After sleeping fitfully in my tiny bed, I was about to dig into my first breakfast on retreat when I noticed one or two of them crawling about on the floor.
Now, most people would start stomping or at least sweeping them away. Not me! I’m an ant lover. Ants have always been one of my favorite living creatures. They are fascinating to watch. They do everything I also hope to do: They work hard. They work in community with the rest of their colony. They are tenacious. They always do exactly what needs to be done.
Look at them, I thought excitedly as I spooned oatmeal into my mouth. At first, there were only one or two of them. Then, I started seeing more – a half dozen or so, anyway. Then, ten or twelve maybe?
The first of five precepts we had all taken the night before at the opening of the retreat was:
Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine,
I undertake the training,
to refrain from harming living beings.
May I respect all life.
I wanna be careful with these little buddies.
Because of COVID protocols, we weren’t all taking our meals together in the dining hall, but bringing them back to our rooms and eating them alone. So, on this retreat, compared to previous ones, I was spending a lot more time in my room, which in my case meant a lot more care both in my steps and to not eat like a slob and give these ants a reason to stick around and then end up on the bottom of my shoes.
One of our teachers, Cara Lai, invited us in a morning instruction to pay close attention to how we ‘let loose’ once we were alone in our rooms, whether it was for meal times, drinking tea, napping, whatever. Away from the social pressures of being with others on a retreat, without screens or other distractions, entirely alone, how do we hold ourselves?
It was very interesting to consider.
Each day, three times a day, when I’d bring my tray laden with delicious food back to my room, I’d be so damn careful when I unlocked the door with one hand, balanced the tray in the other, all while looking closely at the floor as I stepped in.
I remember thinking, How the hell exactly am I gonna ‘let loose’ in here? I actually found it increasingly stressful to be in my room. I felt the inevitable loneliness much more acutely during mealtimes, and on top of that, I was worried about squishing my roommates.
On day 2 of the retreat, I accidentally dropped a nearly empty lunch bowl on the floor, which precipitated a visit to the housekeeping closet down the hall. When I came back to my room later that afternoon, I discovered a single pinto bean I’d missed, and a solid black mass of ants surrounding it. I was thrilled to see them! And, bummed too, of course. But I still got down on the floor to watch them. (I guess I really was letting loose! I don’t have the nickname ‘kid’ for no reason…)
After the dropped bowl incident, the number of roommates dropped back down to the three or four ants that always seemed to be around. There was another day when something else dropped from my tray, something large, dry, and flaky, and I watched another caravan of ants work together to haul it away.
As Spock would say, ‘FASCINATING!’
As the final day of the retreat approached, I was increasingly worried about the room cleaning that everyone was to do before the end of the retreat. How am I going to properly clean the floor without the aid of my cell phone flashlight to see properly and thereby avoid these ants? I really was in a spin about this. Patterns of worried thoughts and strategic planning kept bubbling up in my mind.
Well, ants notice patterns too – because when the final morning arrived, and it was time for the final cleaning/vacuuming/sweeping, I was delighted to discover that there wasn’t a single ant to be found anywhere on my floor. They were safely hiding out of the path of the coming vacuums and mops and brooms.
And then I realized I really had been ‘letting loose’ in my room all along. Obviously yes, in those childlike moments when I was on the floor, watching these creatures… and also in another sense: When I’m alone, free of distractions or a stated agenda, my mind is busy reviewing its commitments, both long- and short-term, and planning best practices to meet those commitments. Reviewing and planning can be stressful, of course – and for me, it can also be really satisfying, and fun, even! I like to stay busy and engaged. Giving the mind a worthwhile task or puzzle is relaxing for me. I really am like those ants – hard working, tenacious, community-minded, striving to do what needs to be done with the skills I’ve got.
And, like them, I’m interested in and curious about whatever happens to show up.