Breathing Is Doing Something

6 min read

Second full day of Vipassana (silent meditation retreat)
Wat Suan Mokkh, Chaiya, Surat Thani, Thailand

I arrive at the post lunch sitting meditation session in the main meditation hall a few minutes early although in absence of a clock and the gong, I don’t know how many minutes early. Having had my vegetarian lunch in silence which saw a family of monkeys wrestling and playing less than 10 feet away from me with tears streaming down my face at the beauty, now-ness, and humility of it all; having bathed with bowls of rainwater at the large standing wash basin and having “napped” (sleep is now a nebulous term – since my arrival I have not so much drifted off as much as I have fallen into vivid dreams and my waking life is equally as surreal as my dream world as I find myself surrounded by large and lush foreign flora and fauna the type seen in sci-fi movies or in Southeast Asia and the Amazon but certainly not seen in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which is my home…), I was anxious to get out of my head and out of my room. The irony that I was in a rush to sit in silence and focus only on my breath is not lost on me – I was essentially rushing to do more of the same.  Old habits die hard and this is only day two.

Regardless, I arrive in the main meditation hall and take my place on my mat. My mat is placed exactly where I had put it two days prior[1].  Two monks and the facilitator/coordinator are already sitting in their places in the front of the hall.  They sit on sturdy wooden tables elevated from the rest of us both physically and spiritually.  I adjust myself and try to find the position I will be most comfortable in for the next hour or the position which will cause me the least amount of discomfort.

There are about 10 of us early birds in the hall – men on the left, women on the right, along with a handful of guests who sit on chairs in the back; the meditation hall is open to visitors who want to meditate or listen to the dhamma talks.  Guests are mostly local villagers as this place is so remote that it would be difficult to find even if one wanted to so the nature of the locale prohibits large volumes of walk-in guests.

There have now been two days of silence except for the dhamma talks, guided meditation and chanting of the monks. There is the natural buzz of the plants and animals but other sounds are fairly limited as we had been instructed to do everything, including walking, eating and chores, mindfully which also means as silently as possible.  100 clumsy everyday folks attempting to be as ninja-like as possible…

As I adjust myself, a voice from the back of the room requests our attention. The voice is loud and made louder by the fact that this was a silent retreat and no one, except for the monks and staff, had permission to speak.  Additionally, they all spoke in very low and calm tones and this Aussie was projecting his voice as loudly as possible for all to hear:  “Attention, attention!  May I please have everyone’s attention please?”  A white man of average height with a distinctively Australian accent with a ponytail wearing khaki cargo shorts, a brown short-sleeved button down shirt with white leaf outlines imprinted upon it and a backpack slung over one shoulder was addressing the small crowd in the hall.  By all accounts he was a very normal and average looking man.  “Non-descript” is the best way to describe him, aside from his outdated ponytail, and in a land of Western ex-pats whose fashion clocks stopped ticking the moment they fled their home countries, this was not noteworthy.

This was an odd development I thought. I listened attentively as I thought perhaps this was part of the program.  I will learn that it was indeed part of “the program” but not in a scripted way; in the way that all we experience is part of the program of life.  This incident will produce different reactions and provide insights and growth to all who were gathered here at this moment and who came to the retreat seeking self-awareness and enlightenment.

As he speaks, he walks from the back of the meditation hall to the front of the hall. “My name is Robert Black.[2]  I have been waiting for this day for 33 years!  I am Buddha, I am Jesus and I am Mohammed!” And with each proclamation he takes another step.  Well he certainly has all of our undivided attention now.  A few other meditators begin to arrive and quietly take their seats on their mats, the confusion apparent on their faces.

Robert continues speaking; “I’ve been sent here because I have a message to share with all of you.”  He is now half-way to the front of the meditation hall and the thought that this is unscripted, as in not part of the defined agenda outlined by the monks, begins to percolate in my mind.  As the first thought of doubt appears in my brain, I turn my gaze towards the monks at the front of the hall to see their reactions – they have none.  They are all seated with their eyes closed in meditation as they had been when I arrived and as they had been for the past few minutes.

I turn my attention back to Robert who is now asking “where are all the Jews?”  I hear a woman sniffling behind me to my left.  Several people get up and walk out of the meditation hall.  Seems others are also catching on that this is not part of the official program.  Robert mumbles and rants for a few more seconds and then throws his right arm up in the Nazi salute and says “Heil Hitler.” With that, the sniffling woman breaks into full blown sobbing and gets up and walks out.  Once she is out of the meditation hall she yells “shut the fuck up” her German heritage now apparent to all in her accent.  She is consoled by one of the handful of people now standing outside of the meditation hall.

Robert starts rifling through his knapsack.  My eyes are now bouncing back and forth tennis match spectator style between Robert and the monks.  Surely one of the monks will get up any minute now and do something.  There are about five or six of us left in the hall at this moment not including the monks. Panic takes ahold of me as I see Robert digging in his backpack.  I am American and I am Black.  With all the Jews gone, I fear I am the next best and most obvious target.

The stereotype that all Americans pack heat is not unfounded; in America, there are roughly the same number of guns as people.  “There are enough guns for every man woman and child to be armed, more or less.” (NPR, 2016)  So having brought my American self and fears to a remote village in Southern Thailand, I assume that Robert is looking for his pistol which he will surely aim at me now that I am the closest looking thing to a Jewish person sitting before him.

I look to the monks with desperation. They are still sitting beatifically and breathing as though all is well in the world.  The anxiety and fear are quickly rising in my chest and I can feel my heart rate speed up as Robert makes his way to the front of the hall to stand now front and center amongst the monks and pulls out what he had been looking for in this backpack…a pen and notebook.  Phew!  I am not calm by any stretch of the imagination but at least it wasn’t a gun.

Getting up and running does not occur to me as it did to some others; am I paralyzed by fear?  I don’t know but what I do know is that I am there to learn from the monks so I will take their lead.  The minute they move, I’ll be right behind them.  I trust them; they are sitting lotus style in saffron robes up on tables.

My focus shifts now mostly to the monks as if, back to the tennis match reference, they are up to serve and Robert is on the receiving end.  Robert scribbles a swastika in his pad, rips the page out of the book and impales the paper with his pen and then affixes the horrifying set-up to the microphone stand on the podium like a grotesque art installation.

My body now definitely wants to move but cannot.  I am trying to will the monks to do something.  Anything!  I can feel the adrenaline coursing through my veins but I remain stuck to my mat awaiting a sign from the monks.  Why aren’t they doing something?  This is outrageous!  My body is in full flight or fight mode now, ready for anything; specifically, ready for a signal from the monks.  If they attempt to restrain Robert, I will assist.  If they take off running, I will be in lock-step with them.

After what feels like an eternity of waiting for the word, I get it. I get it like a ton of bricks that shoot up from deep inside myself and then fall down on me and all around me in the way that awareness does.  The contrast of the bright light of new awareness always makes the previous moment and all those before feel as though you had been sleepwalking or wandering in the pre-dawn dark.  “Aha moment” and “Eureka” don’t even begin to describe the feeling because most times when awareness hits, we have not been consciously seeking it.  Wisdom compounded with the element of surprise.  Like getting the best birthday gift ever that you didn’t even know you wanted from a stranger on the street when it’s not even close to your birthday and now that you’ve received it you can’t imagine life without it.

I get the awareness that the monks are “doing something.” They are doing what they are going to do and I understand that this is what I should be doing as well.  They continue to breathe and meditate as if nothing is happening because in reality nothing is.  They never so much as open an eye.  I fold my legs up as quickly as I can into my best lotus position, close my eyes tight and join the monks in their powerful act of silence.  I go to my breath.

I see an image of Gandhi before my mind quiets .  I also see Dr. King and all of the freedom fighters at countertops in the American South silently protesting racial inequality and I understand in a way that I had never previously understood.  Whenever I saw footage of those silent protests I could never understand how they did it but now I understood that that was the best way, the only way.  I breathe and everything falls away – the fear, the anxiety, the previous moments, the future moments.  All that there is, is this moment and this breath and what will be will be.


[1] Upon arrival we were instructed to “pick a mat, a pillow and a stool and pick a spot in the meditation hall” with the advisement to “choose well because this is where you will sit for the next 11 days.”  No pressure…

[2] Name has been changed to protect his identity

Works Cited
NPR, 2016. Guns in America, By the Numbers. 5 January.



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