The scene: A retreat in Northern California. Before the period of silent meditation begins, practitioners arrange their cushions and ready themselves for the evening ahead.
I look up, and see a jovial man in his 70s walking directly toward me. My shy kid instincts boot up, but I decide to remain open to the new experience, like a “good yogi” might.
“So, where’s your hair?” He asks, sitting down next to me, on someone else’s meditation cushion.
I freeze momentarily like a bald deer in headlights. Is this really happening right now? His eagerness seems genuine, so I decide to opt for telling the blunt truth, as is my way.
“I’m in the middle of chemo.” I say.
“Yeah, I thought maybe. I have cancer too. Prostate. I’m not doing chemo though, I’ve been healing myself through a combination of tobacco ceremonies and keeping keto. It’s been working so far except that it’s coming back now. Do you know about the ketogenic diet? It’s — ”
I’ll stop at this point — not because he stopped there (you know, to see if I wanted to hear any of this, or to let me get a word in edgewise) — but because I’d rather save us all the five-ish minutes of our lives of which I was robbed in that moment.
After what felt like an endless description of the marvels of ketosis, a bell rang for us to take our seats for the evening practice session. The man said his goodbyes as I continued to stare blankly at him, and he walked back over to his cushion.
I wish this story ended here.
The next morning, as I sat journaling and enjoying a delicious lunch outside, the man approached yet again. He sat down next to me, yet again.
“So have you ever heard of the ketogenic diet?” He asked, this time pausing long enough for me to respond.
“And have you thought much about it?”
“Not much, no.”
“Well you really should. I mean you should really just google it at least. I mean at the end of the day if you’re not starving your cancer, if you’re not getting biological about it, you’re really just waiting around and feeding the cancer. You know?”
At this point I stood up and walked away, repositioning myself a safe distance away. I resumed eating my lunch — outwardly serene, inwardly fuming.
I am a human who has recovered from an eating disorder. I have fought long and hard to weed the bullshit body shaming voices out of my head. So for me, a stranger inserting himself into the decisions I make about my own body feels like a kind of rape.
I was livid.
However, I know enough about the mansplaining type to know that firing back at him defensively would only bring suffering to us all. I didn’t want that energy invading my retreat.
Furthermore, I could see that underneath the horrifying surface of how he was engaging with me, the man’s intention was to help. There was some glimmer of kindness in his sharing what worked for him in his experience with cancer. Some attempt to connect, layered in with quite a mess of patriarchal cultural bullshit.
So instead of acting in anger (which would have felt so delicious, by the way), I practiced exactly what I was on retreat to practice, and let the universal feeling of anger pass through me. Consciously noting its presence and feeling its magnificent power.
After sitting for a few minutes, I opened my eyes to see the man walking back over to me yet again. But this time his demeanor was quite different.
“Hey, I owe you an apology,” he said. “I was preaching at you back there, and no one likes to be preached at. I’m sorry. Can we be friends?”
As much as I wanted to roll my eyes or ignore him, my wise heart took over yet again. She said, calmly and clearly, “We have always been friends. But I will not be spoken to like that. And right now I need space, so that’s what I’m taking for myself.”
And he walked away. And I had a beautiful retreat.
Some months later I learned that this man was asked not to attend further retreats with this community due to unwanted sexual advances toward women. I was unsurprised. And I was also sad.