The word “done” is becoming more important to me, nearly a guiding principle at this point. I’d like to prune my affairs to the bare minimum, partly to open up room for new things, partly to eliminate inertia, i.e. stopping doing the things I do only because I’ve always done them. I look at more and more things I’m engaged in, trends I’ve followed, practices I’ve continued, and ask myself: am I done with this?
A couple of years back, after a stretch of public discussion about the “nones”—those who claim to be affilated with no religion—Joshua Packard published his research into the “dones”, those who still identify as Christian but have given up on the institutional church. As a topic of discussion it never really caught traction, but that may be because the “dones” have simply moved on and are not compelled to make any noise about it. George Bernard Shaw tells this story:
I was about five at the time, and I was standing at my father’s knee whilst he was shaving. I said to him, ‘Daddy, why do you shave?’ He looked at me in silence, for a full minute, before throwing the razor out of the window, saying, ‘Why the hell do I?’ He never did again.”
I think we may be nearing a tipping point with churches. At the last few I attended there was a growing sense of “why exactly are we doing this again?”, and the standard answers were wearing thin. That may have been solely in my imagination, but I don’t think so. Over the past ten years both white evangelical and white mainline protestants have lost 25% of their numbers, white Roman Catholics 33%. Ten years! How many more yet attend who won’t have a good answer to the question when they get around to asking it?
I’m thinking about this because I finally made it to a meditation retreat this weekend, my first. Leading up to it I was vaguely hoping for an excuse to cancel, but decided to fight that impulse. The Friday evening session was fine, but on the hour-long drive home I was struggling with a feeling, still vague, that I didn’t want to go back. I did, though, and the first segment on Saturday was also fine. But during the silent portion I had a growing feeling: I do not want to be here. So at the first break I packed up my gear and left for home.
Now, there’s a lot that needs unpacking in there, and I need to be very careful as I unpack not to err on the side of self-justification or self-flattery. One of the basic instructions to novice meditators is to be prepared to unexpectedly dredge up powerful emotions, and that staying with them is the path through. There’s a strong possibility that I had encountered exactly such a situation, should have stuck with it, and am rationalizing my decision to leave.
On the other hand (and this is something I don’t see emphasized enough) one important aspiration for those doing this kind of work is to see things clearly and respond appropriately—even if the response looks self-flattering. The fact that you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. And the “easier” choice isn’t automatically the wrong choice.
As I mentioned, all this is tied up with my notion that I am simply done with some things. The first is this: I am done with being talked at while sitting in a group. I didn’t get clear on the wrongness of this (for me) until I finally stopped doing it regularly, but even while in the midst of it I thought that the model of learning was far from ideal (for me), accepting it only as a necessary compromise for teachers dealing with the diverse needs of the group, and doing what I could to redeem the time for myself, being grateful for the bits and pieces I found helpful. I am now done with spending my ever-more-limited time that way, and will spend the rest on my own learning the things I want to learn in ways I find effective.
(I should mention that this decision came in the midst of a pretty good talk. It wasn’t a reaction to the speaker, just the culminating response to a long series of experiences and reflections. Also, as the teacher outlined his plan for the weekend I learned that a lot of the work would be regarding stuff other than silent meditation, the one thing I had come to learn about, which started me asking in earnest: why am I here?)
The second thing I am done with is group activity where the group is some way visionary, by which I mean a set of people who gather in hopes of making concrete some imagined possibility. I won’t go into detail here, but the folks at the retreat were part of a movement which emerged during the late 60s, and although I’m eternally grateful for the work they did bringing mindfulness to the West I can’t help but note that they tend to be stuck in a certain time, place, and political philosophy. Nothing against them personally, but like all movements it has taken on the nature of a club, by which I mean a community which has to take you in as long as you agree to adhere to the rules, spoken and unspoken. The first night the teacher spoke about how to respond mindfully to the especially unsettled period we had entered, code language for Donald Trump’s presidency. I could tell that the group was entirely on that side of the divide, in that certain aging-educated-liberal way, but it didn’t bother me, having no politics of my own I don’t find it difficult to relate to such folks. But when the teacher asked for people to volunteer a word or phrase that described their reaction, and a totally expected collection bubbled up—dismayed, unsettled, apprehensive, scared—I realized that not only did my own word (“uninterested”) not fit in, but that there would be absolutely no exploration of the reactions on one side or the other, or of possibilities not encompassed by the two. At which point I realized: these are not my people, and my being here won’t benefit either me or them.
The third thing I am done with being in groups where I am not among the oldest. That may sound weird, but it has to do with detecting clubbishness and fleeing from it. As the retreat got underway I spent a lot of time wondering at the fact that, while not the youngest in the room, only a handful were younger and maybe 80% were older. And I realized that the group, and the larger movement it represents, likely has an average age that is rising at least one year per year. I noticed the same thing while attending Lions Club meetings with my dad—he had joined when everyone was young, everyone was now old, the only ones who ever joined were just as old. He said it was the same with all the service clubs, Rotary and Kiwanis and such. And I noticed the same thing at bluegrass festivals, audiences are aging with no young people coming in to take their place. And, of course, church.
Why do I want to be among the oldest? Just because I think it’s the only thing I have to offer at this point. My peer group isn’t especially interested in hearing what I have to say, but even if they were there wouldn’t be much point in saying it since we are all approaching the end of our journeys and shouldn’t be taking on new endeavors. Younger people may not be interested either, and I’m not saying they should be—but unless they’re listening I’m only flattering myself by talking, and should just save my breath.