July 2017 | by Jennifer Clayton
This past March I went to a week-long silent retreat at a buddhist monastery in the wooded hills of West Virginia (yes, West Virginia). It is a beautiful, simple place. No talking unless absolutely necessary. Up at 5am for the first sit at 6. No food after noon. To someone who happened upon the place unknowingly we may have looked half catatonic and rather unhappy – as if we had been sent there against our will and were not allowed to leave.
I became accustomed to watching people walking around in their sock feet, staring into space as they sat together with cups of tea, and quietly going about their business. I also found them to be increasingly irritating. It’s a bit embarrassing to write that, but it is true. The quiet of a retreat is so often viewed from the outside as a place of rest, serenity and peace, and that is not without its elements of truth; but more than anything the silence of a retreat allows all the quiet talk that happens in our minds to grow louder and clearer. Those voices are often difficult to hear – judgment, shame, irritation – a rich variety, really.
It is not unusual on retreats to develop distinct and strong opinions about fellow retreatants despite never having spoken to them. I was no different. My capacity to judge was relentless and constant and no one was the target of that judgment more than one woman named Mary. I knew Mary’s name because we all wrote our name on the coffee mug we used throughout the retreat and I noticed the name on her mug because she sat directly in front of me during meals. She also sat directly in front of me (or right next to me) during our many sits in the meditation hall and during dharma talks. It seemed I could not get away from her, could not get her out of my eyeline. My mind could not stop telling her to “stop it” – whatever she was doing.
She unsettled me.
What did I see when I saw her? What did I feel? I saw someone who couldn’t stay still, someone always furtively looking around. I thought she was disrespectful and careless the way she held herself in the meditation hall – lounging with feet outstretched and the soles of her feet facing the Buddha (we had been informed that this was a sign of great disrespect). She always seemed on edge and uncomfortable. When she would walk by me it felt like sandpaper rubbing on the inside of my chest.
“Everybody’s got a sack of rocks.” – Elaine Stritch (quoting her husband)
I admit to all of those feelings and judgments and they did not go away during the whole of the retreat, but my relationship to those feelings and judgments began to change as the retreat went on. That changing relationship had nothing to do with something special in me, but with the given opportunity to feel these things in a place where I could not distract myself, or gossip about my thoughts. Being in a place where I could not get away physically or mentally – I was able to get some space between Mary, judgment, and my experience. My feeling of judgment was able to turn toward compassion. If it felt like sandpaper being near her, what must it feel like to be her? When I looked at her in this new way, the furtive looks around the room, the moments when she seemed unaware of herself, the agitation she seemed to exude became different – I saw them less as my irritants, and saw them instead as hersuffering.
What a corner to turn.
This is not to say that I stopped having aversive reactions to her. The feelings still rose up in me, but more often than not I was able to soften them, not run away with them. I was increasingly able to see my reactions as just that, my reactions. I also realized that some of what bothered me so much about her were things I feared lived within myself. I would catch myselflooking around the room and I had to wonder – do others here see me as I see Mary? I wondered who saw my name on my mug and wondered: “What is wrong with that Jen person?”. It’s possible…even likely.
It is from the people that challenge us the most that we learn the most – even if we never speak to them. That’s incredibly annoying, but also apparently true. We all have our Marys. I dare say we have all been Mary. I know there have been times when I may have looked furtively about the room, or felt uncomfortable in my own skin. We have all had our moments of discomfort, insecurity, anxiety, stress…whatever label we use…in the end they are all moments of suffering; and to label them as such may allow us the space for compassion and kindness.
The goal of this practice is to notice suffering in others and in yourself, and to notice it in behaviors you might usually judge as irritating or stupid.
For example: When the person behind you in line is showing obvious signs of impatience, try and recognize that they are actually suffering at that moment (perhaps they are anxious).
Or when you see two people fighting, recognize that they are suffering. (I had a good opportunity to do this recently with two people screaming at one another and calling each other names over the use of the gas station air pump).
Also notice suffering in yourself, perhaps in the behaviors that bother you the most about yourself – anxiety, loneliness, anger – by naming those feelings as suffering you can sometimes dull your judgment of those feelings. So often we judge ourselves and attack ourselves for this suffering and it only compounds it.
This practice is not meant as an exercise in self pity or as permission for poor behavior from others. It is simply meant to put a different name on the behaviors and reactions and feelings we witness everyday in ourselves and others. It is a kinder and gentler assessment. Recognizing suffering invites compassion over ridicule, encourages empathy not judgement.
Jennifer Clayton, M.A.T.S. is a thinker and questioner who is continuously mystified and amazed by the world around her. She graduated from Union Theological Seminary with a Master of Arts and Theological Studies and has always been engaged by life’s big questions. Currently she is working to establish an interfaith/secular chaplaincy within a university setting.