Rockaway’s Age of Enlightenment
Illustration by Marion Kadi
“Have you ever done anything like this before?” asked Andy, a retreat volunteer at Buddhist Insights in Rockaway.
“Nope,” I responded casually, taking in my surroundings and treasuring my last moments of verbal communication for the next three days.
“Do you meditate often?” he followed up as we approached the stairs.
“Never,” I answered honestly.
“Are you comfortable with silence?”
“I guess we’re about to find out.” We locked eyes in the ambient light.
“You’re brave,” Andy said as he showed me to my room.
I surveyed the four bunk beds volunteers had outfitted with sheets and colorful quilts for our silent meditation retreat. Before tucking away my phone for the weekend, I sent a SOS/FYI/JIC text to a friend that read: “504 Beach 86th Street, Rockaway.”
Downstairs Bhante Suddhāso, the resident monk at Buddhist Insights, rang the gong to signal the start of noble silence (body, speech, mind) and the 20-some other attendees settled onto floor cushions. Giovanna Maselli, who co-founded the retreat series with Suddhāso just one month prior, ran through the rules for the weekend. We were to limit any noises caused by our physical actions, refrain from speaking unless absolutely necessary, only eat during the allocated mealtimes and, specifically, not sneak out to Dunkin’ Donuts during personal time.
After my first taste of sitting still through an hour of meditation, we were dismissed to our rooms, abiding by their rule of light-footedness. Warm chamomile tea lulled me to sleep, sans phone screen for once. I drifted into the night with thoughts of goodwill, or metta, toward myself and others.
Morning arrived, and I peacefully awoke at the Rockaway Summer House; the final gong sounding meant we were to be downstairs in 30 minutes.
I fought my ordinary impulses (coffee! eggs! NPR!) and instead carefully creaked downstairs to the main room, outfitted with cushions and blankets. Cold air whispered in from the curtainless windows. The monks sat cross-legged, eyes shut; their students silently followed their lead. Maselli set out a light breakfast of hemp granola, spelt flakes, fruit purées and three different milks. An attendee offered the spread (almsgiving) to the monks and they filled their begging bowls (one of their few possessions) before the rest of us served ourselves.
“Wisely reflecting, I use alms—food not for fun, not for pleasure, not for fattening, not for beautification, only for the maintenance and nourishment of this body…”
The Buddhist alms-food chant was read in both Thai and English before the clinking of spoons against wide white Ikea bowls and slurping of the weekend’s first sustenance began. It took just two one-paragraph chants for my Ronnybrook milk to perfectly soak the raw spelt. I combined it with Maselli’s fresh apple purée. Bliss.
During the one hour required work period we were allowed functional speech, yet remained mostly silent as Maselli, another female attendee and I prepared lunch. The woman massaged the lemons for their juice and squared off the carrots’ round edges before I peeled them. The kitchen was limited with supplies so she poured the lemon juice over my cupped hands—a human cheesecloth straining the seeds. I worked my fingers through the beets, mixing the large chunks with garlic, hemp and parsley, salting to taste alongside my cooking companion who relied upon my facial expressions for mutual approval.
The weekend lunches—beet pasta with potatoes and rosemary, and beet salad with butternut squash soup—were created based on donations from large organic and local companies (like Rockaway’s Paleo Factory desserts), seasonal vegetables from the Rockaway Food Co-Op, along with windowsill herbs, which awaited their place in the future backyard garden. Dinners took inspiration from monastic “medicine bowls,” combinations of any breakfast and lunch leftovers to sustain the body for a spiritual journey.
It was Maselli’s first time cooking for so many people and she did so with ease, drawing on her Italian roots to sculpt the fresh ingredients. She worked without recipes, occasionally jotting notes for next time.The meals were never announced, never explained, only given. The Buddha teaches that any discomfort—a desire for a certain food, dissatisfaction with what is given—leads to suffering, which inhibits enlightenment. We were taught to accept what is given (Buddhist Insights doesn’t accommodate specific diets) and to be content as the monks are, only rely on the generosity of others, as we experienced by freely attending the retreat, courtesy of past retreat attendees who paid it forward by covering our weekend stay..
After the monks were served and everyone else sat on their cushions for the alms-food chant, I looked across to Maselli, her dark eyes like those of a young mother nervously providing for a family on a budget. I wanted to flash her a quick thumbs up. Respectfully refraining, I watched the others spoon carrot, parsnip, potato soup into their mouths and zeroed in on a woman about my age outwardly demonstrating her contentment as she ate in silence. At the end of the retreat, I overheard her say the food made her cry, and she asked for the recipe, which made Maselli laugh.
The attendees filed out of the house on Sunday afternoon, their different shapes and sizes en route to the Beach 67th Street Station: the punk-rock woman wearing penguin onesie pajamas, a serious middle-aged man who liked to ring the gong at any given opportunity, the “Bud-curious” blonde.
I turned to follow them out into the cold, knocking over the donation box with my weekend bag. While others selflessly scurried to steady the box and replace its bills, I avoided the resident monk’s eyes. Five minutes earlier I’d confidently asked how he knew I wasn’t the next Buddha. “Trust me, you’re not,” Suddhāso answered without missing a beat. Perhaps I do have a bit more mindfulness practice ahead of me on my road to enlightenment—starting by patiently awaiting the A train.