Last fall, I went on a silent meditation retreat. I know that sounds either terrifying or boring as hell. Let me assure you, it was both.
I'd done two retreats before, and it's always the same. For the first few days, I go slightly bonkers. I convince myself I'm not meditating properly, not feeling peaceful enough, and that should be at home being productive. I second guess everything I do, eat and think about, take too many naps, and then lie awake at night wondering what on earth I’m doing out in the woods with a bunch of hippies. I should point out here that not only is talking prohibited on these retreats - except when information needs to be passed along or during classes - but so is TV, and the Internet, and texting, and reading books. That means there is nothing to distract you me the running commentary in your head. NOTHING.
Somewhere around day 3 or 4, I start to remember why I do this. For me, going on retreat is like pressing a giant reset button. It reminds me (eventually) that while the running commentary may never shut up, I don't have to believe it, or do what it says, or argue with it constantly. I start to arrive a place of gratitude and peace of mind, the likes of which I couldn't previously imagine. I drink in nature, marvel at the great gifts I've been bestowed, and REALLY enjoy food. It's what it must feel like to go on vacation for months, but better.
This time around, the effects of this retreat were even more spectacular because of the teacher. I'd never studied with her before, but as it turned out, she was exactly what I needed. Cecilie was more compassionate than I thought possible in a human being, and had a way of bringing that out in all her students, especially towards ourselves, something I seriously lack most of the time. She was also had a killer sense of humour. During one of the first classes, she took us into a brief meditation.
"Don't get all holy on me,” she said, as we closed our eyes, “or I'll throw my false teeth at you."
I came out of the retreat feeling more connected, joyful and alive than I'd ever felt. I finally understood what people mean when they said they refer to a meditation teacher as "their" teacher. Cecilie was my girl. She was going to be my guide and help me figure out how to be happy like this ALL THE TIME. I was going to go and do a month-long retreat with her. It was all happening.
Two days later, she got into a horrible car accident and nearly died.
When I got the news, I felt like I'd been dropped underwater and didn't know which way was up. At a loss, I phoned a woman who's been on all the retreats I've done, who also considers Cecilie "her" teacher. Susan is 72 and doesn't use the computer very often, so, in an effort to support each other during Cecilie's time of uncertainty, we began to speak regularly by phone. Yes, phone calls! Remember those? We'd speak every day or two, and I remembered what it feels like to have a real live human - whom I'm not married to – with whom to converse with regularly in a way that doesn’t mostly include text messages and emails. Susan and I even started sending letters, hers arriving in envelopes with my address written in beautiful script, adorned by stars, stickers and dancing figures. Susan is a writer too, and our sharing has grown from meditation to books, essays, music and, naturally, Downton Abbey. We commiserate over our mutual drama queen tendencies, share the victories, and ask each other for support when the running commentary takes over and we start to buy into it, do what it says, and subscribe to its 7-year all-inclusive no-payment-down plan.
Susan one of the sharpest, funniest, most down-to-earth people I know. She's also gotten over many of life's obstacle courses and through many of its forks. She's made it in and out of places that, to me, seem insurmountable. I look at her and see a survivor, a warrior, a heroine. As strange as it is to say about someone I’ve only really known for 4 months, I'm not sure where I'd be without her.
4 months is also how long our teacher, Cecilie, was in hospital. Her injuries were severe, and rehabilitation was painful, but she was on the road to recovery. Then, one day, her body simply started to shut down. She decided, in a way that didn't surprise any of her students, that enough was enough. She was ready to leave this life and move on to the next, hopefully with a shiny new bod.
She died a couple of weeks ago. It was the strangest reaction to a death I've ever had. Sure, I hadn’t known her for too long, but I also know, as did Susan, that she wouldn't have wanted us to go into dramatic hysterics (something both Susan and I do very well - perhaps the reason we understand each other.)
There is sadness: I won't get to experience her teachings again. But more than that, there’s gratitude that I was able to experience them at all. And in a weird way, Cecilie’s injuries and parting led me to Susan, who today sent me an essay she wrote that made me laugh out loud, a glow-in-the-dark heart sticker, and this:
The night Cecilie was cremated, I had a dream about her. She was teaching a class, and I pointed out to some of the other students that, seeing as she's dead, this was kind of unusual.
Nah, they said, casually. That's how Cecilie rolls.
And from the looks of things, they're right.