Cult-land, here I come

Earlier this summer I told my husband that I’d registered for a five-month somatic meditation program. “It’s mostly online, but it starts and ends with week-long retreats at their center in Colorado.”

“So you’re joining a cult?” he said.

“It’s not a cult,” I said. “It’s a meditation retreat.”

“Yeah, that’s what they call them.”

He was joking. Partly.

My friend who practices Zen Buddhism encouraged my participation, but we still sneered at the way some people fawn over their teachers, the way some teachers take advantage of this.

“None of that,” I promised him.

I’d seen the photos propped on alters and shelves of other people practicing this particular lineage of meditation: One is the Tibetan man with slicked back hair who brought his knowledge to this country and the other, his student, the Western man, white-skinned and white-haired, who helped spread this knowledge. This is modern, not ancient history. I’ve been on video conference calls with the Western man, listened to his recorded lectures and guided meditations. I can be generous and understand why people keep photos of these guys. But I can also be cynical so that every time I see one I think of the Jesus paintings some Christians hang in their homes. I’m guessing there will be photos of these men in the retreat center in Colorado and I’m guessing they will make me cringe.

My husband and I made some vows after we’d been together a few years: No Marriage. No Babies. No Jesus. We broke the first vow when after twenty-three years together, he got a job with really good benefits. We went down to the courthouse and signed some papers in our personal version of a green card marriage. On the other two vows, we’ve stayed strong. We have zero interest in having children and zero interest in abandoning our atheism. But now I’m reading books with the words Enlightenment and Spiritual and Awareness in their titles. When I bring the books to bed, I put them face-down on the nightstand.

It’s not that I suddenly feel pulled toward the spiritual. In fact, I’m entirely unsure of what “spiritual” means. What attracts me is how this particular kind of meditation might allow me to develop my interoception or “felt sense.” There have been times when I’ve been estranged from or distrustful of my body, but these days, body stories seem the most fundamental to me. After twenty plus years as a massage therapist, my intuitive sense is fairly keen and yet I’ve still got so much to learn when it comes to feeling beyond a tight shoulder or a knotted low back. The body’s subtle rhythms and signs feel both elusive and essential.

A guided meditation I found online several years ago was my first glimpse into what my felt sense could be. While I listened to the woman’s soft voice I only understood a small portion of what she was talking about and maybe the fact that what I’d stumbled on was a more advanced practice was to my advantage. I let go of what I was “supposed” to do and found myself deep inside my body feeling the very real and very layered beating of my heart. Not a vague thump coming from somewhere in my chest, but the squeeze of the muscle and the rush of the blood. The rich music of it.

I eventually followed through on this revelation and took a few online courses. I started a sitting practice that has developed and faltered in a slow and wobbly way. I also have an alter that I sit in front of. It’s covered with pieces of art and gifts from friends and the only framed photos are of my grandparents and great grandparents.

My bag is now packed for Colorado. I leave before dawn. There is nothing to do but feel the doubt and walk along with it, maybe through it. There is nothing to do but feel the curiosity and succumb to it.

When I get there, I’ll turn off my phone and try my best to not turn it back on for more than the quickest check in. Got here safely. I’ll write. The pajamas they gave me are so comfy, I may never take them off.

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