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A Slow Song

by Steve Goldberg

I am standing on the U-shaped, slatted bench that leads to the entrance of the meditation hall. My gaze is soft, aimed at the ground about 10 feet in front of me. If I step just right, my foot fits perfectly within one of the wooden slats. In my head I am walking on a giant piano, tapping out scales with my toes. I match my steps to my breath, my leg raising on the inhales, slowly descending on the exhales. The gong sounds on my third pass back and forth on the bench. Time to switch from walking meditation to sitting meditation.

It’s day five of a seven-day silent meditation retreat at Spirit Rock. I’ve finally gotten my severely overactive brain to slow down to the point where I am able to focus on my breath for minutes as a time. The first two days I was so restless during the sitting meditations that I thought I was nearing a panic attack. The conversations in my head were non-stop; mostly a variation of “You are in this beautiful meditation hall, in the middle of the woods, you can hear the birds singing, they are feeding you delicious, healthy food, why are you so agitated?” But I knew that the first few days were akin to detox; my body and mind were clearly going to try and rebel and fight against this extended practice of attaining inner calm.

The dharma talks in the evenings are led by our two teachers, Tempel Smith and Sally Armstrong, who sit at the front of the octagon-shaped hall on a raised bamboo platform, Sally on a cushion in lotus position, Tempel on a chair. He told us on day one how his back problems keep him from sitting on a cushion, but that even when his back is fine and he has the option to sit like the rest of us, on the floor, he often prefers the chair. The hall filled with relieved laughter. We’d been fighting back pain, shoulder pain, numbness, stiffness for days now. Though by day five, and with the help of daily yoga practice offered in this retreat, I can now feel my body adapting to the rigors of stillness.

And I’m sitting in the front row, which is not at all what I do in large groups. Usually I stay near the back and observe. But I’m determined to beat back my sometimes debilitating social anxiety, which I can feel even in this supportive silent community. But I push past my reservations because I want to immerse myself here. I know being close to the source is what I need.

Although I know I’m supposed to not have impure thoughts, I’ve developed spiritual crushes on both my teachers, who tell such wise, grounded, relatable stories of their own Buddhist journeys, their own struggles with mental illness, existential angst, and self-doubt. They admit to us that they continue to struggle even after many years of dedicated practice, but that through meditation, with dharma study, with a supportive sangha, they have acquired many tools to combat the power of crazy mind. This is both a relief and tremendously disappointing. I’m not alone in this, but the work to keep the negative, self-critical thoughts at bay will never magically cease.

A creeping sadness overtakes me, knowing that there are only two more days of this. I don’t want it to end. Which I realize is clinging, which leads to suffering, which is what they have been teaching us all week. But now I can see this, can see the irony of it and am not anxious about it at all. Just wistful. Wistful for what hasn’t even happened yet. And then it passes and I’m back with my breath.

We end each evening meditation with a chant, a song really, in the Pali language, which is the language of the Buddha. It’s a chance to use our voices and although I am normally highly self-conscious of my singing voice, I don’t hold back when we repeat the phrases that Sally chants for us. I trust that we are not invoking evil spirits with these ancient words that sound a little like baby talk. The first night I had looked around to see if anyone else thought all of this was silly and hippy-dippy. What were we going to next, hold hands and sing Kumbaya? Now I see the chanting as the perfect dessert after a delicious meal.

After the chanting, the hall is left open for anyone who wants to continue sitting. The previous four nights, the idea of sitting “extra” never occurred to me and even sounded slightly insane. Tonight, I remain on my zafu, my hips more open than I can remember, my tight knees even hitting the cushion without strain. I feel a warm, electrical buzz outlining my entire body. It feels like five minutes later when the retreat manager comes in to blow out the candles and dim down the lights. I don’t want to leave.

I walk back to the dorm; the chirping and bleating of night-time insects fill me with a ridiculous, euphoric giddiness and I wonder if I will be able to sleep. Where a normal walking pace would take me five minutes, tops, it takes me almost an hour to travel the short distance to the building. It feels like exactly the right speed. The world is my piano and I am playing my slow song.

Steve Goldberg is a video editor living in Oakland CA with his wife and new pit-mix puppy. He has been attending retreats and workshops at Spirit Rock for about 10 years and also regularly attends events at East Bay Meditation Center.

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