After many years on anti-depressants, and finding normal unhappiness just out of reach, I decided at last to try enlightenment. My friends had been going on about it for years, but it always struck me as bunk, like Scientology or the novels of Ethan Hawke. However, after many courses of psychotherapy, pharmaceuticals, yogic stretching, alkaline eating, payapa enemas, and nonstop gin, I began to wonder if my friends weren’t on to something. Apart from the cost of a few seminars, enlightenment was free. There was plenty of it, and once you had it, you had it for life. And the way my friends said they felt! They were light of heart and in great humour. Some repaired ancient rifts in important relationships, while others made quick money in morally forward investments. All reported increased libido as well as thundering orgasms, especially in elevators.
To get enlightened, I booked a 30-day silent retreat at one of Ontario’s most bucolic ashrams. Situated in Collingwood, the Mindfuller Contemplatorium and Slide Ride is Huronia’s only waterpark and ashram. In the days leading up to my bus north, I took the website’s advice and practiced a number of shorter silent meditations to get myself ready for the 30 days. I put on loose clothing and assumed a comfortable position on the floor in front of my television, which was off, although I could touch the remote with my big toe. By the day of departure, I was set. I’d meditated up to 40 minutes twice, so I was ready for 30 days, which is after all, just a much longer 40 minutes.
Check-in was simple. We gave a man with very long hair all of our belongings in exchange for nice, grey robes, and we were told to find a comfortable sitting position in the meditation room. This being our first day, we were only going to do a 10-hour meditation, with hourly breaks for kale crisps.
“There is no right way to breathe,” said our leader, a man who did not identify himself, so I called him Mystery Monk. “Just breathe normally. If a thought comes to mind, let it pass. It is nothing, release it. All you have to do is breathe.”
I put my hand up. Mystery looked at me with great inner peacefulness. “Do we breathe through our noses or our mouths?”
“It does not matter.”
“What if it’s quieter for you to breathe through your mouth?”
Mystery took a deep, innerly peaceful breath. “You are all free to breathe in whatever manner is most comfortable for you.”
I put my hand up again. “Can I just request that we all breathe through our mouths while we’re here, so people with whistly noses don’t disturb those of us who are trying to meditate?”
“No, you may not. Begin. Do not touch your kale crisps until —”
“Oh! Sorry. If I’m enlightened in like, four days, can I go?”
“Yes,” said Mystery, with just a soupçon of inner non-peace, “You can leave if you get enlightened sooner than expected.”
It is difficult to sum up an experience such as the one I had at the Mindfuller Contemplatorium and Slide Ride. Days upon days of being alone with my thoughts was at first exhausting, and I began to understand what a terrible toll the omnipresent grind of knitting my selfhood out of nothing had taken. I realized I had to let go of this confining selfhood. I had to confront it face on, look at it with all the openness and honesty I could muster, and free myself of it! But alas, by the end of day two, I still had it. Sometimes it felt like I was just going to be me for the rest of my life or something. But I forged on.
By day four, the kale crisps had regulated me completely.
On night six, Scowly Monk gave a short talk and said that having a self was like being trapped in the trunk of a car. Except you’re also the car, as well as the emergency release thing in the trunk, as long as your self has been kidnapped in a model made after 2002.
On day 12, I pitched into a void as bottomless as time. Then we had a nice pinto bean soup for lunch. On day 15, I waged an epic battle against nothingness. I fought on the side of being (a rookie mistake).
On day 22, we were at last allowed to speak. Many of the participants were unable to produce sounds at all. Others made small, primitive murmurings that you could only hear if you put your ear to their nostrils. Too-Bumpy Triceps said “pillow” and some of us made sounds of appreciation. Current Ax Murderer (to distinguish him from Future Ax Murderer) said, “kisses,” which made those of us whose lips weren’t stuck together say “aww”.
I’ll admit, we did lose some people along the way. A half dozen feeble types beat it. A few had a bit of a mental breakdown, but luckily I was only one of them. And, true, one person was asked to leave owing to silent-but-deadlies. But going into the final week — Raiding The Temple of the Self Week we called it — there were still nine of us going gangbusters for enlightenment.
The monks told us to get ready to go somewhere we’d never been before, neither in the physical nor the spiritual realm, and then we all packed into Inappropriately Smiling Monk’s Cadillac El Dorado and drove through the night to an old copper mine. There, we sat silently at the edge of the reeking pit. “Think of this pit as a huge stinky hole that goes deep underground,” Scowly intoned. “Your self is deeper and stinkier. You must rise and carry it into the mine and bury it there! And bring back any scrap copper you happen to come across.”
I knew then why Scowly scowled and it wasn’t just because of his macramé robe. It was because his insights made him clench every muscle in his face and it had stuck that way, just like your mother said yours would but it didn’t. We meditated through the night, and when the sun rose, I felt something break inside me. It turned out to be an inguinal hernia, but it enlightened me anyway.
I wish I could say what I found there, when I became one of the enlightened ones, but I can’t. Because the journey is the meaning, and every person must discover it on their own. The only you who can be you is the you only you can become. (I think.)
Picture the Tree of Enlightenment as one on whose branches grow every fruit and vegetable imaginable, as well as some cold cuts. You can eat from the tree, you may nourish yourself on its many pleasures, but first you must do one thing: you must forget your hunger. Don’t worry, it can take time, but when you are ready, the Tree of Enlightenment will be there, although it was a bitch getting through customs.
I know, your head is spinning. You’re not ready yet. All you have to do is breathe. Let all your thoughts drift away. Let it all goooooo. If you’d like a copy of this column, send, care of this magazine, enough for a bottle of gin. Keep breathing. Twenty percent off bulk orders. That’s it now ... can you feel it? I think someone’s getting enlightened!
Michael Redhill is a Giller Prize-winning novelist, poet and playwright. He also writes a series of crime novels under the name Inger Ash Wolfe. He lives in Toronto, ON. Reprinted from Brick (100), a quarterly Canadian literary journal.