The retreat is two days long and is at Nalanda West. Forty people are attending. The demographic is older, educated, white, middle to upper middle class. It is late morning. After much setting of the stage, we were led through an exercise, the same one we were led through last year. We were shown how to opt out by remaining seated with our hands crossed over our hearts, then instructed to stand, if we wished, and move about the room looking for bodies to greet. We were to approach another person with our eyes down, then slowly lift our eyes until the person came into view. We were asked to see them fully and then tell them so. "I see you." One by one, we greeted everyone in the room this way, left hand up, right hand down, hand-in-hand, "I see you." "I see you." "I see you." To a blind man, it might have sounded like a lover's game. It's a simple exercise, but powerful and intimate, a kind of soul gazing that compels one to compassion. At first I thought, "Come on. What is this? You've had a year to come up with a new exercise." Then I was glad of it. It gave me a chance to forgive my teacher and myself and everyone in the room.
Lunch was a potluck. I’d been looking forward to it, but then it came and went and was rather drab. Salads from the natural food store, packaged hummus, a few homemade salads, most everything cold. Robert invited us to observe noble silence at lunch. He'd ring the bell when we were least expecting it and, when we heard it, we were meant to stop mid-chew to notice ourselves, or something, what, our desire, that we were eating to fuel our meditation, that we were present and the food in our mouth was present too. I felt lonelier during this meal than during any meal in the last 20 days. Lonelier than the french fries at McDonald's. Lonelier than the cocktails at the bar. Averting my eyes from the 12 eyes at my table and finding every one's eyes averting mine, I felt disconnected.
In 2014, in the 15 days after my 15-day fast for the artwork "Hunger," I wanted to eat alone and in silence and I often did. Eating then felt like a sacrament. I spontaneously invented a prayer then, something I still say, something I had been trying to do in 2011 and couldn't. Eating in silence today did not help me meditate or enjoy my meal. It felt awkward, like forced a rejection of joy.
Seated at round tables in a banquet room, it takes some effort for 80 eyes not to meet. Most people gazed across the room with a glazed look, staring at the sides of silent faces seated at the other tables, at the photographs on the walls. Surely there is a way to invite a mature, committed group to share a meal respectfully and reflectively without denying the opportunity for community.