I decided it was time to make my move. I had waited patiently — a full three days after hearing Jon Kabat-Zinn, the pioneer of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and co-leader of the 7-day workshop I was attending, make a firm request: that people seated at the back of the room move to the front.
“I will move people around,” he warned, peering into the crowd of 70 workshop attendees. “I’ve done that before.”
I turned to the person sitting next to me at the back of the room and said, “This is not going to go well.”
My whole life, I’ve been a dutiful direction-follower. I’m one of those people who arrive early to get a good seat in the front row. And yet, for this retreat, I found myself a bit intimidated by the “professional meditators” who arrived very early with their cushion “set,” blanket, a wrap, water bottle, and possibly extra socks.
After three 16-hour days into the week-long retreat, I doubted my fellow attendees would relinquish their coveted front-row seats. People had settled in… cushions vs. chairs.
The next morning, I got up extra early to take my place in a beautiful large room with blond hardwood floors. It was a very dark, quiet, and empty space, except for one lit candle.
At around 5:30am I found a spot very close to the front of the room and placed my cushion on the floor. After about 20 minutes, I sunk into a deep relaxation. I could barely detect my own breathing. And then…
Tap, tap, tap. I felt as if a car siren had gone off and awakened me from a dead sleep. I noticed my heart rate shoot up and I could feel my body tense. I kept my eyes shut even tighter and tried to ignore another human being tapping on my shoulder.
Tap, tap, tap. I opened my eyes and looked at this woman who very quietly said, in this room now filled with over sixty people settling in and meditating, “You’re in my spot.”
“We don’t have spots,” I replied.
“But I’ve been sitting here all week,” she responded.
Suddenly, I could hear a very angry woman in a Philadelphia accent inside me say, “Been is the operative word, now move away from me.” But instead I looked her in the eye and whispered, “He (Jon) told us to move our seats, so I did.” I closed my eyes once again and ignored her.
I could hear her slowly moving away. I was furious. I knew this would happen. My heart rate was now through the roof. But at that point, Jon and Saki Santorelli entered the room, and our class continued in silence.
Finally, after about an hour, we moved from sitting to walking meditation. I saw an opportunity and approached Jon almost in tears and explained to him that I had followed his specific directions to move to the front of the room and another attendee had asked me to move.
Jon listened intently and then smiled and replied, “Isn’t it funny how sometimes we’re right back in high school? Go apologize to her.”
I just stared at him, confused.
I thanked him and as I walked away, I tried to make sense of what he was asking me to do.
I gave up. I didn’t understand it, but I respected and trusted his advice.
I sought out the woman and apologized to her.
She responded by saying, “Thank you. I had been sitting there all week.”
I just looked at her and said, “I wouldn’t have moved if he hadn’t kept instructing us to do so.” She was so happy, and I walked away feeling a bit betrayed.
And then I rejoined the other 70 people mindfully walking outside and around the room. Noticing the sun that had now risen and was lighting up the trees and our room filled with large glass windows, I could feel the weight of my body in my legs. I took one step forward.
I wish I could say I immediately understood why Jon asked me to apologize, but I can’t. That awareness didn’t even come weeks later. I’ll say months, but it may have even been much longer.
If I hadn’t apologized, Jon knew that I would have sat there replaying the story over and over in mind and would have totally missed the next four days of the retreat. Physically, I would have been there, but that’s about it.
This is the reason why I practice and teach mindfulness. Since, as Jon always says, the formal practice (i.e. sitting, eating, and walking meditation) and the informal practice (e.g. how we choose to live our lives paying attention on purpose moment by moment with nonjudgment) of mindfulness just all becomes one seamless practice. “The real practice is your life,” says Jon.
I thought it was just a hollow apology I made in that moment, but it was not. Something had shifted. Later in the retreat, the woman stood up and explained how difficult her life was and how important this retreat had been for her.
finally beginning to understand the words of wisdom my grandfather shared with
me many years ago — over and over again — “You
can have peace, or you can be right.” Only this time, I was experiencing
first-hand what that meant.