In November of 2011 I attended my first 10-day silent meditation retreat at Spirit Rock. Waiting around in the dining hall for the others to check in, having a few last moments of random conversation. Advice was flowing from other more experienced meditators, things like, “you won’t make it to every session,” and “remember, there’s no meditation police.” We were put into small groups and assigned locations for a brief question and answer session. The facilitator of my group was a man named Pat Coffey. “Are we related?” he eagerly asked when I arrived. He seemed excited about the idea of a long lost relative showing up in this space, and ultimately relieved when I said “No.”
He was of the Irish Coffey clan, which I could not claim to be my heritage. My name comes from a series of random moments which began on April Fool’s Day 1913 when my paternal great grand father arrived at Ellis Island. He arrived with a long Eastern European Jewish last name, something like Kufelnitzki, and it was promptly shortened to Coffee, like the drink. The next random moment happened when my father was born, and my grandfather decided to change the last letter of my father’s last name from e to y on his birth certificate, Coffey. Even though I look Irish, and my name looks Irish, and I long to see Ireland, I am in fact of Eastern European Jewish ancestry. I digress…
The retreat began. I created routines in my new home for ten days. I found my sacred spot in the hall. I settled into my shared room. I discovered my preferred span of carpet for walking meditation. I practiced my karma yogi job with intense focus. We were told not to write, not to read, not to eat outside food or drink coffee, no drugs or alcohol, no talking, no singing. Which brings me to this random moment, where I feel I must confess. I brought and ate chocolate. I consumed caffeinated tea. And I wrote. The muse hit me in that silent place where writing was prohibited, and I had to break the rules. I take solace in knowing that there aren’t meditation police, judges or juries. Only karma.
I started to create intricate plot lines based on the fantasy lives I had created about the other meditators. The retreat became the backdrop for the sit-com I’d started writing about the characters sharing silent space with me. I had to record it all. I convinced myself this would be a hit TV show, and started writing the script when I was alone in my room. There were the star crossed lovers, the rejected athletes, the old married couple heading for divorce, the grieving son, the addicts in recovery, the new yoga converts aiming for higher achievement. And so on. I became deeply enmeshed with my fantasy world.
We were assigned two check-in meetings with teachers during the retreat. My first check in was a few days in with Anushka Fernandopulle. The only thing I wanted to talk about was my digestive system. I was constipated and gassy. I found myself having a hard time being still and silent in the hall because when I relaxed, my body wanted to expel gas. I would tense my body to hold it in because I didn’t want to make noise or attract attention with the odor. There were constant reminders about scent, and sensitivity. I started sitting as far away from others as possible, often leaving the room to try to relieve myself. I couldn’t allow my body to relax. I obsessed about how full I felt and how long it had been since I’d had a bowel movement. Here I was with this respected teacher talking about my shit, literally. It was all I could think about. We laughed. I cried a little. She tried to approach it as a metaphor, like I was holding onto emotional/spiritual/psychic shit that I needed to relax my grip on and let go of. I took this lesson and sought a more practical solution.
Every morning in the dining hall I could see the single cup coffee maker, and I could even see some left over coffee someone had left, but no filters. It was driving me crazy. After a few days I noticed the Smooth Move tea, and took a mega dose before bed. In the morning, still nothing. I found some black tea, and tried that. Still nothing. I think it took four days of Smooth Move and black tea to get things moving. With the constipation out of the way, I could focus my crazy thoughts on the gas.
Pat Coffey gave a dharma talk one day where he described his experience of aging as he saw changes in his address book. Over time the list became filled with all of the specialists he’d seen for the maintenance and care of his body. He enumerated the ailments, concerns, diagnoses, practitioners, and healers. It allowed me to laugh at my body a little. He also talked about getting things checked out that might be driving you nuts, and easy to treat. I had digestive issues my whole life. The promise of belly pain kept me from social situations where I wasn’t sure how my body would react to food or stimuli. As a kid I dreaded being invited to a friends home for a meal. As an adult the fear of gas made me leave companionship and seek medicines. I convinced myself that I was lactose intolerant, which was popular among my Jewish relatives. I made a mental note to see a doctor about my digestive issues.
Side note: I demanded to be tested for helicobacter pylori when I returned from retreat. My provider was resistant since I’m relatively healthy, and hadn’t traveled recently. I persisted, and the results showed a raging high level of h. pylori which would explain the years of discomfort.
When I cleared my mind and got into a place of deep meditation, feelings of grief filled in the space. Up until then the only person who I had loved and lost was my grandmother, Bubby. She had been dead for more than 12 years and I shuddered when I thought of her and how much I missed her. I didn’t realize it then, but I had not fully grieved her death. During a seated meditation session I became filled with thoughts and feelings of Bubby. The tears started flowing, and I didn’t want to hold it in. I stepped out of the large hall and proceeded to the smaller upper hall where I threw my body on the floor and wailed. I pounded my fists on the ground, I screamed, I sobbed. I let it out, and for the first time in my life I felt an expansive space open in my chest. I felt a lightness I had never known.
I loved Bubby so much. She was the epitome of unconditional love. She was all about hugs and love and baking cakes and eating peaches poured out of cans. She outlived her mean angry husband by decades. I believe the only fear she had about death was of seeing him again. She seemed sure that he was waiting for her in hell so that he could abuse her in the after life. After his death she appeared to take refuge in soap operas. She would get dressed and made up every day only to sit in front of the television between meals and slumber. She seemed content to be alone, having survived her abuser. She became witness to the lives in the television set. Being witness was safe.
I eventually re-joined the silent herd with this new ability to be with, and not consumed by. I started to love being in silent retreat. The Smiths lyrics “I like it here, can I stay. Do you have a vacancy.…” filled my head for the last three days. I was so immersed in my own world that I’d forgotten to look at the bulletin board postings which listed teacher check-in times. When I finally remembered to look it was Thanksgiving Day, and my meeting had passed! My second meeting was scheduled with Pat. He had left me a note declaring my absence, and desire to reschedule. I sensed some displeasure. I wrote back with an apology and we rescheduled. I wasn’t feeling the need to check-in or talk with anyone. The idea of such things had vanished. I felt complete in silence. I really thought by going to a 10-day Buddhist meditation retreat I managed to avoid disappointing a Coffey on Thanksgiving, but karma got me, and there I was, disappointing a Coffey on Thanksgiving. Pat was kind about it. He seemed to enjoy our connection and I liked sharing my happiness with him. I sang the Smiths lyrics to him, and realized that I didn’t need to stay here at Spirit Rock per se, this place of deep meditation and clearing is always available. It is always here. Peace is available in every moment.
A few months prior to this retreat I attended my first sweat lodge. I had so much fear going in. The woman leading the sweat talked about grandmother energy. I don’t remember the detail of what went on in the steam, but I do recall the leader asking us to say prayers for the souls that will be leaving. I had never heard this request before. Yes, I’ve heard prayers for those that are ill, dying, dead, seeking, wanting, desiring, struggling, healing. This idea of saying a prayer in advance for those that will be going was hard for me to fathom. I really sat with this idea. Someone I love will die. It is a fact. It’s going to happen. I couldn’t know who or how or when or why, just that it will be. I didn’t like thinking about losing people that I love. It was hard enough for me to think about Bubby being gone. This was before the meditation retreat.
After the meditation retreat I felt content. I felt like I’d finally found a peaceful way to flow with life. I had settled into a happy loving pace with the universe. I felt so grateful for my meditation practice and the Insight community. Sadly, that state was short lived. Less than two months later I got a call from my father saying “David’s dead.” What? My very alive big brother? One of the few humans on this earth that I love and loves me? What? That open space in my chest quickly filled with a flaming cannonball. Ripped through my chest, burned through my heart. Every strand of content, decimated. The only feeling I could get to when I sat in silencewas the agony of grief. I went to the cushion, but that home was no longer pleasant. Months later I went to Spirit Rock and couldn’t not cry during meditation. When I allowed, what came was deep loud sobbing. I went to a meditation teacher for guidance, she said that my meditation is to not meditate. I left Spirit Rock that day four years ago, and have only recently been able to sit in meditation for short periods. Someday I may return to group sits. One moment at a time.
Knee update: I'm walking like a robot. Still having pain and stiffness. Am starting to practice walking on stairs, but I think that's going to take a few more weeks to master. I added Turmeric and vegan Omega 3 to the daily pill intake. I am starting to do some timed walking. Met up with a dear sweet young friend yesterday who encouraged me to write for a contest about spirituality. We had a timed writing session together, and I wrote what you see above. I also submitted it to the contest. It's not as shiny as I'd prefer, but I like having the practice of an assignment and deadline. Plus it was fun to look at the immigration documents of my grandparents and really feel into the dates and locations. Oh, and I got my hair cut and *organic* dyed last week. I needed something to pick me up. And yes, I know, last time I did this I felt compelled to cut it all off a few weeks later. I'm trying to resist, but we'll see.
Oh, and if you're still reading down to this point and you are my sweet cousin whose birthday it is today-------->> I love you madly <<----- I hope you and your Dad enjoy reading this today. Love you both. As soon as I can climb stairs and handle a long drive I'm pointing my car in your direction.