I recently returned from a silent meditation retreat, and had (once again) a pretty profound experience. I’d like to share it here, because in many ways, it wasn’t such a profound experience, but because I was on a meditation retreat, my thoughts, feelings and coming face to face with death were much more apparent and intense than they would be otherwise. This blog will be in two parts. Here’s the first half of the story…
I had been meditating along, minding my own business, and “cheating” on the meditation retreat by texting with my partner on my breaks during the day. All was well. We’d exchange some witty banter, tell each other how much we miss each other, and I’d attempt to share in one sentence or less whatever insight I’d had that day. Then Thursday afternoon, out of the blue, radio silence from him. At first I was annoyed. He must be deep in his damn computer. I texted something funny after dinner. Nothing. I texted again before bed. I REALLY wanted to say goodnight to him. Would put my mind at ease. But I thought maybe he doesn't need that and so wouldn't think to check his phone. I thought, "I'll just be really clear and neutral and tell him that I need that." (Good relationship communication ;)) So I texted that. And then resigned myself to falling asleep again "alone. " Why did it feel so alone? I'm programmed now with him as my regulator. Attachment. Neurological attachment. We didn't text a lot but these brief moments of connection were (apparently) crucial to my sense of basic okayness.
I can't fall asleep. I toss and turn for a couple hours then check my phone. Usually he'd text even after I went to sleep. Nothing. At this point I started to worry that something was wrong. Nothing I can do. His phone is always on silent. My mind began to panic. I picture him dead in the shower, slipped and bleeding, Maple laying in the bathroom next to him confused. I picture him in bed. Cold and still. A heart attack. I think about sending my neighbor over to check on him if I don't hear from him by the morning. I now have a plan so I try to fall asleep, but I have trouble because I wonder if there's the chance to save him if I act immediately and don't wait till morning. I have no way of knowing. It's physically painful.
I remember a conversation we had after we lost track of each other skiing and I had jumped to the conclusion that he was lost on the dark, cold mountain alone, dying. He'd said, "Don't you think it would be better if you stayed calm and just assumed I was safely at the bottom? Not a helpful thing, [not a chill, mindful thing], to assume catastrophe." Yes. True. But so, so hard. Once the possibility of threat, death, loss has entered my mind it's very hard to zoom out and stay calm. That's what I wanted to try to do here. Especially on a darn meditation retreat!
So I did my best Nurture Positive and cognitive reframing techniques and told myself he was just distracted by something at home and knew I was sleeping and would text in the morning. I fell asleep. For about an hour. Then woke straight up in bed thinking the large wall mirror was a Spector of him trying to tell me something. I looked over to the empty other bed in the room. In this in-between sleep and waking state, it made sense: he wasn't here with me but his holograph was. Then I kinda came to. Drenched in sweat. Still no text. No way to know what was going on. I fitfully fell in and out of sleep.
I woke up early. I immediately texted, "Are you okay? Are you awake?" I didn't want to betray my panic, and admit again that a part of me was catastrophizing. I knew, logically, that probably everything was fine and I'd hear from him in a couple hours when he woke. I was also aware of shame that I was so anxious. Why couldn't I just be cool? Why couldn't I just be patient? How could I have let myself get so attached, and dependent and pitiful and weak (my own self-judgments, loud and clear)?
I was actually feeling weak. Not just emotionally but physically too. Exhausted and out of control. I hate weakness in myself. It’s not very self-compassionate, I know. I work on it.
I dragged myself to a previously scheduled individual coaching session with Shinzen (my meditation teacher). I worked hard to keep my concentration on the technique I was practicing. I relaxed and paid very close attention. It was a productive meditation. Toward the end, I started gasping for breath, feeling as if my breathing was about to just peter out and stop and there was nothing I could do. I had a sense of sinking and being truly out of control, hurtling toward the void - death. It was terrifying and uncomfortable. I was physically fine, but all the sudden afraid to let go into the meditation. This is not necessarily an unusual occurrence. I've experienced this before. But today it felt so much more real. Shinzen was characteristically unconcerned. I thought he would think, "An opportunity to uncondition our body's primitive survival instinct!" But he said this could be a “normal” experience of getting in touch with and aware of the body’s need to live. Of course I said nothing about my fear that my partner was dead. I worked hard to relax these images, reminding myself that I just didn't know what was going on, and if I could withstand a little longer of not knowing, everything would be fine.
After breakfast there was still no communication. It would now be 8:15 at home. Surely he was up. I texted one last time, and emailed: "Now I'm really worried. I'm sure it's fine but please text or email that you're okay. Right away." I went into another 2 hour meditation sit. And here's where things really got crazy….
Read next month’s blog for the ending. Holy carp! What attachment, in the Buddhist sense of wanting “things” (life, circumstances, people, self) to be a certain way; and attachment to a particular person, can do to you! We are all such vulnerable, little humans. I’m glad I survived.