Determination is the culmination of several weeks of steady meditation practice. It usually takes place over three days, a marathon of meditation that pauses only for small meals and a daily meeting with the head monk. You don’t sleep. You don’t wash. You just meditate.
In the past, I’ve done the truly bad-ass Determinations, seventy-two hours of solid practice that has shaken my foundations and changed my life. This time, I got off easy.
After fifteen days of practice, Ajahn Suphan assigned me a forty-eight hour Determination. I took it gladly. I was expecting the usual three days.
In my room on the first night, I walked with my arms folded behind my back, slow, slow walking. Six-step walking.
Heel up. Lifting. Moving. Lowering. Touching. Placing.
Slow, slow progress across the small, square room.
Do it again.
Do it again.
Do it again.
Back and forth, an hour at a time.
Then you sit. Watch your belly rise and fall with each breath. Watch your thoughts float by. Endlessly.
Break down one wall after the next, moving closer and closer to intuitive knowledge and truth. It takes a long time.
I walked and I walked, and the clock ticked on. I knew that the rest of the monastery had gone to sleep hours ago, that it was just me and the cats in heat who were awake now. Nothing spectacular was happening in my meditations, just the usual rote practice, although now and then, it was punctuated by a small epiphany.
Around one in the morning, a brilliant vision came to me. Holy, rainbow-colored, shimmering at the edges. A hint of enlightenment etched in ink. A tattoo. A new tattoo!
It crawled up my back like a rising serpent or a burning sunray. It followed my natural structure, respectful of biology. It encapsulated love and ascendance, waking up. I was stoked.
Exhilaration moved through me, my breath came quick. Creativity always wakes the body up. I walked faster now, an almost perceptible bounce in my step. Colors. Lines. Curves. For ten years, I have been waiting for this tattoo to present itself to me.
Then came the exhaustion. All petered out from dreaming up such a lovely tattoo, my senses gave up and decided it was bedtime. My eyes began to close, and I let them. I felt my way along the wall with my hand, step by step. I walked like that for awhile, blind, supported, and mildly berated myself for being such a pussy. It was only the first night, and I was drooping, dropping, exhausted. I had partied all night long on countless occasions, why couldn’t I meditate all night now? But I knew why. My mind was resisting. It didn’t want to work. It was waging war.
I rallied. I stopped and drank a soy milk. I put lotion on my legs. In the bathroom, a black ant took an extended nap on the bristles of my toothbrush. The cats howled in ecstasy and agony. I walked on.
Exhaustion became my near friend, I knew it so well. It weakened my knees, weighted my eyelids. It made half-dreams swirl in my head, made my hands tingle. I began to cry. I had a woman to woman conversation with God.
At some point, I curled up into a modified fetal position, knees and forehead pressed to the floor and took a short, strange nap. I woke up, disoriented, and started again.
The roosters began to crow.
I drank a chocolate milk.
I got better and better at hawking a loogie.
On the second night, I made a deal with myself. In my mind, I said, At any point tonight, anything is permissible.
Then I considered that offer, and decided it was pretty good.
At any point tonight, anything is permissible.
Yes, that was definitely a sweet deal. I could drink tea or juice, coffee or soy milk. I could down two drinks in a row if I wanted, jump up and down for variety. I could do handstands against the wall to wake up.
Keeping this modest liberation in mind, I walked on and on, sat and sat.
I had a beautiful, half-waking dream about my Dad, and realized that I can’t wait to hug him again.
The ant on the toothbrush met his unfortunate end when I went in and vigorously scrubbed my teeth, oblivious to his newly-resumed home among my bristles. I didn’t find his tiny body until I had rinsed out the toothpaste and looked closely to examine the mysterious black spot that still remained. I felt a moment’s remorse, like I had just lost the only living friend I had.
Sometime after midnight but before dawn, my walking meditation became a dancing meditation. I have no idea how it happened. Still in step with the rhythm in my head- Heel up. Lifting. Moving. Lowering. Touching. Placing– I began dancing across the room, huge movements, unabashed, unapologetic. Dancing, dancing, dancing.
As I moved, or rather, the spirit moved me, I saw my life stretch out before my eyes. I wanna DANCE! I thought, making circles with my arms, stepping high with my feet. Continuing across the room, I captivated, titillated, and teased my imaginary audience, the energy in my body animating me, designing the dance.
Suddenly I had an image of the young Canadian nun who lived next door, bare feet, brown robes, rimless glasses. She carried a begging bowl in the mornings, held carefully between her hands. I didn’t know how long she’d been there, or how long she’d stay. I just knew that I could never be her, endlessly, patiently practicing Life in a monastery setting.
To hell with carrying a begging bowl around for the rest of my life, my mind shouted. I wanna DANCE!!!
I pictured my best friend and I in Rio, dancing salsa when we’re forty-five and still hot, and I knew that sangria and sexy heels were in my future. Don’t get me wrong- Buddhism is beautiful and has set me free in many ways, but there is too much creative energy in my body to live in solitary meditation for the rest of my life. Bring on the Latin music and rolling hips! That decided, I continued on.
Dancing, dancing, dancing. Walking, walking, walking. Tired, tired, tired.
As the sun rose on the second morning, I once again found the strength to go on. I ate the breakfast a nun brought to my door, and then the lunch. I walked and I sat, walked and sat. I practiced the art of surrender and acceptance again and again. Hard.
And finally, it was over.
I was free.
I could emerge from the room, hear the birds in the trees.
But even as my mind leapt out, anticipating all of the joys of undisciplined life, I knew…
The practice had only just begun.