Good For Practice
A story about the sounds of a silent meditation retreat
The single pane windows of the shrine room let in a lot of light. Their blue painted framing never quite close solidly. Where I usually sit, at the back in a chair, the draft can be felt and it sends shivers down my back and neck. When the wind picks up, as it so often does, it whistles into the room, an eery sound.
Anyone who has spent any time meditating knows there is no such thing as silence in a shrine room. The shuffling of feet as we enter, the rustle of cloth as people take a seat in a chair or on a cushion. The creaking of old floorboards loosened with time. The gong that brings us to stillness. The occasional cough. The gentle breathing. The whistling wind.
When the gong is rung to signify the start of a brief period of walking meditation, chairs and cushions are moved towards the centre of the room to make a space all around the edges. Chairs squeak and there is the the soft hush of cloth sliding over wood as they are pushed across the floor.
The floor of the shrine room has become so familiar. Weeks of walking this route, I know where it will creak, sharp and high, or where it will groan deeply. Up on my toes, balanced lightly, I place my feet deliberately, to see if the sound would be softer or not come at all.
Weeks in, there is a familiarity of the sounds of the group and the individuals within it. The swish of fabric as we move in our slow circle. The cracking stairs down and up as the usual folks take this opportunity to go to the loo or get a drink of water. A throat being cleared, joints cracking, a nose being blown somewhere just down the hall.
In walking mediation, my mind easily follows the breath until the moment when the Umdze takes their place at the front of the room. As soon as they step out of the moving circle, my muscles tense in anticipation. They pick up the wooden block and striking stick. The clack is abrupt. For a measurement of time so small I could not have perceived it if not for the hours of meditation I’ve done to this point, there is a gap.
Then the circle is broken as we move without speaking in a considerable susurrus of clothing and feet and hands to move cushions and chairs back to where they had been before. People criss-cross the space to get to their seats as swiftly as possible, adjusting cushions, rearranging blankets, preparing for sitting once again. It is a cacophony.
And then we all stand, eyes front, watching the shrine and watching the Umdze, who stands watching us, waiting to see us settle before inviting us to sit by sitting themselves. In this moment again, there is another nearly imperceptible gap, a nanosecond of stillness and silence.
And that’s when someone farts.
It’s a perfect fart too. Like a sound effect. Like a fart a child would make by pressing their palms to their mouths and blowing. It’s rounded and amplified by the high ceiling of the shrine room and the quiet. A result of eating beans and cabbage at almost every meal.
The Umdze sits and we follow. The room is full of the shuffle and shift of bodies moving, butts finding benches and cushions and chairs.
In my chest is a tension I do everything I can to fight. Thinking, I label it. Thinking, thinking, thinkingthinkingthinkingthinking. Next to me, in maroon robes, sits a nun. I glance at her from the corner of my eye, her scalp grey beneath the stubble growing in on her head. Her mouth is pursed, cheeks round with suppressed mirth.
The nun snort-laughs through her nose. The pressure in my chest can no longer be suppressed. It releases into the shuffling sound of people still finding stillness. We giggle maniacally while trying to suppress it at the same time, a losing battle as we look each other in the eye, setting one another off again. The nun shakes her head. Around us, everyone is still. The Umdze rings the gong, the sound reverberating, spiralling around the bowl. The nun and I suck in air, suck down the hilarity, squash the laughter.
Thinking thinking thinking thinking.
I resume my meditation, focusing on the breath. But the laughter is in my lungs, in my belly, beneath my diaphragm. It rises and as the ring of the bell fades I know I will not be able to fight it. Squeezing my eyes, clamping lips shut, I pull on all the willpower I can possibly find while my mind is bombarded again and again and again with that fart sounding around the room.
It’s no good.
I pop up from my seat and flee, opening the so recently closed door and exiting as swiftly and silently as I can. My eyes bulge and I bite my cheeks, keeping my head down so the monk seated outside the door, acting as guardian, will not see how entirely incapable I am of containing my laughter. I dash up the spiral staircase that leads to an annex library on the uppermost floor of the Abbey.
Here is a seat, a chair of Scandinavian design with sloping wooden arms that curve down into legs allowing for the occupant to rock. Rock I do, seated there, letting the laughter rise up and out of me. It seems to start in the soles of my feet, the muscles arched with glee. My shins tingle and my knees tickle. My belly is bubbles and and my chest full of merriment.
Every single hilarious moment of my life is remembered, travelling under my skin, from toes and fingertips up to my face. I cry with laughter. My cheeks ache and by ears burn red.
The thought occurs to me that I can never meditate again. As long as I have the memory of that fart in my brain, it will always set off this reaction. I know it is not that hilarious, and yet I don’t think I will ever be able to convince my brain of this.
I laugh for a whole hour, the entire duration of the final session of sitting that afternoon. I laugh without pause and without decrease. It is as fresh at the end of the hour as it was at the start, when I first fled the silence of my fellow meditators.
Downstairs, in his spot by the shrine door, the monk listens. He did not see my face as I walked by, or not very clearly. He saw only that my cheeks were flush and my body language tight. While there is no door between me and him, the distance caused by the stairs muffles what he hears. He listens, brows furrowed, to my catching breath, the way I am gulping in air. In the library I am laughing so hard it is nearly silent. I am letting it happen, letting this joyous outburst run it’s course.
I simply stop at the end because my body is exhausted. The muscles in my neck and arms ache, and there is a gentle throbbing behind my eyes. I feel as though I have been working out, lifting weights and doing cardio. I am tired and relaxed now, but still, I cautiously build a little box around the memory, deliberately avoiding it, knowing I cannot handle any more.
During this retreat we have what are called Open Days. Every seven or eight days, we are released from the schedule of the container. Chanting is still done in the morning, but aside from that, the time is entirely our own. We make our own schedules throughout the day. We feed ourselves. We meditate as much or as little as we would like. And we break the vocal silence.
The Abbey fills with voices as we mingle and mix, enjoying conversation over a shared meal or during a walk.
It has been a few days since I accepted the un-suppressible laughter. My monk friend comes to me, an earnest expression on his face. He tells me that he is not going to pry, but that he is thinking of me. He tells me how he listened to me crying, and did Tonglen for me. That it sounded like it was an intense time for me, when I rushed from the shrine room to the annex library.
My face breaks wide with a grin. I laugh, although not as hard as that day. The tenderness in his face is so sweet, as he tells me about how he perceived my mirth as sorrow.
“No, no, no, I wasn’t crying,” I say.
He looks confused.
“I was laughing.”
The confusion remains.
“Because someone farted.”
He, of course, was outside the shrine room, and the door was already closed during the comedic timing of that gas. I tell him about it, the whole thing, the perfect moment of our silence just before the Umdze sat. How it was just as the shuffling stopped that this amazing, cartoon-worthy fart came forth. How it wrecked me, completely. He laughs as I tell him how I legitimately worried I would never be able to stop laughing, but how I also simply embraced it. Not good or bad. Just, farts are funny, and that’s what was happening right then. Accept what is. Don’t try to change it or wish it was different. Know it will pass, and be in the moment while it is happening…
My teacher, Ani Pema tells a story about walking by her teacher and him stopping her and saying, “Don’t be too holy!”
It’s a story I think about a lot. How do we ensure we are not taking ourselves too seriously? Building an ego of spiritual achievement? An ego of righteousness?
My uncle shared with me once how he found meditation hard because, “What if I fart?”
“So what if you do?” I asked, thinking of a story my Unicorn told me of being on a weeks long retreat and watching the monk meditating in front of her tip to the side to let a fart out and then right himself.
We have this idea that there is something solemn about spiritual practice. That it looks and sounds a particular way. That is transcends the reality of our body rather han includes it.
But trust me when I say, everything is good for practice. Even a fart in a shrine room.
This piece was inspired after sharing the story of someone farting during Yarne with one of my long-time patrons and fabulous Dharma Sister, Skipper Jenn. You can check out her blog, which is abundant with entertaining content good for a solid belly laugh.
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