This love story takes place at the Bhavana Society in High View, West Virginia. Bhavana is a Buddhist forest monastery in the Theravada tradition. While it’s an incredible place, listed as one of the most sacred locales by National Geographic, I found love here in a slightly circuitous route. And yes, one of the most renowned Buddhist meditation centers in the entire country is in the Mountaineer state.
I found myself at Bhavana to deepen my meditation practice during a 7-day silent retreat. While checking in for the week, I met a nice man who for confidential reasons, I’ll call, George. George told me he had attended many retreats at Bhavana and had been meditating for several decades. In his experience, there was no better place to meditate, learn, and grow than here. In fact, he had travelled a great distance to attend. After a 10-minute conversation, we went our separate ways and we were soon instructed to remain in silence for the duration of our retreat.
Fast forward 24 hours and me and the rest of the retreat attendees were all in the meditation hall instructed by one of the monks to focus on nothing but our breath. As I sat on a cushion listening to the “ins” and “outs” of my breathing, I couldn’t help but notice someone fidgeting behind me.
I thought to myself, “don’t mind that person, they’ll soon stop” and returned my attention to my breath.
Another 30 seconds passed and more fidgeting.
I told myself, “stay calm, stay calm, they are probably just trying to get comfortable.”
A minute later, this person started to cough and I could feel their breath on my neck. With my mental temperature rising and my focus moving farther and farther away from my own breathing, I thought, “it’ll all be over soon, all that fidgeting must have been due to their need to cough.”
2 minutes later…more fidgeting, A LOT MORE! At this point, I couldn’t care less what my breath sounded like and I was fully transfixed on what was going on behind me. Contrasted against the silence of the room, it sounded like there was a tornado behind me…
LEGS WERE MOVING
PANTS WERE RUFFLING
A WATER BOTTLE WAS CLANKING
“WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON BACK THERE!?!?!?!”
Summoning all the strength I had not to turn around and yell at this “S#%* H&#@” for clearly not giving a rat’s ass about the sanctity of the meditation hall and the silence retreat we were all supposed to be on, I partook in some “aggressive breathing” that did little to calm myself or the human behind me.
2 minutes later, more movement, rustling, and lack of regard for silence. However, this time, before I could turn around and give this person an evil death stare or a piece of my “non-mindfullness”, I could sense and hear them get up and walk away from our position in the meditation hall. A couple seconds later, I heard the door to the hall open and then close.
“THE ASSASSIN OF SILENCE LEFT!!!”
“GOOD RIDDANCE AND I HOPE THAT DUDE DOESN’T RETURN!”
“Now, let the ‘real’ meditators get back to work.”
The rest of the meditation session continued without incident, but I can’t say that I found anything remotely resembling zen, nirvana, or even the relaxing feeling you kinda get when you smell Herbal Essences shampoo.
After morning chores (Bhavana is free to attend, but daily chores are mandatory), we were back in the meditation hall. This time, as I took my place in the hall, I decided to sit in front of a fellow ‘real’ meditator, someone who took their vow of silence seriously. Noticing George sitting in the back of the hall, I took my place in front of him, knowing I was now sitting in the VIP section.
Several minutes later, the bell sounded to begin meditating and I was confident that my man George and I were about to show these monks what’s up!
As I started to get in a groove, letting any faint distraction fall away, I heard a sound.
It was fidgeting.
LOUD FIDGETING AND IT WAS COMING FROM BEHIND ME!!!
“NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO, GEORGE IS THE ASSASSIN OF SILENCE!!!”
From this point forward, George became my enemy during the retreat.
I would move away from him in the meditation hall, still hear his fidgeting, and curse him in my mind. I would see him at the kitchen area getting a cup of tea and think, “look at that amateur meditator.” I’d pass him on the trails in the woods and try hard not to think about his water bottle banging on the ground during meditations. Throughout the course of the week, I became convinced that George hated me for some reason, and he was out to get me.
Near the end of the retreat, I started to think that the retreat hadn’t taught me much and I didn’t have any great revelations like past retreats I had attended. On the 7th day, myself and the other retreat participants ended our silence and enjoyed a delicious Sri Lankan lunch. After lunch, the participants made their way around to saying goodbye to the extremely gracious Monks who supported our learning throughout the week.
As I looked around the room, a small line had formed of those waiting to pay their respects to Bhante Gunaratana, otherwise known as Bhante G, the 92-year-old Monk who founded and led Bhavana. I cringed as I saw the person last in line, George. Knowing I needed to use love and forgiveness more in my life, I decided to “play nice” and make conversation.
I gingerly approached and said, “hi George, how was your retreat?” To which George replied,
“Oh hi Dan. Thanks so much for asking. My retreat was extremely difficult. I’ve been working on a lot of survivor guilt. Recently, 5 of my friends in my support group have died and I’ve been so depressed and feel terrible for all the pain and suffering my cancer treatment has brought on my family. It’s been very challenging moving past these thoughts and emotions as you can imagine.”
I was floored. A flood of regret and sadness rushed within me. This man who I had made out to be a villain was going through unimaginable suffering. Rather than lead with compassion, I led with judgement and anger. George wasn’t the bad guy at all, I was.
In that moment, my entire retreat made sense. No amount of meditating could deliver the teaching, George’s vulnerable words brought upon me.
Today, I think about George often. He’s the driver who cuts me off on the road. He’s the neighbor who doesn’t wave back to me while walking their dog. He’s anyone who I perceive to have wronged me.
I’m doubtful I’ll ever see my friend George again, but if I saw him, I wish I could give him a hug. Through his pain and suffering, I learned a lot more about how to have love and compassion for all.
Author Bio: Dan started Fired and Free in 2017, to provide his “truth” after being fired as CEO of the company he started and led. After a diverse 17-year career in management consulting and entrepreneurship, Dan now leads 3Sixty Leadership, where he provides coaching and consulting to business owners with 5 to 500 employees, helping them to work “on” their business not “in” their business.