It was a quick drive up from Portland, Oregon, up to the retreat site, during which Joseph had plenty of time to contemplate his life and become properly prepared for ten days of silence. Ten days of meditation. Ten days of practice learning how to tame his mind. And if he couldn't tame it, at least learn to accept it. This time, he thought. This time, I'll cross over. I'll reach enlightenment.
Joseph was aware of how ridiculous that sounded. Ten years before, he had been detoxing in jail. Part of him couldn't help but think that he was too far gone. His sins were too grave, too extensive. His compulsions and cravings were too extreme. He was hopeless. Joseph thought about Milarepa, the Tibetan saint who was also a murderer and evil sorcerer. He reached enlightenment, but only after his guru put him through extensive trials that ordinary men would not have to face. He was a songwriter too, thought Joseph.
Joseph reached the retreat center and parked in front of the main building. He walked through the entrance for the men and officially registered and was assigned a room number. He packed up his blankets and his favorite sitting cushion and made it to the simple cabin where he would live for the next several days. The room was bare, with no luxuries of any kind. A bed, bathroom, a night stand and a place to hang his clothes. There was a bathroom and a curtain over his section of the room and one where his roommate would be.
He walked over to the cafeteria and went into the men's section. The men were assembled and talking. He noted their faces and smiled when appropriate, but paid no attention to what any of them were saying. They were talking for the joy of talking. They had only another hour left and some of them were clinging to the sounds of their own voices and the voices of their companions on this inner journey.
The man who ran the retreat announced that it was time to go over the rules of the center and explain some of what was going to happen. He had that strange calm of the professional retreat goer. Not a blissed out hippie look, but a look of someone who had seen it all and now nothing could really shake him anymore. The man was clean-shaven and had short cropped hair and dressed casually. Everyone there, with the exception of some first-timers were dressed for comfort. Some retreats required particular dress. Here, the whole thing was run as an endurance test. Whatever someone needed to do or wear to make it through the week in one piece was fine, as long as it wasn't revealing or distracting for the other participants.
Joseph wasn't a first-timer. He had done this retreat before, as well as others in the Vipassana tradition. He had also done a few Sesshins and several week long retreats in the Tibetan style. He had learned something from each one. But he still wanted more. Just like an alcoholic, he thought. I can't just do something and then leave it alone. I have to keep doing it until there's no longer any point.
The rules were familiar. In another hour, everyone there would be expected to maintain silence. Even hand gestures were not allowed, nor was eye contact. The reasons were simple: soon everyone there would be going through an intense personal voyage. He had accidentally made eye contact with someone once on a previous retreat and it seemed the most offensive violation on the other man's part. Other rules followed. No contact between the men and the women. The women would sit across the men during the meditation sessions, but they would eat and sleep in the opposite section of the center. Even the foot paths were separated. There would be no television, phones, laptops, not even paper and pencils. There was no artwork on the walls. Nothing was there to distract the mind with the exception of the mountains in the distance and the deer that wandered through the camp. Each day the participants would wake up at four in the morning and head to the meditation center at four thirty. Overall he would be meditating for ten hours each day with time out for two meals a day and certain hours for walking trails around the center and resting.
Every time he did this it was different. Each time he learned something. For so many years his mind had been a spider's web of anxiety and madness. He had anxiety that turned into compulsions which turned into impulsive behavior. This behavior was either drinking or women. He had given up the drinking years ago. The women were still a problem. Women and booze, he thought. Always loved the classics.
Through meditation he had discovered a place where his mind was calm. Just even five minutes of stillness was the greatest high he ever had, better even than booze, better than fucking. He wanted more. He always wanted more.
They finished their meal, vegetarian, heavy on tofu and rice. Then they headed to the meditation hall. From now on there would be silence. He walked in picked up a cushion from the wall and walked in the main doors, searching for the cushion that had his name on it. Joseph placed the cushion on the mat and sat down. He closed his eyes and prepared to enter a week and a half of bliss.
He opened his eyes and risked looking around to where the women were setting up their own cushions.
He saw her. Anne. The one he could never shake. She was here. It had been years. He had been searching for her. Now she was here, just a few feet away. She looked over towards him and their eyes met. She smiled. He felt his stomach tighten.
It was going to be a long ten days.