I – Yesod before the Omer
It’s March of this year and I’m not thinking about the Omer yet.
In fact, I’m thinking about very little.
I’m at a week-long silent meditation retreat, where I spent the first few days overcome with fatigue, struggling to stay awake, and navigating the accompanying internal noise.
“Why did I do things so last minute and get here so tired?” says my accusing mind. “What’s the point in having spent the money on this retreat if I can’t even stay awake through the sits and the dharma talks?”
“Go easy,” my gentler mind replies. “And try to remember that all of this is practice, the fatigue included.”
Then, as the fatigue fades, I find myself with as quiet a mind as I can recall.
And now, on the last night of the retreat, as we start to leave the meditation hall for our last formal walking period before bed, I push myself off the cushion, wait for my legs to uncramp, and make my way to a small room where I’ve done a lot of the walking the past couple of days. The room is dark and, besides me, unoccupied. I’m a little saddened. There are never many people in this room, and that’s one of the reasons I like it. But there are usually at least a couple of others, and that’s another reason I like it.
I find a spot on the side, leaving room for fellow retreatants who I hope will appear, and take small steps, giving full attention to each one as best I can – the feel of my toes pushing off the floor, and the feeling of landing. I notice the way my arms move for balance, and the pulsing in my arms and fingertips. Occasionally, the wooden floor creeks below my step.
As I reach the wall and turn around, the aloneness strikes me again, and I console myself.
Sure, it would be nice to have others here, I think. This retreat has underlined for me that when I get home, I need to find a sangha where I can be supported in my practice, and support others. But even so, most of the time, my practice will be alone, meditating on a cushion at home. Maybe this is a good transition back to that solitude.
The thoughts having been worked through, I try to leave them aside, and resume walking, returning my attention to footfall, foot rise, breath, torso, limbs.
The door opens, and I am immediately soothed. As my fellow retreatant finds a spot and begins walking, even though we go at different paces, and sometimes in different directions, and even though I may never learn his name or say a word to him, I feel fortified by this companionship.
It’s not words through which I know this. I know it in my bones.
And as quiet as my mind has gotten, in the presence of my fellow sojourner, it becomes quieter still.
II – Yesod during the Omer
It’s May of this year, and we are in the sixth week of the counting of the Omer, the passage from constriction to liberation to revelation. To be more precise, it’s the week of Yesod, often associated with connection, a precious commodity now that Covid has circled the globe. Sanghas have gone online, but online isn’t working for me, so instead, here I sit at my perch in the ravine, among streams and rocks and trees.
I look at my watch. I’d like to linger, but I need to get back home.
I step into my place a couple of minutes before 7:30 in the evening, just enough time to wash my hands, and get on the balcony. I wait for the clanging somebody I can’t see always makes at this moment. Then I join in, artlessly drumming on the doumbek, a gift given to me twenty years ago, which I have never used until now. Others start banging pots and pans, someone plays a foghorn, someone else a bass drum, another sets off fireworks. A little girl in leotards dances to the cacophonous symphony, my part in which draws my out here every night, including – or especially – on the days I least feel like it.
This daily noisemaking ritual is intended, of course, to offer encouragement to those working on the frontlines, and I’ve heard from some that they are in fact heartened by it. But in these times of isolation, amidst this community of mostly strangers, I for one am getting twice as much as I’m giving.
III – Yesod after the Omer
Maybe it’s the lengthening and warming days as summer approaches, or maybe it’s the realization that there’s no end in sight to the battle with Covid, but for some reason, the 7:30 noisemaking tapers off. I help keep it going a little longer, as far as I can tell, by flat-palming the drum for as much reverberation as possible, a cue taken by others who appear on their balconies and get to banging. But inevitably, the numbers dwindle to a straggler or two, and I wonder if my unskilled drumming, without pots and pans to accompany it, is more a source of annoyance than pleasure.
I guess I’m not as much of a soloist as I’ve thought.
I leave the doumbek inside, happy to pick it up again should the community ever come back together.
IV – Yesod after the after
And that is the last occasion of physical community I’ve had until this moment. There has been some hanging out with friends in parks and backyards, and a lot of online – with friends, family, community – that has taught me about both the merits and limits of online. Online prayer has taught me, for instance, that it’s usually harder for me to connect with the Divine when I have to do without physical company. That didn’t used to be true, but after going through the process that concluded almost a year ago of saying Kaddish in shul for my father for the customary eleven months, it’s true now.
So sure, in this solitude, I’m doing okay. “I feel like I’m losing my mind,” I’ve taken to saying, “but fortunately, I keep finding it again.”
Still, to put things as eloquently as possible…
We were not fucking made for this!!!
Tell you what, though. I’ll stand tall if you will.
Tell us, if you would, something about your relationship to connection in these disconnecting times. What is is like to have it so diminished? How have you managed to keep it going?