Talking to the Boss

Soon, I’ll have to ask my boss if I can take a six-week leave of absence for a meditation retreat. I’m not worried about getting the time off. I’ve accrued enough vacation days. What I’m worried about is how I’ll answer when he asks, “What’s a meditation retreat?”

There are few people in the world I respect more than my boss. He’s a research scientist who’s spent the last 35 years working to end the AIDS epidemic, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. His work saves lives.

But he doesn’t do chitchat, so though we’ve worked together for over a decade, he knows little about my life outside the office. I’ve never once mentioned meditation to him. My boss, let’s call him Max, also happens to be the most focused person I’ve ever met—an ability he takes for granted, so explaining concentration practice to him would be like explaining photosynthesis to a tree that’s never wondered why it’s green.

Because I respect Max, I’d like to give him an honest answer to the What-are-you-doing? question, rather than dodging it.

Now that I think of it, it’s a good question to ask myself: Why do I want to spend hard-earned vacation weeks and several thousand dollars to sit for hours each day with a hundred other people? When I’m not meditating, I’ll be eating oatmeal from a vat, or mopping the dining hall floor, or showering in the shared stalls, or sleeping in cell-sized room with sheets I’ve brought from home.

Here’s why: After scrambling to get to a retreat, and after the first difficult two or three days on the cushion, the perpetual rush of the outside world begins to slow. I start to wonder why I’m hurrying to the next thing, especially when the next thing is sitting still. The mind eventually begins to settle. Then settles. Then settles some more. The reason I continue to make time for retreats, I remember, is to explore what goes on in my mind in a setting that maximizes the opportunity to observe.

The process can be wonderfully thrilling. The process can be hell. The process often alternates between extremes, interspersed with dull periods when nothing seems to be happening. The mind becomes a snow globe. The mind becomes the hand that shakes it. The desk on which it rests.

Until now, two weeks is the longest stretch I’ve been able to patch together. On those retreats, it always felt like things were quieting down just as we had to start packing. On a six-week retreat, I’ll triple the time. For a non-meditator, that may seem devoted, but compared to Tibetan Buddhists who withdraw for three-year retreats, it’s a slight surrender.

During my time away from the workaday world, I’m hoping to get a better understanding of how the mind constructs its own reality. And if I’m honest, a transcendent experience for all the effort.

That’s more than I’ll tell Max. Though as a research scientist, I’m sure he’d understand the desire to do the experiment. The drive for a deeper understanding.

Meditation icon by Jens Tärning from the Noun Project.

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