MEDITATING IN HELL by Megan E. O’Laughlin
MEDITATING IN HELL
by Megan E. O’Laughlin
Age 24. The Gambia, West Africa.
I do not pray five times a day like the people in the village. When I duck into my little house, the girls ask where are you going? I tell them to pray; I don’t know the Mandinka word for meditation. Most evenings, the gaggle of girls come over for gossip and help with their homework. They ask about my prayers, so I sit criss-cross-applesauce, close my eyes, and watch the space between my breaths.
“That’s not praying. She doesn’t know!” the girls giggle. But their laughter washes away, for I know how to control my unruly mind.
I meditate even more at the Stage House, where Peace Corps volunteers convene in the city. We drink skunky beers and stay up late watching DVDs of The Ring and Legally Blonde. Dishes pile in the sink, and we rip open packages filled with melted candy and coveted books.
I make a sign: I am in here meditating, in messy, cursive writing, and tape it to the dormitory door. I sit between the bunks and imagine a circle of soft light around my body. I inhale. My clamorous thoughts retreat to a downstairs place. Much quieter now. I exhale. The external world slows, and to that space, I retreat, over and over, with the same desperate fervor I once used to guzzle a beer or smoke weed all day long.
Meditation is my new drug.
Later, my friend looks at my sign and says, “It looks like it says: I’m in hell, meditating.”
Age 41. Samish Island, Washington.
I pack a bag of soft clothes and books for my seventh meditation retreat. Upon arrival, the Zen teacher orients us to the usual: noble silence, daily chores, and this new one—no reading or journaling. Though I hate it, I comply and shove my books and phone under the bed for the five-day duration.
During breaks from the meditation hall, I walk the shore and breathe in the low tide sulfur as eagles whistle overhead. Multiple times per day, the neighbor sweeps her room and our shared bathroom, a jarring sound. At the retreat’s end, we will break our silence for lunch and the neighbor will tell all of us at the table how she left a cult. She says she fears a spiritual community, yet she is eager for solace, that quiet downstairs place.
Each night of the retreat when I cannot read myself to sleep, I stare at the ceiling and will my mind to avoid images from a movie I watched just weeks before, with the demon king and its group of naked cultists. I wonder why I watched it in the first place. I dare not glance towards the inky corners of the room, convinced I may see a demon or one of its worshippers, leering in the dark at my loneliness.
I am not sure if I believe in demons, but I know fanatic humans are real. While I haven’t joined a cult, I’ve searched for systematic methods to bypass life’s difficulties, placing faith in my teachers, not unlike cult members with their leaders. We all want peace, or we want more control, or perhaps both (although I’m not sure we can have both at the same time). Years of meditation practice—hours to observe my mind—have taught me how little control I have, and how unpeaceful I can be. Still, I can choose where to direct my attention and how I will respond. Perhaps peace can be found within such determination.
Now, in the midnight quiet, my fearful thoughts are here like a mental demon. I note my body’s reactions: the breath darts like hunted prey, the gut smolders. While I cannot stop this hellacious mental tantrum, it need not dominate me. I gently laugh at the deluge, so powerful and brief. I count the inhales and exhales until my mind slows and the breath deepens. I drift into a wordless sleep.
Megan E. O’Laughlin (she/her) is an emerging writer, psychotherapist, and MFA candidate at Ashland University. Her work appears in The Black Fork Review, Defunkt Magazine, Bright Flash Literary Journal, and The Bluebird Word. Megan lives on a peninsula by the sea in Washington state with her spunky child, spoiled dogs, and surfing spouse. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Black Fork Review, Anti-Heroin Chic, Defunkt Magazine, Bright Flash Literary Review, and others.