The Dramatic Unplug: A Survival Story

Photo by Chris Lawton

When I was a kid, my dad often brought home jokes from work. One of them went like this:


A woman walks into a beauty salon wearing headphones. She asks for a haircut, but under no condition should the hairdresser remove the headphones. “Sorry,” says the hairdresser, “No can do.” The woman throws a fit but tries another place, only to receive the same response. Finally, she finds a barber who agrees to a dry trim. He starts snipping.  Suddenly, the phone rings and, startled, he knocks the headphones off the woman’s head.

She immediately goes into a seizure. By the time the ambulance arrives, she’s dead. Dismayed, the barber picks up the headphones and places them on his head.

“Breathe in,” a voice says. “Breathe out.”


As a child, the joke’s sexist and off-color elements went over my head. It survived in my memory only because I loved to hear my father laugh. But as the joke returned to me during a ten-day silent meditation retreat, its punch line explained itself in wholly new terms: breathe in, breathe out.




I was at Suan Mokkh, a forest monastery in Thailand, because someone stole my debit card. The lost card marked an inauspicious beginning to my six-month backpacking trip through Southeast Asia. It would take two weeks for a new card to arrive. I was in Phuket — one of the most expensive parts of Thailand — and I needed to kill time before my card came without running through my limited cash supply.


I can hustle cash by reading tarot, I thought. I’d brought three decks with me, a holdover from my recently abandoned life in New York. I’d worked as a tech copywriter by day, and read cards at a neighborhood bar by night. Twice a week, I’d swig the free Budweiser I received with each shift while laying cards in the amber light of the mahogany bar.


Why haven’t you met someone? You’re sleeping with your ex-boyfriend. Band needs a better sound? Turn up the volume on that Vox amplifier. That baby you’re trying for? Already inside you. But I’d left New York to explore the world and to take a firm break from work of all kinds. Reading for tourists was a last resort.


Searching for options, a page in my Lonely Planet guidebook caught my eye. Silhouetted in a light blue box that denoted not-to-be-missed events, was a description of a meditation retreat: $60 for ten days, a four-hour bus ride from Phuket, with registration starting tomorrow. The uncanny serendipity of place, time, and affordability made me frame the missing credit card not as a misfortune, but as a catalyst for sending me to this retreat. I hastily packed up and raced to the bus station.


That first night at Suan Mokkh, I slept on the floor of a large room, a thin bamboo mat between me and the floor. I used my backpack as a pillow and slept alongside twenty others.


During registration the next morning, I was required to surrender all my electronics, books, and writing materials, but I slipped my Rider-Waite Tarot pack into my backpack’s deepest pocket. Although no one had said or written “No Tarot,” I had a feeling that they wouldn’t approve.


Afterwards, I was led to the dormitory room where I’d spend the next ten nights: bamboo mats, basic blankets, mosquito nets, and a wooden “pillow.” For the next ten days, the schedule would be this: wake at 4 AM, meditate, then yoga. Breakfast at 8 AM, then chores and relaxation. More meditation, “Dharma talks” that explained Buddhist principles, and then lunch at noon, our last meal of the day. Meditation, meditation, meditation, lights out at 9 PM, and, through it all, our silence.




The hours of sitting made every joint and muscle in my body ache. Despite the stillness encouraged during meditation, I couldn’t help but shift positions every five minutes or so.The pain was like a rubber ball beneath my skin. Mosquitoes and ants bit my hands, face, and feet as I sat. If a person kills one mosquito, a monk told us, the karmic impact will increase so that in nine days, it has the same weight as killing a human. I tried to practice equanimity and compassion as my skin erupted in flames.


I sought relief in observing others. The woman to my left built sand castles next to her mat. The Indian woman directly in front of me sat perfectly erect for every meditation, her long black braid aligned with her spine, a colorful shawl with peacock’s eyes staring back at me, hour after hour.


Another girl resembled a flower child from a bygone era. She draped crystals around her neck that hit right at her heart, wore burnt orange harem pants, and an embroidered denim vest. There were thin braids woven through her dark brown hair, and I watched her walk barefoot along the dirt paths, weaving daisy chains. At night, she waded into the hot spring with her hands pressed against her chest in anjali mudra. Eyes closed, she submerged all but her smiling face, draped her arms out wide to the heavens, and floated.


The only participant who didn’t obviously suffer or seem to be on drugs was the woman with a shaved head. With her eyes closed and head down, wearing the same white fisherman’s trousers and modest blouse the nuns wore, she appeared to maintain perfect composure.


With a body in pain and tortured thoughts on repeat, my only respite was my daily chore. The women’s dormitory held eight large, shallow pools for bathing and washing clothes. Every day after breakfast, I skimmed them with a wide net to remove floating objects: mosquitos, ants, and leaves if it had rained the night before. Sometimes a worm or snail would sink to the bottom. One of the girls floated Burmese honeysuckles onto the water’s surface, where their waxy orange petals glided silently between the less elegant debris.


Once, as my net made its way towards a snail nestled at the bottom of the pool, it crawled away from my net, towards the pool wall and fresh air. I silently championed the snail’s slow crawl to freedom, to independence, to doing it her own way.




Many of the other participants did as well — go their own way, that is. The sand castle builder left on the third day and the flower child floated off on day seven. Those who stayed wilted considerably: a tall, lanky German girl started approaching the food line with ribs clutched like a wounded soldier.


As our numbers dwindled, the remaining meditators were asked to pick up the slack. I signed up to clean the bathrooms, figuring that by doubling up on chores I could increase the “karma points” (my term, not theirs) that my intense moods and frustrated body wouldn’t allow me to otherwise access. But when I walked into the bathroom after skimming the pool, the floors were soapy, the toilets scrubbed, and the trash bins emptied. I picked up a rag anyhow and started wiping. The girl with the shaved head stared at me angrily. Didn’t I know that this chore was shared and that I should have been there earlier? I tried to do my part, looking for a spot to shine with a rag.


Bursting at the seams, she broke the silence. “It’s already done,” she said in a fierce whisper. I stood, nodded mutely, and turned towards the dorms. She’d robbed me of my chore, my chance to find relief. You’re angry that a girl cleaned a toilet for you? said a small, more reasonable voice inside my head. I silenced it as I reached for my tarot pack, hoping the cards would favor my angrier side and give me an excuse for my frustration. They didn’t: where I was dark, she was crystalline.




The night before the retreat was over, participants were asked to share reflections out loud. In the same way small grievances reached meltdown status in the pressure cooker of my mind, the fresh insights of those who shared greatly impacted my (meditation-purified) consciousness. A woman I’d seen spend hours gazing off into space beneath the Banyan tree talked about her daughter who had just beaten what was supposed to be a terminal illness. This retreat marked her post-recovery self-care. A young man admitted he’d spent most of the time watching ants, rather than his own breath. The German girl had felt like she was on shrooms.


The people I’d observed, the ones I’d wanted to be or to escape from while taking myself so seriously, had something to offer me that I could not find for myself. My interactions with anyone, at any time, had been like the pools I cleaned: light reflecting back my own purity, should I choose to release the debris clogging my perceptions.


At 6 AM the next morning, we packed our belongings and shared a last meal together, the silence broken. I sat next to the woman with the shaved head. Her speech was calm and measured; she was hardly the psychopath I’d scoped her out to be. She had spent forty days meditating at the monastery. A music lover from San Francisco, her shaved head symbolized both the monastic and the punk rebellion.


Envisioning her head being shaved, I thought about my father’s joke. The past ten days had required all of us to wear an invisible set of headphones, silently listening to a voice telling us to watch our breath.


But the punchline wasn’t the same, so I rewrote it:


A woman wearing headphones walks into a barber shop and asks for her hair to be shaved off completely, all without disturbing her headphones. A barber who wears a striking resemblance to Buddha agrees, but knocks them off by mistake. Instead of going into a seizure, throwing a temper tantrum, pulling out a deck of cards, or dying of asphyxiation, the woman simply smiles and thinks to herself: breathe in, breathe out.  


Background, Context & Reference


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