Monday, April 5, 2010

Notes from a Solitary Retreat: Part One

In my first week-long solitary meditation retreat, in an isolated cabin overlooking the Gulf of St. Lawrence, I came face to face with my own mind — and several hundred other wild things. What follows are some reflections on getting to know the creatures I found inhabiting my retreat cabin — and my mind — and what I learned from them. This is Part One of a two-part series. Read Part Two.

Day 1

It’s the first day of my retreat — only a half-day, really, since I have the cabin starting at mid-afternoon. Today is about settling in, unpacking the things I’ve brought over to the cabin, preparing for a full schedule of meditation practice on the following six days, relaxing in the space and appreciating the view. Now my work is done, and I am sitting at the table, staring out the window at the vast ocean, enjoying a nice cup of peppermint tea. Feeling inspired, I am moved to sing a song about meditation written by Milarepa, the legendary Tibetan yogi from the 11th century. As I finish singing, I take a drink of my tea and get a chunk of tea leaves in my mouth. I’m surprised by this, and I swish them around and feel them with my tongue against my upper palate, considering whether to swallow them or spit them out. Then it dawns on me: there are no leaves in my tea, because I used a closed teabag. There is only one possibility: what is in my mouth at this very moment is the housefly that had been buzzing around a few minutes earlier. In a fit of disgust, I spit the mouthful of tea back into the cup, and look inside. There he is, drowned and floating at the top.

After recovering from my initial wave of revulsion (which involved a lot of spitting and rinsing my mouth at the sink) I reflect that this is not a very auspicious way to begin a Buddhist meditation retreat: killing a sentient being in my tea, or perhaps in my mouth. I pour out the contents of the teacup, and look at the fly lying in the sink. I am astounded to see that his legs are moving. After drowning in a teacup and being swished around in my mouth and pressed against my palate with my tongue, he is still hanging on to life. But I really don’t think he’s going to make it; he must be on his way out. Still, I want to give him the best chance I can; I feel I owe him that much, after almost eating him. I lay the fly out on a napkin to soak up the tea and saliva covering his body, and to my amazement, within a half hour he has fully recovered and crawled — or flown — off the napkin and disappeared.

The view from Cliffhanger on Day 1 of my retreat.

I am not alone in this solitary retreat cabin. In addition to the flies, there are the ants. Black ants, large ones and small ones, that march back and forth from one end of the cabin to the other, on some kind of mission the logic of which I cannot imagine. I wonder how many hundreds, possibly thousands, of critters are sharing this one-room structure with me. In a way, it’s really their space — they live here all the time. I’m just a guest for a week.

And at night, the cabin is full of strange knocking and scratching noises. I sleep fitfully, glancing at the windows from time to time to see what kind of beasts might be lurking outside, looking in. A bear, perhaps, or a pack of wolves, or an angry moose. I expect to see glowing red eyes, watching me hungrily.

Day 2

This cabin is called Cliffhanger. For about 20 years, it literally perched at the edge of this cliff above the Gulf of St. Lawrence, with the windows looking almost straight down at the waves breaking on the rocks 100 feet below. But about a year ago there were several rockslides in which nearby sections of the cliff fell away. One of the monks who was doing a retreat in the cabin at that time came running into the Abbey in the middle of the night, totally freaked out after hearing rocks falling close to the cabin. Cliffhanger was deemed unsafe, and was off-limits for several months after that. Eventually they brought in heavy equipment and picked up the whole cabin, like a doll house, and moved it back about thirty feet from the cliff’s edge. And now Cliffhanger is back in business.

Cliffhanger Cabin during my retreat. Photo by Miao Lin.

This afternoon I saw what I believe to be one of the two or three other mammals sharing the cabin with me. It is a large brown weasel, fat and as big as a cat, that most likely lives beneath the cabin. I saw it out the picture window, and did a double-take. It has the solid brown coat of an otter or a beaver, which is what I at first thought it was — not at all like the little white weasel I once chased through the Abbey, which may in fact have been a wild ferret. But the way it slinked forward like a weasel, rather than walking like any normal four-legged creature, gave it away. I dashed for my camera to take a picture of it, but it disappeared into the bushes before I could get a shot.

I wonder: does this weasel live alone here? Is he perhaps a bachelor? I like to imagine he is. And what does a bachelor weasel do, living beneath a solitary retreat cabin perched in the woods on a cliff a hundred feet above the ocean? Does he have a network of weasel friends, and weasel enemies? How does he find a mate in all this vast wildness? There are no weasel singles bars that I’m aware of in these parts. (Come to think of it, in my experience all singles bars are full of weasels.)

There is also at least one squirrel living in the upper parts of the cabin. I adore squirrels. I wrote a term paper about them in college, in a class on urban ecology. But the squirrels around here are territorial and aggressive, like Chihuahuas; they are not accustomed to human beings, and they make an awful fuss when you cross their turf. They puff up their tails and beat them against the tree branches, and shout absurd little high-pitched curses and threats that sound like a dog’s squeaky toy being squeezed repeatedly. They apparently have no idea, as Chihuahuas also seem to have no idea, how ridiculous they look and sound. Today while circling the cabin outside, I spotted a hole under the eave, along the wall next to my bed, where one of them seems to go in and out. I hear its rustling noises in the wall and ceiling above me when I’m falling asleep, along with an occasional noisy outburst of activity caused by I don’t know what: whatever it is that upsets squirrels and causes them to screech and dash about madly — which actually, now that I think about it, seems to be just about everything. Life as a squirrel can’t be easy: being so high-strung and edgy and paranoid all the time. It’s like being a New Yorker. It must be exhausting.

Day 3

I am becoming very familiar with the ants in this cabin. Too familiar. All morning, all afternoon, all night they are my constant companions. As I sit in meditation for three long sessions each day, I see them marching back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. Often I see them literally going in circles, sniffing out with their probing antennae whatever it is that ants sniff for all day and all night — which is, I gather, whatever they can score. Sometimes they march right up and climb me like a mountain while I am sitting there. I often shake them off my shirt or my shoes or my hands. I have literally had ants in my pants. A few times, I have maimed or killed them accidentally, because I didn’t know they were there, and I am roughly 20,000 times their size. I conscientiously watch the floors when I walk around the cabin, to avoid stepping on them — but it’s impossible to avoid it completely, because they are everywhere, and they are always on the move. Sharing the cabin’s tiny kitchenette with them is like performing in Riverdance.

There are two or three different types of ants here. At first I thought they were different species, though I have since realized that they are the same species, and even from the same colony, but they have different body types and different roles. Some of them are little worker ants, while others — two or three times their size — are fearsome warrior ants, with much larger pincers. You don’t want to mess with those guys. There are also a few large, winged ants that seem to do nothing but stumble around, slowly and aimlessly and ineffectively, looking rather depressed, like sad drunks or junkies. Perhaps that is what they are. They even have the junky’s narcolepsy: every now and then they’ll just come to a stop in the middle of the room and lie there without moving for several hours, until you’re convinced they’re dead and you’re ready to sweep them away with the broom, and then they’ll suddenly come back to life. They rarely attempt to use their wings, and when they do, they buzz around blindly a few inches off the floor, banging drunkenly into walls and furniture.

The fierce warrior ants, if you blow at them, will rear up and show you their pincers in a threatening gesture, the way a lobster does with its claw: they are preparing to strike if they continue to be hassled. And if you stomp your foot on the floor to shoo them away, they do not run away from it — they run, without exception, directly at it. I suppose that is what they are programmed, as warriors, to do — they are the kamikaze pilots of the ant world, the team’s offensive players. I only realized the little workers and the big warriors were the same species after seeing them meet each other several times and lock together in a sort of friendly embrace, exchanging chemical information face to face, almost like French-kissing. And then they separate and go on their way.

Their antennae, with which these ants feel their way through the world, are another amazing bit of technology. Although they grow out of their heads, their antennae also function as arms, and there is an elbow joint built right into each one. When they find something to eat, they use their antennae rather daintily to scoop it towards their mouth, as if they were holding a fork and a knife. I’ve also seen them use their antennae to clean their faces, and to scratch themselves when they itch.

Today one of the ants caught my eye while I was meditating. At that moment, I happened to be reciting a section of my liturgy that deals with the topic of death (a frequent object of contemplation in Buddhism). I noticed this ant had a very odd shape, and was limping right towards me. I looked more closely. Speaking of death, this was a worker ant, carrying half of the chopped-up corpse of a fly. I saw the other half of the fly lying on the floor nearby. (It didn’t stay there for long, as that ant or another one soon came back to retrieve it.) I can't help wondering if it was the fly that was in my mouth a couple of days ago.

If I died here, if I choked on a piece of broccoli and keeled over, how long would it take these ants to start chopping me up and carting me away? Would there be anything left of my remains by the time the folks at the Abbey came looking for me? Probably just some bones and teeth and hair, arranged in a heap on my meditation cushion. Even now, my only defense against these creatures, the only thing that keeps them in check, is that I’m inconveniently 20,000 times their size. But I suspect they’re looking at me, licking their little ant chops, and wishing, hoping for a miracle.

Day 4

Thick clouds and mist everywhere today: the sea and sky have merged into one, with no visual line separating them at the horizon. The famous Cape Breton wind is also picking up now.

I have been studying these ants, and I have realized what line of business they are in: they are all undertakers. All day long, I see them hauling around the corpses of their fallen comrades — sometimes not even whole corpses, just gruesome severed heads or other body parts. There is no shortage of ants here, and no shortage of dead ants, either. This room in which I am meditating is a charnel ground in miniature scale. Fresh ant corpses — felled by what causes I do not know — just keep appearing here and there throughout the cabin, and this work of undertaking is never finished for those who are still living. I see them at it constantly. They heave the corpses up with their jaws like Olympic weight-lifters and carry the bodies out in front of them, or they walk at a funny angle and push the bodies from the side, or they walk backwards in front of the corpses and drag them the way a dog pulls at a bone. I have even seen one of them rather sportingly dragging around a huge dustbunny, in which were tangled the severed body parts of another dessicated ant. (Don't believe me? I got the whole thing on video...)

I have now observed so much of this behavior from these ants that I am fully convinced that they spend more time searching for and transporting other ant corpses than they do looking for food, or eating it -- unless the corpses of the dead ants are their food. But I don’t think so. I read somewhere that ants build a special chamber in their colonies where they bring — as if respectfully, to their proper resting place — the bodies of their fellow ants who have passed on: an ant burial chamber. That is an altogether more civilized explanation for this behavior I am witnessing, and a more pleasing one for the human mind to contemplate. These small, black, six-legged creatures I am sharing a room with this week are either all remorseless cannibals, or a race of ethical beings whose main business — aside from survival — is scampering around looking for the remains of their relatives, and seeing that those remains are properly cared for when they find them.

Read Part Two

1 comment:

妙琳 said...

Thank you for sharing your retreat experience more in details, Zopa!

Wow! You must have had way more ant friends than I did in Feb. That's why they caught so much of your attention, yeah? I didn't look at them that closely. I came up with a quick and effective way to put them out of my sight by using a glass and piece of paper to cup them and putting them out of the cabin. I knew they probably wouldn't survive the freezing air outside, so I chanted the six syllabus mantra every time I did it. Very bad of me eh? I've also dedicated the merit of my practices to them. That would work!

Looking forward to reading the rest of your retreat journal. Enjoy the wit and humor in your writing!

Thanks, Bro!