The idea that the dinner be silent was not mine. In the darkest moments of the meal, when it felt like time couldn't go slower, I kept thinking this: it was the owner of the holistic cafe hosting the event who conceived it. The owner who had something come up and couldn't stay for the most excruciatingly awkward dinner of my life.
To begin, I led a mindfulness meditation and gave a talk about how we can open ourselves up to an ecstatic relationship with the world by loosening ties to the inner dialogue and turning outward through the senses. I spoke about how we busy New Yorkers aren't great at stillness or silence, so we pick up the phone or start up some small talk or just dive into old worn out mental patterns when we want to avoid experiencing discomfort and what lies beyond it -- the frightening unknown. I said that over the course of the silent dinner we would have urges to do anything but be still and silent. And when those urges came, we should practice going into some sensory experience; feel the teacup, smell the forkful, look at the colors of the food, savor the tastes and textures, drop into the now. The last uttered words of the evening, which would later feel ridiculous for their being so folksy and cheerful, were "Let's eat!"
I immediately noticed all the things that I wanted to say but couldn't. I wanted to compliment one student on her outfit. To ask another about her vacation. I wanted to make a joke to my long-time student's boyfriend whom I was meeting for the first time. He reminded me of my skeptical boyfriend, who stopped accompanying me to spiritual forays long ago. I wanted this dharma date to have a different fate than mine always did. I wanted him to walk out the door and say to her, "That was amazing! I totally understand why you do yoga now. Thanks for dragging me!" Alas, no jokes would be made. No wary boyfriends would be schmoozed over.
The panic set in when I sat at the far end of the dining table and looked down. The facial expressions of this group of ten ranged from mildly uncomfortable to utterly terrified -- except for one miraculous woman, who seemed perfectly at home in the communal silence. It is impossible to know the tone of their thoughts, but based on the faces alone, my inner-fixer started to go manic. I wanted to pull out all my charm and conversational skill and explode it onto the table. I wanted save them from having to see this silent challenge through. I wanted to entertain them, unwind them and make them feel at home. That urge was met by the opposition of the firm rules I myself had just laid down. (But it wasn't my idea!)
I reminded myself of what I had told them to do. To surrender to the present, accepting what it was and letting go of what it wasn't. To fall in love with this incredible world as absorbed through the senses. To keep one finger on a feeling of ease even if the other nine were all freaking out. And it was really fucking hard, maybe impossible. The inner dialogue pulled me in over and over again. "I can't believe I am putting them through this. These students will never come to my class again. The talk I gave before dinner was the wrong talk. I should have told them about how rewarding this can be if we let it. Now they'll never know. They'll just think that I'm an idiot and that meditation is stupid."
But I stayed with my practice long enough to have an insight. This disastrous dinner was trying to initiate me into a new level of being a teacher. In my yoga classes I lead people through uncomfortable experiences all the time -- Warrior 2, for instance. And meanwhile I control the shit out of the environment so that they barely notice how hard a pose is, or how long they're holding it. I play fun eclectic music, come up with different dynamic sequences, and I talk and talk and talk them through every moment. I make a lot of jokes. I say, "I know," a lot. I say, "I know this is hard, but we're on breath three! Almost there! Here we go!" I hold their hands the whole way. When I asked myself why it was so hard to not be able to talk them through this dinner, I had to acknowledge a difficult response.
Lack of trust. I haven't been trusting my students to come to realizations on their own. Nor have I been trusting the mediation practice to do its job and lead the students through fear of the unknown toward a taste of enlightenment. Providing helpful exercises, a conducive environment and subtle guidance are all well and good, but my urge to enforce all of my knowing, my attempt to mediate every tough challenge that my students might have was possibly protecting them some discomfort, but in the same gesture was also protecting them from having an authentic Yoga experience. I was "protecting" them from having what I thought I wanted them to have: a life-changing encounter with Truth.
I recognize that the old way came from a sense of love but an immature one. A love like that, like the helicopter mom or the micromanager, insists that manipulating the loved one is what is most beneficial for her. As I upgrade the love that I am capable of delivering, I see that my job is not to control people's experience -- as if that were even ever possible. My job is not to be popular. My job is not to be an entertainer or an ice-breaker or a comfort-maker, though sometimes those skills are quite helpful. My job is to hold the space while my students meet the uncomfortable, the strange, the unknown, to stay present and compassionate and easeful while they meet their own worst fears head on. It is to be someone who can not just say, but demonstrate how deep gain on the spiritual path often comes in the wake of deep adversity. It is to be a living model that we humans can not only survive an encounter with the unknown, but can actually grow wiser and more loving by falling right into its arms.
On my commute home, the light in the Brooklyn sky seemed more beautiful than usual, and the smells around me more textured and immediate. The people I stood by, sat by and passed by all seemed familiar, even familial, like I knew their deepest feelings, and those feelings were sweet. I was walking through the world as a part of it, not kept separate and absorbed by the typical, cyclical chatter of my mind. It is likely that some of the others at the table had a different experience after leaving that cafe. Some might shudder to remember it and never be back to my class. But I will have to let that go.
Fortunately, Something much grander than me is in charge, and, until the next time I hit a layer of dark doubt and despair, I trust that Something completely.