Recently I went to Spirit Rock Meditation Center searching for God. After years of searching inside holy books, places of worship, and time spent conversing with pious men, She was nowhere to be found. My goal was to commune with Her; I hoped to assuage the final vestiges of fear that I’d carried for much too long. Fear that was burned into my seven-year-old psyche one Friday night at a good ole’ fashioned tent revival.
The revival wasn’t my first exposure to the idea of God. I had been going to church since I was in diapers. My three sisters, who are a decade older than me, sang in the choir. The middle sister’s contralto tone made the church shout hallelujah. Her voice was thick and oily and sweet like Etta James’s. Often fresh off a boozy Saturday night, my uncle played the organ. He was known for shaking the church walls and stirring up a frenzy. My mom was Deaconess. I remember her crisp white dress, white hat, and snappy white gloves. So I had been absorbing ideas of God via osmosis since my first days on the planet. But nothing had prepared little me for what went down that Friday night. The preacher was, as they say, “on one.” Stompin’ across the stage, sweatin’ and roarin’ about Satan and sin and hellfire, and whatnot. On a gigantic screen behind his lectern, a slideshow of flaming dragons and six-headed beasts augmented the message.
“You”—he pointed at my seven-year-old face—“are a sinner!” I gulped, sinking low in my folding chair. But there was no place to hide. “You were born a sinner! Repent now from your evil ways or burn in hell!”
What awful news that was for my seven-year-old psyche. I mean, even the Motion Picture Association of America recognizes it’s not cool to scare the shit out of kids. Nevertheless, this began my odyssey to reconcile with a God, who after all the preacher’s threats, supposedly loved me. It is the reason I ended up at Spirit Rock.
* * *
I had been on Spirit Rock’s grounds many times, tagging along with JoAnna Harper, my soon-to-be wife (yay me) who is a long-time Dharma practitioner and retreat teacher. While she taught meditation, I would spend time in nearby Fairfax, mostly at the local coffee roaster, writing. I’d sometimes catch a yoga class then go for an elixir in the hippie-chic kava bar. But I would also dip my toe in the retreat water. Every so often I’d join the yogis in the meditation hall for a thirty-minute sit; I almost always attended the nightly Dharma talks. The teachings of the Buddha landed on me like the longest sigh. Sans judgment and beasts and hellfire, it felt as if I’d returned home after an arduous journey. Inclusion, respect and love of all beings (even pesky mosquitoes) felt like my jam. And Godlike.
Hanging out in the teachers’ village, I once said to my sweetheart, “Man, it sure is nice being on retreat.”
She paused, looked me in the eye, and said, “Well, yeah. But you’re not on retreat.” There was a seriousness in her tone and hints in her gaze.
Today I understand her subtext. It wasn’t a warning per se. Well, maybe it was. Whatever the case, I signed up thinking six days of no talking, reading, writing, texting, checking emails, sans St. John Coltrane, can’t be that hard.
I recognized a tiny part of me wanted to go for ego’s sake. Even if I didn’t find God, the retreat would give me a sort of spiritual one-upmanship over, well, most everybody in the world. We’ve become like crackheads. All hyped-up, clicking, scrolling, over-posting, liking, and snapping selfies. The retreat would give me license to gaze down those addicts and casually mention, “Yeah, back when I was on silent retreat,” and note their shame. So there was that.
Mostly though, I have a desire to move through the world with grace, ease, and compassion. To that end, I had discovered a Buddhist practice called Metta, or lovingkindness. Lovingkindness asks: may all beings be at peace, may all beings be happy, may all beings be well, may all beings be safe, may all beings be free from suffering. I figured that even if God wasn’t there, practicing lovingkindness was a good thing. So off I went to sit my first meditation retreat.
* * *
Spirit Rock rests on 411 acres of serene woodlands, secluded in the hills of West Marin County, California. The breezes are cool, scented with bark, browning leaves, and earth. There are trickling streams and steep hiking trails leading to what feels like the top of the world. Families of wild turkeys and deer seem to carry on without fear of predators. And there is stillness—stillness that creates an incredible soundstage for the wildlife. I found a panorama of buzzing and chirping and clicking; the chests of male turkeys sounding like a thousand maracas as they strutted for their girlfriends. And, as it turned out, my retreat was called Natural Liberation. I was going to practice outdoors amid all that beauty.
It was on day four when I began to question my decision. And my sanity for that matter. Instead of settling down on day three, as the teachers had promised, my mind had become a full-on three-ring circus of non-stop chatter. Augmented by, now get this, a Snoop Dogg Gin & Juice soundtrack. The Snoop Dogg thing was straight up bizarre. And it started on the first day. Imagine my chagrin as I sat in a meadow amid the jazz of so many birds, and Snoop Dogg began to play. I giggled quietly, “Dude, rolling down the street smoking indo sipping on gin and juice? Really? That’s what we’re doing right now?” Snoop remained my companion throughout day one. He was back on day two. On day three, I’d had enough of his ass, but realized I had zero control over my thoughts. Then I realized I had no idea who was thinking the thoughts. Or exactly how many were inside my head.
At some point, as I chased voices from one side of my head to the other, the teacher remarked, “A lot of you are seeing things that appear new. They’re not. It’s just that you’ve never been quiet enough to notice. Trust the process. It gets better.”
I didn’t believe him, but I kept doing the work. And let me tell you, a silent meditation retreat is nowhere near as leisurely as it sounds. It is every bit as grueling as a National Football League training camp. I know because I’ve attended both. The bell rings at six in the morning; meditation practice ends at nine-thirty at night. Sitting cross-legged for hours on end my psoai were sore like I’d been running one-hundred-yard wind sprints. It was the mental fatigue, however, that gave me the most trouble. Repeated crashing into personal myths, family folklore, pretense, craving, and ego—while Snoop Dogg plays—ain’t no joke. The struggle, as they say, was real.
Lying in bed after day four I gave up. Not only had I not found God, but the noise inside my head prevented the lovingkindness practice from landing in my bones. The only thing I had accomplished was unearthing my mental instability. I had failed.
The next morning I woke up prepared for another day of mental mayhem. I sat on my cushion; my eyes fell shut and lo and behold—there was stillness—a nanosecond at best. Even still it was a sweet, ethereal stillness that defies description. For the first time in my life, I was present. No planning. No remembering. And no goddamn Snoop Dogg. There on my cushion, I finally had a fleeting glimpse of God. I saw that She is lovingkindness. That revival tent preacher had it all wrong.
The 1990 National Book Award winner for fiction, Charles Johnson—who it just so happens is Buddhist—has said writing well is thinking well. Now I know his secret to thinking so well. The mental benefits of meditation include: increases in mental strength and focus, heightened memory retention and recall, better cognitive skills and creative thinking, improved decision making and problem-solving, faster information processing. Meditation teaches a person to ignore distractions and helps manage ADHD.
That I might become a better writer by itself is motivation for me to deepen my practice. However, the lovingkindness is what most appeals to me. It gives me occasion to say, “May you be happy. May you be well. May you be safe. May you be peaceful and at ease”—to even the pesky mosquito.
Andre Hardy is an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles. He is a graduate of St. Mary’s College of California and was the fourth pick of the Philadelphia Eagles in the 1984 NFL draft. He writes hard-boiled, gumshoe stories with an urban twist. He is the executive director of Against The Stream Buddhist Meditation Society.