A Mild Irreversible Form of Enlightenment

Anna DeForest

Sam Moyer, Remnants 1, 2018. Courtesy the artist, ULAE, and Sean Kelly, New York/Los Angeles

I am better now. At least, I can say this to myself and believe it. And I can tell, for example, the difference between reality and dreams. I have not had to see a psychiatrist in years. I try, though, still, not to hope for anything. I watch myself closely, eat square meals, run a dozen or a few dozen miles most weeks. While I run, I listen to the radio, always the same show, a show on the subject of right living. The guests come on and rec­ommend things: water with lemon, say, or open-water swimming, or mixing lithium with seltzer. Other kinds of guidance, too. One guest came on to say what portion of your money you should give away to charities—charities that his group, his nonprofit, has vet­ted as well-run and measurably efficacious.

The amount is ten percent. This is a biblical number, an Old Testament tithe, but the man on the radio did not admit that. I do not know if I should give my ten percent to digging wells or to distributing mosquito nets, or if I should use it to feed and clothe the refugees who line the sidewalks outside empty midtown hotels. Whatever I do, I want to mean it. So I do not do much. The self is just a vital lie—that is what they say on the radio. The self is a lie and it lies to itself, makes up reasons for doing the things it has already done.

my father kept the opposite advice taped to the mirror in his bath­room. Watch what you think—it becomes what you do. My father kept bits of paper all over his house, taped to the refrigerator, to cabinet doors. He was not a man who would otherwise strike any­one as deeply invested in moral formation. But he believed in his own psychic strength. After my crack-up, for the rest of his life, he called me a case, a simp, a loon. This was how he would speak to me, until he got so sick he couldn’t speak anymore.

The radio show’s best regular guest is the man without a head. He recounts on air an endless number of experiments meant to demonstrate the essential first-person truth that no one, indi­vidually, has a head. Point to an object, he says. His is a genteel, fatherly affect. He has you describe to yourself the characteristics of the object, say it is a scotch glass, its contours, the slight lick of white where the light bounces off it. Now point to yourself, he says. What is there? Where your head should be, there is nothing. No head. Only a vast emptiness in which the world presents itself. The benefit of this practice is unclear. The man without a head says it is better to live in truth than in illusion.

For this one meal, and the orientation afterward, we are allowed to speak, and then we will enter the noble silence.

One day on the radio the host makes a special announcement. The man without a head will hold a retreat, to gather any seekers who wish to go deeper into his truths. The retreat is a few hours north of the city. The first hundred listeners who call in at a speci­fied time will not necessarily get to attend but will be guaranteed an opportunity to pay full tuition to do so. A few thousand dollars for eight long days of silence, though there are scholarships, the host notes, for members of certain minoritized groups.

I had not known the man without a head had such a large and devout following. I call a few times, half-hearted, when the time comes, and when I get through, hear only a recorded voice. Press one, it says, to be placed on the waitlist. When I hear back, days later, I am surprised. A woman with a pleasant voice offers me a spot on the retreat. As a rule I try to be open to whatever the fates may serve me. Congratulations, she says, after I give her my credit card number. They send via email a large number of forms—medi­cal information, meditation experience, environmental sensitivities.

What I want is to not want anything, says a woman across from me at a picnic table in the yard on the day I arrive at the center. She has filled her plate with large chunks of brown bread. They won’t serve this again, she says. While the hosting entity is vari­able, retreats of this sort take place here several times a year. The woman is a regular. She has two pears in each pocket of her light linen jacket. For this one meal, and the orientation afterward, we are allowed to speak, and then we will enter the noble silence. The crowd is largely white people of retirement age. Lots of polo shirts with discreet company logos. The women wear leggings and the men synthetic fiber hiking pants with flapped pockets on the outer thighs. The younger ones require more explanation. Several young men wear pants that look like a tablecloth arranged into a legged diaper. They have counting beads around their necks and intricate fades shaved into their heads. Many have brought their own carved wooden meditation stools, precious and unstable. We are expected to sit for eight hours a day.

An administrator greets us in the entryway. He leads a short tour. Most of the place is passageways lined with doors to the little rooms where we will sleep. In the foyer is the whiteboard—it is like our TV, he says cheerily—and beside it a red phone to use in case of emergencies. The hall where we will largely spend our days is modest, white-walled, with wine-colored mats marking each place in rows of maybe eight. In the front of the room a statue of the Buddha gives an okay sign with each of his hands. Most of the mats have been claimed in advance, piled with blankets on low benches, cushions arranged into mounds the participants enter delicately from above. The administrator begins with a land acknowledgment (Wampanoag) and then lays out a few house rules. No speaking, of course, but also no eye contact, no attempts at nonverbal discourse. You can leave notes on the whiteboard—for the teachers, he says. Do not write to each other. Then there is the issue of masks, which in the regular world have fallen completely by the wayside. Here we are required to wear them at all times. This is not explained—perhaps the man without a head is immu­nocompromised. But he will not appear yet. The group cheers loudly whenever his name is mentioned.

The administrator goes on, says that it is high season for ticks and that return visitors will notice there are now locks on all the doors. This he calls an unfortunate sign of the times. Wear your badges, he says. They contain sensors that release the locks. Stay alert, and be sure no one follows you in. He acknowledges that some of us who arrived early today may have noticed the presence of the police. There was a man who enrolled in this retreat, he says, but certain acts of speech had let us know that he was undergoing, let’s say, a psychiatric emergency. He was asked not to arrive and then arrived anyway. So we invited the presence of the police. We can hope they have directed the man to some source of mental help.

I have prepared for any kind of occurrence in my head during the silence. Any number of thoughts might occur and become a source of overwhelming trouble. This had happened when I was younger: certain accepted facts about the world could come to seem intolerably under-examined. Take as one example the moon, a large and regular feature of the sky. Although it occurs there, to the senses, to the eye, as a pleasant, flat, round brightness, the mind must apply to it all we have come to know over time: that the moon is a piece of the earth itself, cleaved in an act of massive cosmic violence. That it makes tides with its immense gravity, pulling the seas toward its surface. None of this seems safe, I mean, though it has been going on for some time. The registration paperwork requested that one self-report any of a long list of mental health conditions but did not specifically include whatever this condition was. Still, I felt vaguely illicit as I signed the form confirming I was sound of mind and constitution.

The participants shift restlessly in the long quiet after the announcements. Then a woman enters, bows to the statue, rings a bell, and leaves, and we are left to rise soberly in what must be the noble silence. There is nothing on the whiteboard for that first night, so I walk in my socks to my little room and lock the door. I unpack my small case of light shirts and sweatpants—I notice only now that this is the same clothing I wore on the inpatient ward—and arrange my unscented cosmetic items on the chrome shelf over the little sink on the wall. I tend to my hygiene with greater than usual attention. I look into my own eyes in the mirror while I floss. Not me, not mine, I say to myself. Something I learned from the radio.

It is still dark when I awaken to the sound of a bell, and lying in bed I hear the sound of stirring, through the walls, through the floors, the hundred or so of us doing what humans do to start the morning, all together, with quiet attention. I join a line of bodies in the hallway, walking toward the meditation hall, our gazes down­cast, our feet soft. We find our mats and close our eyes. My body recognizes rest at once, begins to rest, though at the place where my ankles cross I quickly feel a pressure, then a pain—a sensation I might want to call pain. Behind me, someone coughs. I feel the mask on my face, the pressure on the stiff bowls of my ears, my breath hot on my upper lip. Time passes, an hour, a moderate bur­den. A bell rings, and it is time for breakfast.

I find I can go full hours without once having to consider the management of my saliva.

When the bell rings to end our second sitting period, we rise and scatter, needing to find a wide variety of places, of lengths, for our deliberate meditative pacing. For most of the time we are not seated, we are meant to engage in meditative walking, which is described, in orientation, as walking a set length in any location, back and forth, disengaged from our thinking minds and focused entirely on the sensations in our feet. In all the halls, on all the walkways, retreatants in socks lift their legs like waterbirds, the knees effortful, the footfalls self-conscious, misplaced. I find it hard to find a place for myself that is open enough but also concealed. Not that I wish to be unseen. I only wish not to see anyone else. After the first or second session I begin to do my pacing in the woods.

In the evenings between sittings a lesser teacher gives a talk. The teachers’ specific qualifications are never made clear, though each will mention they have been to innumerable retreats, like this one but longer, in the East, they say. One of the teachers, a man, recently had a child. He mentions this several times in his talk, the infant, and the great force of maternal love that he has newly become aware of. It is everything, he says, though he does not mention the child’s actual mother or the whereabouts of this mov­ing and beautiful family. He shares that he once meditated through a spell of palpitations that turned out to be a life-threatening arrhythmia. He accepted this, he says, as what was happening: the crushing chest pain, the soaking sweats, until the retreat ended, and he went to the hospital for emergency cardioversion.

I come to an intimate knowledge of the sitters on the mats around me, the woman to the front who has a bobbing tremor in her head, the man beside with his one-legged stool, the woman behind who sighs after each bell and folds herself so intently for­ward that I feel the pressure of her fingers shift the weight on my mat. I find with small adjustments I can move the pain from the inner to the outer knees, from the sacrum to the mid-back, move­ments that only serve to solidify the pain as an entity, a roving, unavoidable quantity that visits upon this or that part of the body. The pleasure of this is obvious: to endure a difficulty that you have created and have the power to stop at any time. It is clearly a prac­tice invented by a prince.

Soon, though, in place of the personal history or existential threats that I worried would obscure my pure consciousness, I am beset by an unexpected problem. The problem concerns the spit in my mouth, the rate at which it collects and the difficulty of swallowing it, of knowing when to swallow it and how loud the swallow seems to be, the effect it must have on those around me. Whenever I swallow, several people around me swallow also, or cough, provoked or permitted by my own bodily noise. When we take breaks from sitting, breaks for walking or meals or chores, I find I can go full hours without once having to consider the man­agement of my saliva. So what happens on the mat is unclear.

We have daily small group sessions with the lesser teachers, held in a small bright room in which we are allowed, in turn, to speak if we would like to. The first few times I find that I would not. At the first session a woman is having a lot of distress. We take turns holding a small brass bowl. We say our feelings, then strike the bowl with a wooden pestle wrapped in felt. I feel a lot, she says, and strikes the bowl.

Nothing on the schedule is optional, except one sit, at night, called the affinity sit. The first night the affinity sit is for people who identify as nonwhite. Do not attend the affinity sit as an ally, the administrator says. Please, just don’t. The second night, and alternating nights thereafter, the affinity sit is for people who iden­tify as having an atypical sexual preference or gender identity. I have wondered about this second affinity. Yet it seems inappropri­ate to claim a new identity now, in a week devoted to renunciation of self. I remember my father watching television, expressing dis­dain for homosexuality whenever it was suggested onscreen. As a child, I quickly learned all the slurs, words I knew from the pho­netics alone never to say aloud. I wondered then, too. But whatever my condition, it did not, later, deter men. They did not notice that I—I mean my body, its holes—was anything other than it appeared to be. I go to the sit, the room, the second night, and see a small circle of empty chairs, and leave.

I have a question I am saving for the headless man himself: what it might mean if my self is already disintegrated. I have felt this way, disintegrated, for as long as I can remember, and I won­der if this understanding places me further along the path. I allow myself some time to shape the question should my chance to ask it come. I understand that I seem to have a self. Its tendencies cause predictable problems, patterns that amount to a personality. Others can see it. But whatever I am seems to originate not from anywhere inside of me but from this interface between myself and other bodies. In the evenings, when I have to use the hand mirror to look at my back and my buttocks and the creases of my limbs to see if any ticks have latched onto me, I think: I hate this body. And then I remember that it is not mine.

The woods compare unfavorably to other woods I have been in. There is something too young about them, the ground too soft, the trees too slender and canted at odd angles. It does not seem possible to get lost, but I get lost. The trails seem underdetermined. Somewhere through the woods is a large house where the teachers stay, and a smaller though more luxurious cabin which is reserved year-round for the man without a head. We were cautioned on arrival not to seek these places out, and I do not mean to. I arrive wholly by accident. The cabin has black exterior walls and large windows. What little I can see inside is well appointed and modern. An industrial fan spins artfully on the ceiling. The room appears empty. Some sort of guard or groundskeeper finds me staring from the flora and scowls, so I set off fast on an unclear path in the oppo­site direction. After some time of mild mounting anxiety, I see a middle-aged man in a backpack and follow him from a polite dis­tance back to the compound.

On the third day I miss two sits walking in the woods. I arrive to our small group quite late. The woman is holding the little bowl when I arrive. I feel a lot, she says again. Above her mask her eyes look bored, but then she points to my arm where a tick the size of a dime wanders toward my elbow. We are not to kill the ticks—it is against the precepts to kill anyone. It was suggested that we wear citronella bug spray if we went into the woods, though strong scents are not allowed in the meditation hall. A man stands up and uses two fingers to lift the tick from my arm. He goes to the window, slides the screen up an inch or two, and throws the tick out. See, the woman says. I am trying to understand it. We are not allowed to kill the ticks, even though they are full of horrible disease? And yet I have to wear this mask. I see, says the teacher, and then says nothing else. The woman rings the bell.

This time, on my turn, I tell the teacher about my swallowing problem. The man who took the tick starts to laugh. Am I allowed to agree, he asks the teacher. The teacher shakes his head: no cross-talk. But he agrees, the teacher, in a general sense, that my problem is common to beginners. He offers no solutions. You are ashamed of yourself, yes? He says. And so I ring the bell.

YOU BELONG HERE is written in ballpoint pen on the corner post of a gazebo made of soft screen and two-by-fours erected in the woods behind the compound. What qualities define a gazebo? This may just be a hut. It is too small for an adult to lie down in. It is like an outhouse without a toilet, with see-through walls. The penmanship is round and cheerful, the writing of a girl child, though children are not allowed here. It looks fresh, unperturbed, the blue still vibrant. As I stand in the gazebo, I see the man in the backpack walk up the trail and inspect a cooler someone has left under a tree. He opens the lid and closes it again. Other than us, no one walks in the woods on breaks. I cannot see his badge, the man in the woods, though perhaps it is under his jacket.

I have a notion of headlessness, I try to tell him, because I have never been anyone.

The week is half-gone before the man without a head appears. He has a head—this is meant to surprise no one. His head, in fact, accentuates the trouble with having one: small teeth, big ears, eyes set too close together. He is the only one not wearing a mask. He is white and old and venerated so intensely that the air in the room shifts as he enters. He sits in a chair on the stage to the Buddha’s left. His legs are long, so long that they rest on a stair below the stage, and yet his knees stay level. Hello, he says, and he laughs. His laughter is unvoiced, just air, just like on the radio. Trigger warning, he says. You are responsible for your own suffering! He offers a lesson on sitting still, on allowing your thoughts to be clouds in the sky. He doesn’t do the pointing thing or refer to him­self, to his work, at all.

He takes questions at the end. About half of the large group raises a hand. Many questions concern a teacher that the headless man knew when he was young, in his cave days. This teacher was said to have special abilities. She could walk through walls, it was said. She could visit the bardo in her dreams. Is it true, is what the questions all in all amount to. Oh, he says. Yes. It is true. He knows for a fact that others, too, had cultivated these talents. Out of modesty, I guess, he does not say if he is one of them.

The prohibition against speech has eroded further on account of all the ticks. It has become permitted to call them out, to call out to the owners of the backs and shoulders on which the ticks are spotted. The ticks are collected in teacups and margarine tubs and freed outdoors. The volume of ticks, I know from the radio, is influenced by the warming of the winters, the warmth increas­ing their numbers and widening their migration paths, increasing the diversity of the illnesses they carry: Lyme, of course, and some spotted fevers, new and varied diseases that make your limbs limp and gangrenous. They do acknowledge, the teachers, that doubt must by now be seizing all of us, that doubt is a tether created by the mind, that purification, like food poisoning, is an unpleasant process. True, it has begun to feel complex to orchestrate my move­ments through the day. Instead of walking, I go to my room and sleep or do not sleep, just lie flat until the next bell, when I walk to the hall and sit. My room is on the second floor. Below my window is an awning I imagine, at first, will be a safe escape in a fire, but it comes with time to seem more like a tempting point of entry for someone intent on breaking in. I keep the window shut.

Finally we are alone with the man without a head, my small group, the woman who feels a lot and the man who takes the ticks and me. The man asks the headless man about something he calls stream entry, a mild but irreversible form of enlightenment. The woman, on her turn, doesn’t have a question but tells the headless man how much he has already changed her, her character and her life. She has done so many retreats before this, she shares, to the great distress of her husband, who thinks all this is meaningless, who misses her participation in domestic labor. But with you, she says, it is different. Even he will say so, when he sees how I am changed. Then it is my turn. I feel the blood rush to my face. I have a notion of headlessness, I try to tell him, because I have never been anyone. I use a few more words to try and explain it. Oh no, is what he says. He laughs his breathy laugh. I am not a shrink, he says, looking to my left, but I think what you are describing is an illness. The fixed self is needed, he says, to be known and set aside. For example, I think of mine as a character in a cartoon. I watch his face and feel my mouth begin to shake. A place like this, he says, certainly can attract damaged people. But what we provide is not therapy. You do not sit with these sensations because you want them to change. You sit with them and welcome them to stay forever. He holds his hands together, as in prayer, and says we are out of time.

The red phone has no buttons. It rings when I lift it. A tired voice, a woman’s, answers: Is this about a tick? She comes from some distance and sits me down in a dark office. I tell her some­thing—about the moon, or the hospital. Listen, she says, I get it. You had a tough dad, right? I can only stare. He brings it out in people, she says. He likes the men; he likes to keep it cerebral. She used to want to be a teacher, too. She told that to the headless man. He didn’t even think about it, she says. Not that he knows the first thing about me. There’s a lot of need in the community, he told me. Maybe I could do stress-reduction workshops, breathwork, corporate wellness. She looks like she wants a cigarette. Something about the way she moves her hands. Maybe you just leave, she says. You got money? Just go to a hotel for the last few days. Find one with a pool.

I go to my room and lie on my back until the front edge of sleep loosens my thoughts from their moorings. In my dream, I’m in the retreat center. The light is slanted and flickering. The faces of the people I pass in the hall are all moving pieces of light. I hear them ask each other how I got there. A human being, they say, here. In one room, two women open a window. Jump, they say, laughing, go on and jump! Out the window is only fog, on and on, forever. I sit on the floor and close my eyes and then I wake up in my bed.

I am late somehow to the next sit. The halls are empty. There are signs in the halls that are new but also laminated. The signs read: USE NO WATER. In the communal bathroom, each toilet bowl already holds some deepening shade of unflushed urine. I am not fully sure I am awake. In the hall there is a great murmur until the administrator takes the stage. The septic system, he says, has developed a terminal backlog. Once he says this, there begins to present itself to the senses a faint odor of human waste. There is a bus you can take to a toilet up the road, he says, but by health department orders you will all have to leave in the morning. A hun­dred hands raise at once. He calls on one. It is the woman with all the bread. Could we have one more talk before we go, she asks, from the man without a head? I am afraid not, says the adminis­trator. He has gone to urgent care with a toothache. The remaining questions concern where to board the bus and the frequency of its departure. The schedule will continue as posted, says the adminis­trator. He adds, sternly: And the silence will resume.

The silence does not resume. In clusters and groups in vari­ous corners, retreatants gather and murmur about logistics. Every so often a voice will shout out: Is anyone going to Boston? The woman with the bread approaches me and puts a hand on my shoulder. I want you to know I can see you, she says. I thank her and try to get away. Home is not far, and it is easy to find a group headed back to the city. A blond woman gives me her cell phone number—someone has freed our devices from a safe in the main office—and then I try to get out of the crowd. Although I have said almost nothing, my throat is tight, and the churning voices, their movement as they rise through the room, provokes in me a sensation like motion sickness. The next morning, in the car, the blond woman will turn the radio on, and the group will talk over it, taking turns making small talk, until in the traffic, we all grow bored, and the only man in the group, a producer for true crime television, will begin to chant a sutra in a clumsy baritone. The chant will sound like a long old story about all the things that seem to be here but are not: eyes, ears, tongue, mind, old age and fear and death. Gaté, gaté, paragaté—gone, gone, fully gone away.

He holds his hands together, as in prayer, and says we are out of time.

But before we go, there is a talk, a last talk, and then a sit before bed. The lesser teachers sit with baskets at their feet, in which we are meant on our way out to leave cash or checks in proportion to our gratitude. I leave through the back. I go to the woods, and I walk until I see the man with the backpack. I am close enough behind him that he must know I am there, but he does nothing to suggest he can see me. He goes deep into the dusky woods, moving steadily and quickly, until he finds the place, the edge from which you can see the black cabin standing in the dark. I follow his gaze through the window and see on a sofa inside the man without a head. He sits still, eyes open. Light shifts and flickers over his face. It appears he is watching television. I watch the man in the back­pack look through the window for a long time. Then I walk the driveway back to the road and walk the road in the dark until I see the porch light of the retreat center.

my father’s notes never betrayed a particular system of belief. The habits or pathologies they were meant to balm were his admitted and permanent faults: greed, indifference, hubris. A man’s intelli­gence is like a watch, one said, to be kept in his pocket and brought out only on request. But the notes became more concise toward the end: SHAVE on the mirror, EAT on the fridge. There was a time in between, in the weeks before he left a pot on the stove to catch fire, before I had to hire a girl to be with him during the day, to watch him, when the notes were in every room, on every surface where the eye might rest, and they all said the same thing: BE HERE NOW. He is not here now, of course. Now he isn’t anywhere.

Anna DeForest is the author of the novels A History of Present Illness and the forthcoming Our Long Marvelous Dying, and a palliative care physician at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.
Originally published:
March 4, 2024


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