Influenced by her African American and Asian heritage, Yasmin Tong's writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Mary: A Journal of New Writing, and was anthologized in the New Asian Immigration. She attended Squaw Valley Writer's Community in 2009. Ms. Tong lives and works in Los Angeles.
I do as I am told: sit as still as possible, and focus all of my attention on the area between the tip of my nose and upper lip. When my thoughts wander, I am to return my focus to my breathing and the physical sensations resulting from this simple and automatic act. This all sounds easy enough until I try it.
I keep my eyes closed and pay attention to my breath, but instead of quieting my mind, I think about work, then vocabulary words in Spanish, then different business ideas I want to pursue. I crave blueberry preserves. I vow to make some when I leave the retreat since blueberries are in season. I should save more for retirement. I wonder where some friends from high school are now. I think about work again. I want to turn down the volume in my head, but I can't find the dials. I glance down at my watch and sigh. One minute has passed.
I had fantasized about a vacation in Hawaii, but instead I am attending a ten-day silent retreat in the woods near Yosemite since I'm still paying for the wedding Bob and I had a few months ago. I had asked Bob to join me at the Meditation Mountain retreat. “I don't think that's good for you when you don't know what you're doing,” he warned. “I've done a lot of those kinds of things,” he said. This wasn't the first time Bob had disapproved of one of my ideas. Even though I was not deterred, I still felt disappointed. What did our future hold, if we had been married less than a year and were already taking separate vacations?
I heard of Meditation Mountain for the first time sitting in the backseat of my friend Monte's car, three months ago. He had just returned from a ten-day stay there, and was talking about how much he loved it. When I asked him how much it cost, he said, “You pay what you want. But you don't have to pay anything at all because they really encourage you to return and volunteer.” I could not have asked for anything more perfect—prepared meals, solitude, and wilderness at almost no cost. Monte had said it was easy to register online, but the place was booked solid for a month. I was not the only one in need of a rest.
I had told my colleagues at work I was going into the woods, but I mentioned nothing about the vow of silence or meditating. I had never meditated before, and I had never been silent for more than a few hours at a time. People have told me that even when I sleep, I still manage to talk and laugh, although not as much as when I am awake. Yet for several months, I have had this urge to remove myself from any distractions, to use my precious downtime to do something rigorous, a little extreme, and to push myself outside my comfort zone. As usual, I did not question my motives.
Day 1: Driving the windy roads to Meditation Mountain, the sound of borrowed camping gear rolling around in the trunk, reminds me of how badly I want a bed for the next ten days. After a whirlwind of late-night strategy sessions and countless meetings negotiating with the police, the school district, and homeowners over the last few months to get zoning approvals for a project at work, I am exhausted. Even though I had booked months in advance, I had only been able to reserve a campsite. If I have a bed, I can rest and relax.
From the one lane highway, I miss the turnoff because the entrance is marked by a white sign with small lettering that makes no mention of meditation or mountain. I backtrack, then snake up a long steep driveway to a parking lot across from a dark brown single-story house that doubles as the women's dining room and registration. Seated at a folding table, a young woman hands me a golden legal size page with the Meditation Mountain Code of Conduct and asks me to review and sign it.
The rules: No talking. No running, yoga, or other exercise. Avoid having eye contact with anyone as you are working in isolation. No stealing or lying. No reading or writing. We are to abstain from sex. That will not be a problem since I am married. No alcohol or drugs are allowed, not even something as benign as aspirin. No physical exercise except for walking. No fragrances or burning incense. No mixing rituals: no counting of prayer beads, no recitation of mantras, and no praying. No killing of any living creature, not even an ant, and we are to sleep on beds that are designed to be close to the ground. I hesitate before signing the page, not because I disagree with the rules, but because I feel imposed upon. I don't need rules to tell me what to do. I can make my own decisions and conduct myself appropriately. But I sign my name anyway and tell myself this is a small price to pay for a vacation that is practically free.
“Are there any dorm rooms available?” I ask.
“Yes, there is a private room, one of only five here,” she says. The heavens have smiled upon me. Now I can relax and enjoy my vacation.
I walk uphill along a dirt road toward the new dormitory where I will stay. A narrow walking path connects two older dormitories, a patch of trees, and a pond at the bottom of the hill behind me, a large meadow to my right, and the new women's dormitories lay before me up the hill. A steep landscaped path leads from my dorm room to the meditation hall at the top of another hill. The men's facilities are located, out of view, on the far side of the meditation hall.
The meditation hall has an unadorned beige stucco exterior and separate entrances on opposite sides: one for women, another for men. We pass through a large empty coat room before entering the hall, which has a vaulted ceiling, white Berber carpet, and a small wooden stage where the instructors, a married couple sit cross-legged with light-weight shawls covering their shoulders. The man has a white beard, glasses, and curly sideburns that make him appear elfin. His wife, wearing an unflattering bowl haircut, is the human embodiment of Meditation Mountain, with simple construction and no ornamentation, just a certain studied restraint that is somewhere on the spectrum between meticulous discipline and indifference to material comfort. Yet the parking lot is filled with BMWs and Saabs, not the battered VW vans plastered with peacenik bumper stickers that I had been expecting.
We have assigned seating with little numbered tags placed on blue meditation cushions arranged symmetrically on the floor. Men and women sit on opposite sides of the hall, which can probably accommodate about two hundred people total. About thirty men and maybe a hundred women sit on the floor with the more experienced students sit in the front. I sit in the second to last row, looking at all these people and wondering where they come from, who they are, and what brings them here: the big-boned woman in her fifties with long braids crisscrossing her head, big inky Hindi tattoos on her forearms, and a salwar kameez, the woman dressed entirely in white with about two feet of cushions and blankets supporting her back, the Cambodian grandmothers who sit in chairs in the back.
The quiet is both exciting and terrifying. By the end of the first ninety minutes, the woman behind me bails. She folds up her miniature trampoline of a meditation cushion and leaves. I want to leave too, but I can't. I don't have the energy to leave or the will to resist the structure and discipline of this place. I succumb to the rules of Meditation Mountain and start to count the remaining days here.
The day ends with an instructional video of an older South Asian man wearing a sarong and a Western dress shirt. I can't concentrate because my back hurts and I want to lie down now and stretch out my feet in front of me, but that, too, is against the rules.
When the video ends, I stumble in the dark with my flashlight, across the dirt road, to my dorm room. I close the door and throw my body on the little single bed, and a loud sigh pushes out of my lungs. I clap my hand over my mouth and feel like a prisoner.
Day 2. The morning bell clangs at 4 a.m., I know that I am supposed to be in the meditation hall in half an hour. For this early-morning session, I am allowed to meditate in the hall or in my room, so I stay in my bed and go back to sleep.
Bolting from my bed, I speed-walk down the hill since I am late and not allowed to run. As everyone else is putting away their dishes, I wolf down a small bowl of canned peaches. “You should have finished eating five minutes ago,” whispers the house manager, a young woman probably not older than thirty. I nod in agreement, fascinated by the peaches swirling in my mouth because they taste like the smell of rose petals.
Day 3. I made a mistake coming here. I feel even more exhausted now than when I first arrived. My back aches. I try to focus my awareness. Suddenly, five hot tears roll slowly down my cheeks, and I wipe them away. I had no specific thoughts, just a feeling of sadness connected to my father. Yesterday, a young South Asian woman with a silky ponytail started crying and could not stop. I felt embarrassed and concerned for her for losing control like that. Now it's me who's crying and trying to hide my tears. Is this what Bob was talking about?
Day 4. Today the new students receive instruction to focus on physical sensations from head to toe. This is surprisingly liberating and before long my consciousness shifts. The container of my body starts to dissolve, and I become a field of moving particles, as if I were a glass of water and the glass disappeared. I am curious about this feeling and want to explore it. When the bell clangs for lunch, I don't want to leave the meditation hall.
I leave the meditation hall through the same door I came in, but when I return outdoors, blinking several times in the bright sunlight, I can see every leaf of every branch on every tree. I begin a slow walk down the dirt road to the dining room with the other women. Everyone stops at once. A deer crossing the meadow stops to stare at all of us, as if it sees something recognizable, a reflection in a mirror.
In front of the dining room, under a large acorn tree, on the grass, someplace where I have sat every day since I arrived, a yellow butterfly slowly flaps its powdery wings on my thigh. When I look down at the ground, I notice an entire world of insects crawling just below the surface of the grass and know that they have been there all along, but I couldn't see them before today. What else have I not been seeing?
Day 5. I break my silence. I am allowed to talk with the house manager if I have a problem with my room, the food, or something else interferes with my working in isolation. “I was supposed to have a campsite,” I whisper. “There must be a mistake because I have a single room with a private bath. It's only fair for me to give up the room since I've enjoyed it for five days. Now it's someone else's turn to enjoy it for an equal amount of time.”
She looks at me and shakes her head.
“Do you like the room?” she asks.
“Yes,” I nod enthusiastically. “I love the room.”
“If there's nothing wrong with the room, you can keep it. This retreat is for you and the room is for you. You don't have to give it up.”
I try swallowing my laughter to keep it from rising into the air where it will disturb the other participants. I've been counting down the days like a death row inmate, dreading the day when I told myself that I would have to surrender the room I love so much, the comfort of my bed, the privacy, the bathroom. Why don't I think I deserve the privacy and comfort of my own room?
Day 6. I am allowed to break my silence for five minutes to discuss questions I have about meditation practice with the instructor. I tell her about how I felt like my physical boundaries had dissolved two days ago and ask how I can make that happen again. She slices the air with her hand to demonstrate how meditation can slice through my subconscious. She says the only thing to do is to sit and wait, to practice. I don't want to practice anymore and tell her that my mind feels out of control, that it's exhausting me. “You have a case of monkey mind,” she says, “Swinging from one thought to the next.”
Day 7. cannot take it any longer packup my things leave this vegan prison and eat a pork chop so that i can stop torturing myself with my breath my thoughts and my inability to quiet my mind im not sure if I can last three more days.
Day 8. Today is the first I feel certain that I will complete the program. I am as still, calm and contained as a lake.
Day 9. In the middle of the night, I wake up sobbing after a dream. I wash my hands and the engagement ring Bob gave me fell off my finger. I never removed that ring or the wedding band—not to take a shower or wash my hands, not even to do the dishes. Bob had designed the engagement ring himself using the clear diamonds and navy blue sapphires from his father's cufflinks, arranging them in a gold wave that wrapped around my finger. Several years earlier, his parents had bought the gemstones and created a sizable set of jewelry to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary. After his father had died, my husband had received the cufflinks and wore his father's matching ring every day. The engagement ring connected me to the father-in-law I would never meet—he had died ten years earlier—as well as the rest of Bob's family. My mother-in-law and sisters-in-law wore earrings and pendants with the same diamond and sapphire motif.
One Saturday afternoon, shortly after we had announced our engagement to family and friends, Bob and I sat next to each other in the living room of our home discussing our wedding plans. He had wanted a Catholic wedding. I agreed. He had wanted a large wedding. I agreed. He had wanted his best friend, a Belfast priest, to officiate. I agreed. I had wanted my brothers to stand beside me when I spoke my wedding vows. He refused.
“Why can't I have who I want as my attendants?” I asked.
“It's not how it's done,” he said.
“Just tell me why I can't have my brothers,” I said, my voice trembling two octaves above its normal register.
“I don't feel comfortable up there with all those men,” he said.
Day after day, for months, our intimate drama played out in our small living room, and each time we argued, the veins wrapping around his neck rose into high relief while I erupted into tears.
“All I want is this one thing,” I said, blinking back a curtain of salty tears.
“Then maybe we shouldn't get married,” he said.
Air left my lungs. I imagined what it would be like to tell my parents and friends that the wedding was off. He was the person with whom I wanted to spend the rest of my life. I didn't want to lose him.
“All right. I'll have bridesmaids,” I sobbed.
When Bob proposed, I did not hesitate. His love was so fierce and reassuring, that, unlike anyone else I had ever dated, I never doubted how much I meant to him. “Of course, I'll marry you,” I said.
But in the dream, the ring didn't just fall off my finger, it broke into pieces, and the sapphires and diamonds—the hardest and most indestructible of gems—cracked and shaved off their setting like curling wood chips. Watching the ring disintegrate made me feel like my husband had tricked me, not by giving me a ring that fell apart—I would have worn an engagement ring from a Cracker Jack box if he had given it to me—but because the appearance of his love had nothing to do with the reality.
Day 10. From my dormitory window, moonlight illuminates the meadow and a jagged outline of ancient coniferous trees. I don't make a sound with my sobs and convulsions. Lying in my pajamas, my shell cracks and yolk oozes out. The retreat ends tomorrow morning, and I'm not ready to leave. I need more time to reassemble my pieces.
Up here I can continue to avoid my husband even though ten days observing noble silence has shown me that I can no longer avoid myself or how I feel about being with him. For the first time, I acknowledge that my grueling job has numbed all my senses. Until now, all that I had allowed myself to feel was his love and devotion, not what I had to do to myself to keep them. The word divorce bubbles up from some dungeon inside of me. I don't want to divorce. I want his love, but I cannot be silent anymore.
After breakfast we are allowed to talk, but I want to remain silent. I need more time to figure out my next steps. I drive to my mother's house after the retreat and tell her that I have been craving pork for a week and have a taste for dim sum. The restaurant—a place with stained maroon carpet in a strip mall—is closed at nine on Sunday morning. After waiting ten days, I cannot wait two more hours for the restaurant to open. She takes me to a grocery store, and I buy the next best thing: a log of Jimmy Dean sausage.
Standing over a shiny black cast iron skillet, she makes me breakfast, the way she has every Sunday morning I have spent at her house. Now that she lives alone—my father left her for a younger woman after thirty-one years of marriage—the Sunday breakfast feasts of my youth are no more. I look in the refrigerator and find no eggs or juice. I examine the pantry: no grits, pastry, pancakes, or waffles. She serves me an entire log of Jimmy dean sausage, and I eat the whole thing.
She invites me to join her on the patio while she smokes a cigarette.
“How was the retreat?” she asks, taking a long inhale.
“Intense,” I say, pausing for a moment, not wanting to reveal what I could not admit to myself two days ago. But I tell her everything and hear myself say the words Bob and divorce in the same sentence.
She takes a long drag on her cigarette, taps the ashes into a crystal ashtray with a manicured fingernail, then tells me about a wedding gift she had received from one of my father's friends, a bookmark that read:
Let there be such closeness between you
that when one cries the other tastes the salt in the tears.
“You have to tell him how you feel,” she says, frowning. For the first time in my life, I sense her confidence is shaken, not in me, but in my situation.
“I know,” I said, “I just don't know how.”
I feel sick to my stomach, I could blame the Jimmy Dean sausage, but I know now that I have been clenching the anger and fear inside me, holding on to them like a mother who does not want her baby to leave her womb.
I return to my husband. Two months from now, I will tell him how I feel. I will spend that day crying and folding laundry, and he will tell me that I can leave our marriage. I am free to go. The man I love will tell me that I hate him, and when those words leave his mouth and enter the hot September air, they will gather the force of a stream roller and knock me flat.
My silence is broken.