But I still just couldn’t contact either one. They felt so abstract. This time, maybe I’d try warmth. I’d been chilled ever since I’d arrived at Barre. I could imagine sending out warmth to those suffering from cold. Here, in late-autumn New England, warmth felt like a kindness.
During the next meditation period, I rested my hand on my chest and waited to feel the heat of contact with my palm. I would imagine that warmth expanding around the earth. I started by trying to send warmth to the students in the hall; then I pictured it spreading to New England, the Midwest, California. After I crossed the Pacific, things quickly got vague. What came where? Korea? Japan? Vietnam? I never did have a memory for geography.
Serendipitous help appeared. As I was doing walking meditation in the upper hallways of the old brick edifice, I happened on a hidden room, its oaken door ajar. Interrupting my slow walking, I pushed the door open and crept into what looked like an abandoned office, clearly off-limits for us meditators. To me, it felt like a sanctuary. In the far corner, I spotted an old-fashioned globe. I spun this tiny world and found each of those countries across the Pacific. A distant pattering interrupted my reverie, footsteps approaching. Not wanting to be caught in the act, I hurried back into the hallway and resumed a somber walking step. After that, though, each day I snuck off to this surely forbidden room to study the globe. This became my own, very personal practice. I relished the secret retreat I was creating for myself.
I reviewed my continents, highlighted in peach and lavenders and browns. I traced the equator and the prime meridian, ran my fingers across the raised ridges of the Himalayas, the Alps, and the Andes, the swirling aqua of the oceans and cobalt of the rivers. When I felt ready, I would bring these imprints to meditation and send the kindness of warmth to the far reaches of the earth.
Meanwhile, every evening at the sitting before the talk, Jack sounded the bell and recited the same chants.
Namo tassa . . .
After weeks of hunching my shoulders and locking my jaw when Jack began to chant, one evening I noted that, ever so slightly, I was looking forward to the chanting. The hypnotic melody carried me. Like a lullaby, it rocked my hurtling thoughts. Finally, when the rhythm slowed and the chant dissolved into a sigh, I didn’t want it to stop. One last chime sounded from the bell, and I was here, with the others, sitting still, a bit calmed.
The next morning, as I cleaned the toilet I found myself humming not the Ajax ditty but something else. Something familiar, with an appealing rhythm. The low droning sound reverberated in my mind:
Buddham saranam gacchami
As I hummed, I felt a buzz in the roof of my mouth and my upper lip and nostrils. Then, to my own surprise, I began to sing, the sound tingling in my throat, my lungs, and down through my chest to my belly. And I swirled the toilet brush, cleansing the bowl.
Shifting from toilet to bathtub, my musings sweetened and splayed. Through a cloud of Ajax dust, a new thought coalesced: Not only was this a bathtub for the regular teachers, but it had also likely played host for the ablutions of such great visiting masters as Mahasi Sayadaw, Ajahn Chah, and even His Holiness the Dalai Lama. It was a venerable tub.
Then it came to me: What I really wanted was to take a bath. And here was the bathtub of the masters. Was I worthy? That thought brought up a smile, which felt good. I’d been taking myself—my angers, my worries, my grief over my dad—very seriously.
Right then, I finalized a plan I’d been refining for many weeks. The safest time to take my bath undiscovered would be during the evening meditation before the talk and during the talk itself. As everyone filed in for the talk each night, there was an air of quiet excitement, a subtle change in the low-key quiet of the retreat. All of the teachers always showed up, and so did all of the staff and students. No one would be upstairs. This would be the time to pull off my caper. I planned it out with the care of a cat burglar.
The next morning, I stashed a flashlight and a towel in my satchel when I headed out of the annex for the day. In the evening, I felt the charge of adrenaline. I nonchalantly futzed around in the dining hall drinking tea until I heard the bell for the start of meditation, and then I picked up my satchel in the vestibule, tiptoed past the now-closed door of the hall, and stole upstairs.
I had never been in that bathroom at night. My heartbeat quickened. I left the light off, so as not to attract notice in the highly unlikely case that someone would walk by. As an added safety measure, I locked the door. By the light of my torch, I peeled off my clothes to bathe. In the mirror over the sink, I could see my dim form. Even with the door locked, I felt exposed. When I turned the spigot, water bellowed into the glimmering tub, still pristine from my morning cleaning.
Cautiously, holding the sides of the tub, I slipped one foot in and then the other. Squatting, keeping hold of the sides, I slowly lowered myself into the liquid warmth, held close by the steadfast curve of this basin I had come to know so well.
The rushing water sound rinsed through my consciousness. When the tub was full, I rested in silence. For what felt like the first time on this retreat, I began to truly relax and to feel at peace.
My body breathed, belly pooching out, thighs at rest, legs floating, calves kissing. The water seemed to leach out toxins, cleaving everywhere equally, accepting each crevice and blemish. As I rested, something released.
Maybe I could do the lovingkindness meditation right here in the tub. I would send kindness as water to all the war zones. I began with myself. Not so difficult in this bath to feel that kindness. I imagined kindness overflowing the tub, seeping under the door of the bathroom and spilling down the stairs, through the hall, streaming over the gathered meditators. I saw kindness flooding over New England and across the United States, through the islands of the Pacific, which I now could picture from my surreptitious study. I sent kindness washing over Vietnam and up through the Persian Gulf, to Beirut, into the Mediterranean across the Atlantic to Grenada, west through the Caribbean to beleaguered Central America. I saw oceans in aqua and rivers in cobalt, just as I’d learned to recognize them on the globe, carrying the waters of kindness and peace, back up through the Gulf of Mexico, along the Atlantic Coast, to my stepmother in Florida, my mother in New York, and on to Barre, returning to this very bath.
I rested in the tub to the last, even as the water flowed out.
Once I was dressed again in my meditator’s garb and was about to leave, I took a last look at the tub. By the light of my torch, I noticed a faint film below the rim. Of course. My job. Taking out the Ajax from under the sink, I sprinkled it in the tub and cleaned until the basin gleamed. I’d come full circle in my secret retreat, scrubbing, toilet chanting, globe study, a bath, and sending kindness to the world, which I might never have done in a way that felt so true had I kept on script. With ardor, I returned to polishing the tub.
At the late-night meditation, everything seemed as usual. Some must have seen that I had been missing in the earlier session, at least the sitters on either side of my empty cushion. But no one gave me a sideways stare. I looked up through the muted light toward the dais. Startled, I saw my nemesis about to ring the bell. No mistaking her, the cloud of red hair and the white shawl. She gazed out at us, the assembled meditators. I didn’t like her. But tonight, she looked so frail all alone up there. Brave. It came to me that for a teacher in training, a novice just like me, to speak out at a first interview—that was brave too. I looked back toward her, hoping she could feel my gaze, and I made a bow.
Adapted from a chapter of a book in progress, Taking a Bath in the Milky Way.
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