While waiting for the registration process to begin at a monthlong vipassana meditation retreat, I saw that I was going to be one of the few people of color, maybe the only African American. This had been true at my previous retreat as well. My job as an engineer at a major oil company frequently put me in similar situations. As far as I was aware, this did not raise any particular anxiety, and certainly nothing like what I was soon to discover.
At the beginning of this retreat, I found to my surprise that I could not get comfortable during the meditation periods. I had been meditating and doing yoga since the early 1970s, but I was just beginning to attend formal silent vipassana retreats, first a people-of-color retreat, then a ten-day retreat in the desert, and now this monthlong. Over the years I had become accustomed to sitting cross-legged on a cushion and could typically sit for hours without significant discomfort. However, now no matter what I tried, nothing worked. I tried using a bench, a chair and a zafu. At various times I sat with pillows under my knees, thighs and buttocks. Everything was sore. Of course, all of this discomfort was affecting my meditation. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong.
During a walking period toward the end of the first week of the retreat, a realization seemed to come out of nowhere: I was not at ease in this sea of unknown white people. Surely, my discomfort in meditation was a physical manifestation of the fear churning unconsciously inside me. Five minutes earlier I would have said that being one of few people of color at the retreat was not a significant issue for me. I had no idea that fear could impact me in that way or so unconsciously. Over the next several days, I sat with the emotional impact of my sudden realization. And although there was fear, I was okay with these feelings and could allow space for them without being overwhelmed. It was getting easier to sit in comfort, and in general I was settling into the retreat. It seemed as if the whole issue, although still present, had been diffused.
Then one night toward the end of the second week, upon returning to my room to go to bed, I found an anonymous note on my door. It was from someone asking me to do something about my snoring, which was keeping him/her awake. Initially I did not think much of the note; I put it on the table and went to bed. Then I began thinking: I do not snore, at least not significantly; my wife has never said anything about it; at the last retreat I had a roommate and he hadn’t said anything about it. On and on I went. After a while I began to wonder if the note was really intended to be about snoring. Or was it an opportunity to hassle Charlie? I dismissed that thought.
But my mind would not let this go and continued to race for the next hour or so. Then, all of a sudden, I became very frightened, almost to the point of panic, as I had a flashback to something that had happened over thirty years earlier. A white coworker and I were having a drink at a bar close to where we worked. This bar was in a lily-white rural area, and normally I would never have gone there. However my friend had repeatedly invited me to go with him, and after a considerable amount of urging he convinced me it would be safe. For several weeks it was.
On that particular night things seemed to be going as usual. Then one of the waitresses, with whom we had become friendly, informed us that she had overheard some guys discussing how they were going to get my friend and me after the bar closed. Hastily, we paid our bill, and as we began walking toward the door we heard a voice from the back of the bar say, “Hey, nigger! I’m going to get you and your nigger-loving buddy.” My friend was able to get to his car and leave. I was not so fortunate. Although I remember only bits and pieces of what happened that night, I do recall being hit in the head as I was trying to get into my car and later being huddled on the ground while I was kicked and punched from all directions. It seemed like hours before the police came. I thought I would not survive the night. According to the police estimates there were around eighty people hitting me. Luckily, I was not seriously injured physically. However, as I am now learning, the ordeal left deep unconscious emotional scars.
As I was lying there in my bed at the retreat, all of the emotions from that earlier encounter exploded in my consciousness. Even through the fear, my rational mind was saying I was just being silly, no one at the retreat was out to get me. But a nanosecond later I was thinking about what I could do if someone did want to attack me. They could come right into the room; there were no locks on the door. I was on the second floor with the only window opening to a downward-sloping hill. If I jumped out, I would only lie injured on the ground below, easy prey for those who would harm me. The only way out was the door. If someone came into the room with the intent of doing me harm, there was no way I could escape. A few moments later I’d think no one was going to come in here after me, that this was nonsense. Just go to sleep. I’d cover up, take a deep breath, and close my eyes. Then I realized I didn’t have my clothes on. That left me even more vulnerable. My next thought was that I’d really gone too far. Nonetheless, I got up and put on my pants.
Ultimately, I decided to go home. It was about two o’clock in the morning when I packed my bags and took them down to my car. But my car was blocked in, and I couldn’t get out. I considered sleeping in my car, but that would have been more confined; I’d be less able to defend myself than if I stayed in my room.
I decided to go to the meditation hall. It was a large room with lots of doors and windows, so there were escape paths if needed. There were also lots of chairs that I could throw at my attackers. Concluding that I could defend myself if necessary, I stayed there.
At first light, I got the retreat manager to have the cars moved that were blocking me in, scribbled a quick note to the teachers telling what had happened, and left. I clearly recall the cacophony of thoughts that surfaced during my one-and-a-half-hour drive home. There was relief at being away from the perceived threat, anxiety about what I was going to tell my wife, and uncertainty about what I would do next on my spiritual journey. The group with whom I thought I had found a spiritual home emphasized long residential retreats. But if people-of-color retreats were the only ones I was going to be able to attend, I would have to look elsewhere.
After arriving at my house I decided to do what I call house-cleaning meditation. Ever since I was very young I have cleaned house when things are weighing heavily on my mind. I am not sure exactly how this works, because while I am cleaning, I am fully into cleaning. It’s not as though I am consciously thinking about anything other than the spot on the window or the dust on the floor. However, when I finish I am usually in a different relationship with what was troubling me when I started.
With the space created by this unusual meditation, the regular sitting and walking meditation, and the sensation of being at home, I had a different perspective on the retreat. I appreciated how insidious and resilient fear can be, affecting you in ways that do not leave a clue that fear is the root cause. It was also clear that I was transferring feelings from a real-life threatening situation onto circumstances which, although the source of some uneasiness, were rather benign. It came to me that I could and should return; that the feelings around being in the sea of unknown white faces, the fear resulting from my experience at the bar, and personal peace of mind could all coexist.
The next day I got a call from one of the retreat teachers who wanted to make sure I was okay. After some discussion I was given permission to return. Although given the option of taking another room, I wanted to keep the same one.
Walking up the hill back to my room at the retreat center I was filled with fear, hope and embarrassment. The fear was there because even though I felt different toward the demon that had driven me away, there was no way to know the change was real until I tried to sleep in the same room with the unlocked door again. I was hoping the shift I believed was there was real. It was with a sense of embarrassment that I looked into the inquisitive faces of the other retreatants as I walked by them on the way to my room. Clearly they were wondering what had happened to me. I was glad it was a silent retreat; it would have been difficult to talk to them at that point.
It took me a day or two to get settled back in. However, I was able to do so without too much difficulty. During the meditation periods I was able to get comfortable. At night I felt safe in my room and was able to sleep soundly. From time to time I would get flashbacks to the feelings I’d had the night I left the retreat, but I was able to watch them come and go without supplying them with the energy I had earlier.
I have attended a number of retreats since this one. Except for the people-of-color retreats, there have been few people of color present. I very seldom get the same fearful thoughts, but they do still arise. When they do I have been able to just watch them go by. I wonder if this is what true fearlessness is—not the absence of fear but rather the courage to look at fear just as it is, without giving it energy and without letting it take control.