When I mentioned that I might need to meditate no one — not my husband, my friends, or my therapist — disagreed. Yes! They crowed. Universally, they rushed in, heads nodding, extolling Zen gurus, experiences with ’60s TM, and mindfulness sessions with Jon Cabot Zinn. They dropped off guided mindfulness CDs, located classes, and offered meditation groups.
Not a very cosmic sort, I attended a lecture, cowed by participants who came armed with yoga mats and worry beads, ready to drop into a higher consciousness on the spot. While I had to admit meditating was relaxing, I couldn’t see giving too much time to it.
“That’s your problem,” said everyone. “Meditation will give you more space to make time for everything.”
I admit that I was skeptical. But what if they were right? I considered it and then decided to take the plunge. So last fall, I boarded a plane and went to Italy on a retreat to learn how to live mindfully and meditate with Zen writing gurus Natalie Goldberg and Wendy Johnson. I could have taken a course at the local Y, but Italy seemed considerably more drastic and exotic.
Gathered together with 38 mostly middle-aged women and two brave men, the group descended upon one of the most beautiful places on earth — an 80-acre farm and vineyard called Villa Lina, where goats, dogs, and peacocks frolicked among fig and olive trees.
Owned by a woman named Paola who roamed the estate most of the day, beaming at everyone, the estate was an advertisement for the good and contemplative life. Meals were taken in a large, elaborately decorated room — mostly vegetarian food, and not a lot of it.
Learning to check out
Our days were structured around sitting and walking meditation and writing classes with Natalie. At eight in the morning we gathered in a large hall dubbed the zendo, where we waited for Wendy — a vibrant, large-boned, gray-haired woman dressed in a variety of what my mother would call schmattes — to ring a gong and urge us to breathe.
Throughout the day, the gong would ring and we would narrow our eyes to lizard slits and drop out of the moment on the spot while sitting in place. I tried to avoid checking my iPhone to see how much time passed, but didn’t always succeed.
We did walking meditation as well, slowly inching our ways mindfully through huge poplar trees and ornate statuary. “You up front,” Wendy called. Invariably it was me she addressed. “You’ve got an airport walk,” she ruled, disapprovingly.
Clearly, I was not a natural.
But as the week progressed, I got into the swing of things. Outside the zendo, birds chirped, grapes plumped, and dogs frolicked off leash. My partners were wrapped in colorful pashimas, we were all starving on the meager diet, and meditation came to seem normal and refreshing. As a group, we bonded and shared secrets. After all, there were few distractions: no TV, no radios, and not much of an Internet connection. Picture taking by iPhone was discouraged. “What is Steve Jobs looking at now?” our gurus would question as we snapped glorious sunsets or sunrises.
And yet, despite my reservations, settled in the center of the organic gardens and ancient mansions, the meditative life gradually became easier. I even toned down my natural jokiness. When instructed to lean on trees to hear them breathe, I didn’t crack a single joke about my trunk having a case of possible asthma. At a tea ceremony at retreat’s end, when asked to offer any insights on the week, I heard myself speaking up: When I arrived, I expounded, I expected nothing. Instead, I received everything.
In short, I drank the Kool-Aid.
On the flight home, my inner cynic jettisoned, I was giddy with my possibilities. Seven pounds lighter thanks to the Spartan diet, and enlightened to boot, I landed and started to preach my new discipline to just about everyone I met. For three weeks I woke before dawn, crossed my legs and sat still as stone, concentrating on thinking nothing. And I did feel remarkably better — calmer, cooler, less anxious. My therapist was pleased. Meditation worked — it made me happier.
Needing to check in
But then a funny thing happened: Life kicked in. Deadlines, editing, teaching, cooking, shopping, and the mornings in the peaceful zendo seemed more and more like a crazy dream. I skipped one day of meditation, then another.
One day during a power outage, when I was forced to work at a Cosi in the neighborhood, I snapped when a man stepped on my computer power cord. “Get off!” I cried. He looked at me, chagrined, and I realized from the tightness in my chest and overplayed annoyance that I hadn’t meditated for weeks.
After I apologized, I resolved to get back on the meditation horse, but I didn’t. It was easier to sleep a little longer in the morning. Or watch “The Housewives of Beverly Hills.” And I wasn’t about to head outside in my suburban neighborhood and hug a tree.
In short, I fell off the wagon.
My friends and family were right: Meditation was good for me. But maybe it wasn’t meant for me. For one, I wasn’t comfortable living a life completely without irony. Or, it might just be the old Marx Brothers conundrum about not caring to belong to any club that would have me as a member.
Maybe I’ll get back to it at some point but for now, it’s a question of either holding onto a peace of mind, or a piece of me.