In homage to the flower photo and retreat-theme of the last post, I’d like to share the moment when I burst into tears over an ant.
Last spring, I took a 10-day vipassana meditation retreat in the desert at Joshua Tree. (For those who don’t know, a vipassana = mindfulness.) And yes, we undertook the Eight Precepts:
- I undertake to abstain from causing harm and taking life (both human and non-human).
- I undertake to abstain from taking what is not given (for example stealing, displacements that may cause misunderstandings)
- I undertake to abstain from sexual activity.
- I undertake to abstain from wrong speech: telling lies, deceiving others, manipulating others, using hurtful words.
- I undertake to abstain from using intoxicating drinks and drugs, which lead to carelessness.
- I undertake to abstain from eating at the wrong time (the right time is after sunrise, before noon).
- I undertake to abstain from singing, dancing, playing music, attending entertainment performances, wearing perfume, and using cosmetics and garlands (decorative accessories).
- I undertake to abstain from luxurious places for sitting or sleeping, and overindulging in sleep.
*shamelessly copy-pasted from Wikipedia*
Looking back, it was a really great retreat. It had its usual fluctuations, of course. The first full day there, Jack asked us:
“How was your first day? Was it good?”
We all wiggled around silently and nodded in consent.
“… Who has thought at least once throughout the course of the day that this retreat was a horrible idea?”
We all raised our hands.
“And who has planned out their daring escape to the Starbucks a mile down the road?”
We all raised our hands.
You know, it was the typical I Feel So Peaceful And Harmonious mixed with the Oh My God What The Fuck Is Wrong With Me How Do I Live In My Own Head?! But nonetheless, it was lovely. Those of you who have been on retreat know what I’m talking about. BUT TO MY POINT!
I had one spot I frequented for the mid-morning walking meditation; it was a nice slab of stone by a fountain overlooking the desert.
Ants liked to crawl around on that slab. At the beginning, I really hoped none of them would crawl on me and bite me. Soon (as I started to submerge myself in that Wise Mind Business), I started to imagine that they were carrying out their own little walking meditations, too, and sometimes I’d bend down to watch one carry a bit of Whatever to nowhere in particular. Those ants never seemed to know where the hell they were going. I suppose we didn’t either, going back and forth and back and forth about forty-five paces along the stone.
On one of the last days of the retreat when I felt pretty chill but not yet anxious about departing, that perfect Zen Zone, I noticed an ant twitching like mad a few feet in front of me. I bent down to observe.
As I bent down, my mind started racing: “Oh no! It’s in agony! How can I let this poor fellow suffer like this?! … should I squish it? We vowed Do No Harm, but is it even crueler to let him writhe around with a broken thorax or something? WHAT IS THE COMPASSIONATE THING TO DO?! Haaaallllppp!!” But soon I realized–
It wasn’t in pain.
It was dead.
The imagined twitching was instead a much smaller ant struggling to pick up the body of the larger curled-up ant and carry it home. The little ant was trying to collect the dead.
I started crying right in the middle of my meditation with as much compassion and sincerity as any other time I’ve cried.
Of course, I went to my parents’ house a few days later, and I ended up telling this story to my dad. He responds:
“Those things are cannibalistic, you know. That ant was probably thinking, ‘Hey! Dinner! Fuck, probably breakfast, too!'”
Moral of the story: Don’t try to explain your Retreat Moments to those who have never been on one.
For the Love of Metta,