The Princess and the Pea

I’m back from a 10-day meditation retreat, at Vajrasana in sunny Suffolk. That might seem a bit of a doss, but it’s also an investment – I really want to improve my meditation practice, for my benefit and others', and it’s ten times easier to learn on retreat than at home.  It’s like trying to light a match indoors versus trying to light it on the top of a windy hill.

Retreats are not the chill-fests people imagine. When you remove external distractions, you come face-to-face with your inner restlessness and dissatisfaction in its rawest form. You see all the spikes of your likes and dislikes. Outside, you think you could easily be happy if it wasn’t for all the idiots around you. Inside, you begin to see the problem might be you.

Let me give you a short history of my failures on retreat. The first was in 2006, when I went to Optina, the famous Orthodox monastery where Dostoevsky stayed. It's a beautiful place, full of kindly monks and pneumatic cats. I went there in Lent, rose at dawn to go to the first service, followed the black-cowled figures through the snow, prayed with them by candlelight as the icons' faces shimmered in the gloom. It was so romantic. And then, very quickly, it was just really hard and boring. The food was terrible, the services were long and incomprehensible, plus the archimandrite kept trying to convert me to the Orthodox faith. So, after two days, I left.

In 2015, while struggling to be a Christian, I went to a Benedictine monastery on the Isle of Wight. I intended to go there to meditate and do some writing. I was disgusted to discover there was no wi-fi or 3G connection. The come-down from all the stimuli of city life was unbearable. I felt so bored, sad, dead even. It was meant to be a silent retreat, but the man in the room next to me Skyped his son one evening. I shouted through the wall at him to shut up. Initially I found the church services somewhat moving, although one of the monks sang flat. But after a couple of days I just found them really boring and alienating. I began to accept that I wasn’t a Christian, I was kidding myself. So, after three days, I left.

In 2016, I went on a Vipassana retreat. It was extremely hardcore – no talking, no phones, no reading or writing, no leaving the perimeter, no contact with the other sex. Just ten hours of meditation a day. I found that I became furious with the people around me – with my room-mate, who crashed around and disturbed my sleep (one night I broke the silence to call him a wanker); or with the person who meditated behind me, who had a dry mouth and was constantly swallowing. Still, I stuck it out and made some progress.

In 2017, I went on a Zen retreat in the hills of south India. I was shown my room, and immediately asked to change room, to get a better view. I then had a lovely room overlooking the central zen garden. I meditated in the dojo, hearing only the tweeting of the birds. I began to feel a sense of inner serenity. And then music started blaring from a nearby village – tinny Tamil pop on the tannoy. It played all weekend, from 7 in the morning until 9 at night.

I could not believe it. How were we meant to meditate with that racket? I started to wonder if it was an act of sonic aggression by the village, to disturb the hippy westerners in the retreat below. How dare they ruin our Zen paradise! Eventually I went to the centre’s administrator and broke the silence to ask him: ‘what’s the deal with the music?’ I expected to hear a story about a long, bitter feud with the village. But he just shrugged. ‘Oh, they’re opening a new church. They’re always playing music, sometimes all week’. No big deal apparently.

This year, I went on a London Buddhist Centre retreat in April, and there were no major annoyances – however, I fell for one of the women on the retreat. I spent much of the retreat looking out for her, smiling at her, talking to her, thinking about her. I really thought we had something going. Then I discovered on the last day she had a boyfriend, who she lived with. The whole thing had been a story I’d concocted in my head. Another wasted opportunity.

So, this month, I went on an all-male retreat instead. The first night, the oom-pah band began. My room-mate snored like a smothered hippo. Every night I was woken up two or three times, and felt knackered in the morning. I considered my options. I considered asphyxiating the room-mate. I considered leaving the retreat. Why stay under such inauspicious conditions?

And then I came to accept that the problem, at least partly, was me. I have a very spiky ego, with sharp likes and dislikes, and one of my strongest aversions is people disturbing my sleep. That’s why I live on my own, on a top-floor flat in a quiet neighbourhood. My old room-mates will testify to the fact I’d often come down, at 12.05, and say ‘hi would you mind just keeping it down?’ They all eventually left. I will often change seats on the train because a person near me is annoying me with loud talk. I am easily irritated.

Maybe this was what I had to work with – learning to accept niggles and annoyances as part of the path, rather than reasons to leave. So I stayed, and the snoring stopped annoying me after a day. Yes, sometimes I was tired, but I still made progress, and took advantage of this incredible opportunity to practice the dharma.

While on the retreat, I read Pema Chodron’s book, Start Where You Are. She writes:

Ego is like a room of your own, a room with a view, with the temperature and the smells and the music that you like. You want it your own way. You’d just like to have a little peace. But the more you think that way, you more you try to get life to come out so that it will always suit you, the more your fear of other people and what’s outside the room grows. Rather than becoming more relaxed, you start pulling down the shades and locking the door.

What she and other Buddhists try to teach is a method for ‘ventilating your prejudices’ – learning to open your heart to what you find annoying, unpleasant, difficult or painful, so that you let some fresh air into the stale room of the ego. You let other beings into the room, even when they disturb you. And when you feel joy, you share that too. Gradually, with practice, you discover a softness, an openness, a flexibility in your mind. You discover that's your deeper nature - that spacious heart-mind - rather than the constant reality-TV drama of your ego-talk. The obstacles become the teachers, pointing you to your prejudices and aversions, helping you work with them. The snoring room-mate is actually a helpful teacher.

I realized I was like the princess in Hans Christian Anderson’s story, the Princess and Pea. She can’t quite get comfortable, no matter how many mattresses she lies upon. There’s always something niggling her and ruining her serenity. In the fairy tale, the prince takes this ‘royal sensitivity’ as proof of the princess’ pedigree, and happily marries her. Good luck with that. Can you imagine how high maintenance she will be?

So you come face to face on retreat with your ego and its deep aversions and attachments. And that can be pretty disturbing. But you can’t kick down the walls of the ego, shake it off like a sticking plaster, or just bury your irritation. Your ego is always going to be there, and you actually need it to come with you on the journey. What we can do is not immediately believe the stories our ego comes up with, and instead see if we notice a pattern to our prejudices. We can begin to soften the thick walls of our ego, with calm and humorous loving-attention, so that eventually (hopefully!) they go from steel, to concrete, to cardboard, to paper, to thin air.