Getting the Flu: A Four-Day Forced Meditation Retreat

by Matt B. on March 31, 2013

I haven’t left the house much over the last couple of days. My sheets are bunched up at the foot of the bed, clothes are strewn all over the floor, and containers of half-eaten soup and Emergen-C scan the wasteland from their perches on desktops and chairs.

It’s been wonderful. In fact, it’s a lot like a silent meditation retreat – just sitting and watching my thoughts and emotions arise and then fade away. Of course, the fact that I’m spending my time this way is for different reasons. In a retreat cabin in the woods with no electricity, it’s because there’s little else to do, and because that’s what you’re there for. Here at home, it’s because I don’t have the energy to do anything else.

And that’s a blessing. Because as I watch my mind churn out thoughts – most of which have to do with how I could entertain myself for fifteen minutes or half an hour – I’m getting a glimpse of just how much time I spend doing everything in my power to get away from myself. I want to be distracted, occupied, busy. I want to take up some activity that will make me feel like I’m doing something with my time – and it almost doesn’t matter what it is, so long as it feels productive. Watch reruns of Parks and Recreation again? Sure! Organize the spice rack? Why not! What I want, I think, is a feeling that I’m passing the time in a way that would be recognizable to other people, that would count as an answer to the question “What did you do today?”

But over these last few days, I haven’t had the energy to do those sorts of things. In fact, when I’ve considered them, I’ve often felt repelled by the sheer transparency of my strategies to stay busy, by my desire to do anything but spend time alone. In Buddhist terms, I’ve felt revulsion at the way my mind constantly grasps after something – something solid, something pleasurable, something other than this.

And even in those very moments of insight, the grasping instinct reasserts itself.  Too tired to get up and make dinner? Why not just stay here and check e-mail on your phone? Or tick off those little tasks you’ve accrued in your ‘Notes’ app. This instinct can even begin to sound like wisdom: You’re not dead, are you? So you ought to be able to get at least something done.

But if I listen closely, I realize that this isn’t the voice of wisdom – it’s the voice of neurosis, of an ego that doesn’t know how to be in the world except by creating a never-ending stream of tasks to accomplish. When I translate, this is how it sounds: do stuff do stuff do stuff do stuff do stuff.

This, I see, is the voice that’s always in the background – the one that’s forever planning my next activity in the midst of this one. (What will I do after I finish this draft? Will I post it right away? Will I take a break and review it later? If I take that break, how will I spend my time? A snack? A shower? And so on, without end.)

The voice begins to sound petty, needy, small; uneasiness courses through my body. I didn’t realize I was quite this sick.




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