I don’t smoke, but finding the smoking shack on the first day made me smile. After unpacking and making my bed, I explored the grounds of the retreat center. The shack was at the edge of the woods in back of Shanti House. (Yes, the dorms have annoying Sanskrit names.) Almost hidden, the structure looked like a wooden bus stop.
No sign indicated what the shack was. I sat on the bench and looked out at the trees, just beginning to show their colors. The only item in the shack was a tomato can with some butts on the bottom, which clued me into the shack’s purpose. Any smokers among our group of meditators would have to come here to practice their vice.
A Ziploc bag was stuffed between two boards. I pulled it out. The bag contained a half-used matchbook with “May we be free from self-judgment” written in pen on the cover. There was also an unsmoked cigarette and a folded note. I smelled the cigarette. It was menthol. I hate menthol.
I smoked a bit when I was younger, back when smoking was allowed in bars and vending machines glowed outside restrooms, enticing patrons to buy a pack of smokes on their way back from the loo.
By my late 20s, I was down to a pack a year. Smoking became less of a social act and more of a meditative one. I smoked while sitting on a bench or rock and watching a body of water. River or lake or ocean—it didn’t matter. The few minutes it took to smoke a cigarette seemed like the right amount of time to pause and feel alive in the presence of sky and water. After the cigarette was smoked, I’d crush it underfoot and move on.
My pack-a-year habit continued for years. Only recently had I given it up.
I returned the cigarette to the plastic bag and unfolded the note. It read, “Because if you’re anything like me, being alone in your thoughts for this long might just cause you to need a cigarette. . . just don’t make a habit of it.” A smiley face punctuated the sentence. And then, “P.S. Sorry if you hate menthol!”
That night, unable to sleep, I read through the Retreatant Handbook. The shack got a mention on page 24. “Smoking is only permitted in the designated area behind Shanti House, across from the clothes lines. We ask that you don’t wear smoke-permeated clothing into the meditation hall.”
Autumn was hot and dry with temperatures nudging the 90s. At first the warm weather felt like a gift, then it just felt wrong. Wind blew leaves off the trees, but instead of being orange and red, the leaves were a crispy brown. I wondered how my roses back home were doing. Was my neighbor still watering them?
Like the hot weather, the silence at first was welcome until it wasn’t. Before coming, I’d worked frantically to finish a project, rushed to pack, shoved my suitcase in the car, and sped to the retreat center. I arrived with so much momentum, it took a while to adjust to the contemplative pace of the retreat.
Days later, I’d finally slowed down enough for my mind to settle somewhat in the present moment. This was the whole point of a long retreat—to be in a quiet place with weeks of time and no task other than to observe the mind. I’d spent a year making arrangements to make this happen. Now that it had, I felt unnerved.
I’d expected that practicing long hours day after day would reward me with hours of joy. It was folly to think this, I knew, but I thought it anyway. On a ten-day retreat, I’d experienced what the writer Spalding Gray called “perfect moments.” Now that I was halfway through a six-week retreat, my personal algebra suggested that I should have had twice as many perfect moments. I’d had none.
I was bored and anxious with an excess of energy. I wanted something. Something other. Something else. I knew what I was supposed to do: sit and allow myself to feel what I was feeling. My huge mood, however, allowed no room for wisdom.
After a period of walking meditation, the bell rang to return to the hall. I ignored it. There isn’t a lot to do on retreat except sit and walk, which, as one teacher had explained, “is how we planned it.” I didn’t know what to do with myself. Then I remembered the cigarette.
It was a short walk to the shack. I sat on the bench facing the woods and away from everything else. The plastic bag was still there, wedged between boards. When I opened it, the note and matches were there, but the cigarette was gone.
Though I didn’t really want it, I would have smoked it anyway. As much as anything, I wanted to strike a match, light the cigarette, inhale, exhale, and feel connected to the person who wrote the note—a person who understood the struggle of staying with yourself. I wanted to be with that generous stranger.
A couple more butts had been stubbed out in the can. There was at least one smoker among us—a thought that brought me comfort. At times my fellow meditators seemed too wholesome—a group of fragrance-free, vegetarian recyclers. People like me. The smoker balanced out our earnestness. In high school, I occasionally hung out with the stoners in the back parking lot. I wasn’t one of them, but I knew they had something to offer.
The bench was just wide enough for me to sit cross-legged. A gust of wind blew leaves off the branches. I followed one leaf as it spiraled slowly to the ground. It was a joy to watch. I waited for the next gust and watched more leaves. I just sat there, and looked, for a long time.