A Meditation on a Cough
Seven days in silence. No electronics, no miming, no eye contact. No reading, no writing. Meditating while sitting, meditating while walking. Eating, sleeping. The bare necessities.
It was the afternoon on day four of my first week-long meditation retreat. More than halfway through. I just wanted to make it to the end and not go crazy.
I entered the meditation hall. Formerly a chapel, it was an open space with wooden flooring. Featured in front was a stage elevated from the floor by a foot or so. The teachers would sit there and lead the meditation sits.
Ninety-six cushions were arranged in twelve cozy rows of eight. A center walking aisle cut the rows in half. Rows of chairs lined the back of the hall. And chairs abutted the left and right walls of the hall, leaving enough room to walk between the chairs and the cushions.
It was a large space. And during the silence of the meditation sits, you could hear the tiniest sound. The day before, a woman coughed in the meditation hall. The coughing blared through the hall like a klaxon. And it persisted through the entire afternoon and evening. I really hoped she’d gotten better.
Slowly I made my way to my spot. My blankets just as I’d left them. I sat down on the cushion, closed my eyes, and began to breathe.
Vipassana meditation is the main type of practice at the retreat. It’s based on a simple breathing technique. You sit comfortably and breathe naturally. Slowly you bring your attention to the breath and notice where in your body you feel your breath, down to the minute detail. Where is movement happening in the body? Is there pressure? How strong is it? What sensations are there? The point is not to control the breathe but simply to observe and notice its effect on the body.
Simple, right? But not easy. Soon enough you find your mind wandering. That’s okay. Simply notice your thinking or feeling, and bring the attention back to the breath. The act of noticing over and over again is what builds the awareness muscle. And that leads to awareness of other things happening in the body and mind – thoughts, feelings, etc.
Joy comes from realizing you were distracted and now are aware.
Metta was another type of meditation the retreat taught. Loving kindness, as it’s often translated. Metta the practice of actively generating compassion for others by starting with oneself. I think of it as structured way of sending good vibes. Throughout the meditation, the teacher gives instructions for what to visualize and what words to think. Starting with yourself, you send warm wishes and compassion. From there, it moves to friends, family and others. It might be intuitive, but sending compassion to others also builds a warm feeling in yourself.
At first, I didn’t really get Metta practice. Like some others, I preferred the Vipassana type of meditation of noticing and observing what happens in the body.
That afternoon was a Vipassana meditation sit. I bounced back and forth from noticing my breath, to catching myself daydreaming, to bringing my attention back to the breath. But it wasn’t long before the cough returned.
My initial hope turned into annoyance. It was the same cough of two staccato beats, with the first being a tad louder than the second. And the cough came predictably every two or three minutes. Not short enough of a time for it to blend into the background. And not long enough for it to be surprising.
I dreaded every moment. Would it be this moment that another cough breaks the silence of the hall? Or would it be the next? Why wouldn’t she leave the hall? Why not do her meditation in her own room? And it’s so inconsiderate of her - what if she gets us sick? Why not at least vary the tempo and frequency?
And slowly my annoyance and dread turned to anger. I wanted to walk up to the front of the hall, break my silence, and sternly ask her to leave. I wanted to complain to the center staff. I felt righteously indignant. Everyone else must have been feeling as I was. I would sacrifice my own vow of silence for the greater good.
And then, something clicked. I saw so very clearly my own aversion. And the beauty of being aware of the aversion meant I could see it from a third-person rather than first-person perspective. I had confused myself with the aversion. Instead, the aversion was caused by the external stimulus of the cough. The noticing of this truth sent joy through my body.
And then I recognized the cough as a sign of suffering from anyone person, which triggered a sensation of Metta directed at that person.
So every time I heard that cough, I became aware of my aversion and then sent Metta to the coughing person. Every two or three minutes, both the awareness and the Metta sending heightened my meditative experience. So that by the end, I welcomed the cough. I loved the cough. It was by far the best sit I’ve had.
Do you know that story of the Russian cosmonaut?
So, he goes up in this big spaceship
And he’s got this portal window
And he’s looking out of it
And he sees the curvature of the Earth for the first time
And all of a sudden, this strange ticking
Begins coming out of the dashboard (Okay, yeah)
But he can’t find it, he can’t stop it, it keeps going
A few hours into this, it begins to feel like torture
What’s he gonna do? He’s up in space!
So the cosmonaut decides
The only way to save his sanity
Is to fall in love with this sound