A little more than a year ago, I was on my way home from a ten-day vipassana meditation course. I had spent twelve days in total at the center, ten of them without talking, with nearly fourteen hours a day dedicated to meditation. I had arrived with hope that I could learn to meditate, participate in a boot camp, if you will, and with little more than a kernel of faith that I too would be able to learn both anapana and vipassana meditation, that I would be able to maintain a strong pose, that I would manage to keep my mouth shut. I brought with me just one duffle bag, but still had plenty of baggage with which to contend. So much so much-ness.
I arrived in a ball of stress and received a phone call right before the silence started informing me that my diabetic son’s blood sugar levels were dangerously high, which then pushed me into a weepy panic. In a frenzy, I had to borrow a phone (since mine had already been checked in) and attempt to connect the babysitter to the baby daddy and fix everything long distance. My son’s father kindly said, “Erin, it’s going to be okay.” So I hung up the phone and closed my mouth. And I had no choice but to believe him – still, during the first meditation session, it was all I could do to keep my heart from racing away with me. But I persevered, as did we all. The experienced old students sat confidently and comfortably in the front rows, their backs straight, their cushions few, while newbie students like myself occupied the middle rows and assembled all manner of buckwheat cushions, foam pads, pillows and the like in an attempt to get comfortable. The days took on their own unhurried rhythms, commencing each morning with the ringing of a bell and ending each night with the sight of possums scurrying across the grounds.
And indeed, I did manage what I had hoped to manage. The not talking for ten days was easy, though the chatter of my mind – my monkey brain – was incessant and quite tiring. I started listening more carefully to the other sounds, the ones that made themselves more brightly audible absent the steady din of human voices that fill my regular life. Each afternoon, I took a little walk into a grove of trees next to the meditation center. where I had a favorite tree stump that provided great views of cardinals swooping from oak to oak. I listened to crickets and butterflies. I listened to the scraping of fork again plate, and my food tasted better for it. I listened to the reverberations of the signal bell, the splash of the shower water, the hum of the air conditioner, the thud of bare feet on the marble floor of the pagoda.
And I listened to myself. I learned how to observe my body on a whole new level, a buzzing, humming, and often ignored level. The entire experience was life-altering, from head to toe, just as I had hoped it would be. A fellow student, an older woman and breast cancer survivor who had come to the course as her gift to herself for finishing an intense round of chemotherapy, pulled me aside on leaving day and said, “Erin, you seem so much lighter, brighter, happier and calm than you did that first day that I would not recognize her if she came walking in right this minute.”
I wanted to leave that stress-case her behind as well, with nary a goodbye wave in the rearview mirror, so for the drive home, four hours on a mix of gravelly country roads, six-lane interstates and two-lane highways that always – always! – seem to have an old truck up ahead going ten miles under the speed limit, I had come prepared. A friend who had already attended just such a course told me that listening to music after ten days of, well, not listening could be an intense auditory experience. So I chose my music carefully. I polled friends on Facebook, then burned about ten different CDs before coming to the course, and stashed them in my vehicle. Right on top of the stack of those CD-Rs was the music I ended up playing as I drove away from the silence: a special mix of Beatles songs. What else, right? They have that whole eastern wisdom thing going on so perfectly that I figured, correctly, their music and lyrics would dovetail with whatever tiny hint of enlightenment I had managed to inhale.
And the first track of this top of the stack mix, of course, was “All You Need is Love,” a song I’ve been listening to since high school. But I heard it with new ears that day. Those paradoxical phrases that make up the verses, the ones y’all have heard plenty of times too, suddenly made sense in such a visceral, tangible way that I started crying (no surprise!), going 75 mph down I-45:
There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done … Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung… Nothing you can say but you can learn how to play the game …It’s easy
Nothing you can make that can’t be made …No one you can save that can’t be saved …Nothing you can do but you can learn how to be you in time … It’s easy
Nothing you can know that isn’t known… Nothing you can see that isn’t shown… Nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be … It’s easy
These suddenly clarified lyrics danced themselves right through my ears into my brain, and I experienced an epiphany in the driver’s seat (pardon me if that sounds overblown or hyperbolic). Boom: I can learn how to be me.
Wow. I can learn how to be me!
There’s nowhere I can be that isn’t where I’m meant to be. Exactly!
Nothing I can do that can’t be done. Whoa.
All I need is love.
A year later, I feel grateful for what I learned and breathed during last year’s course. Turns out the stress-case lady hopped a ride back home too, so I still have her to contend with, which is a bit of a bummer, but to be expected. I am even grateful for what I’ve forgotten about meditation, which is plenty. And sure, some of the beautiful realizations and observations that felt so easy and transparent while I was at the course and then when I was listening to the Beatles for so many hours turned into Escher-like stairways upon my return. My monkey brain still presides over a jungle of (at times) confused intensity. But that jungle is also ripe with hibiscus flowers.
I am still meditating, thank goodness, though I do not make myself hold a position for 45 minutes or allow my feet to fall asleep in the bizarre, cement-hardening-around-my-body kind of way that I did at the meditation center.
Most importantly, while I meditate, I am still listening – to the Beatles, yes, and to birds in my backyard, to the chatter of my children, and to my soul. And while I wouldn’t say that this deep listening is always easy, I keep hearing the same message: love is indeed the answer. Love is the question – and the quest. It really is all you need.