Recently during a silent retreat in a very sound-controlled centre, a woman with lung cancer started to cough. She could not stop coughing, and I saw the people sitting around her begin to stir. She realized she was causing a disturbance and left the room. I followed her out, placed my hands on her shoulders, and looked her in the eyes. I told her she was welcome to stay in the hall as long as she wanted, regardless of her coughing. It was up to each of us in the meditation hall to deal with our discomfort. I told her I appreciated her sensitivity to the group, but it was not her problem that we were annoyed. We discussed how disturbance is not caused by outside sounds, but by internal reactions to perceived annoyances. I reminded her that we were meditating to learn and work with that fact, not to create a comfortable container of imperturbability.
On one of my retreats at the Insight Meditation Society, I experienced the same thing – a woman couldn’t stop coughing while we were sitting in silent meditation. And the same pursed lips appeared on many of the yogis near me. I’ll call the woman Mary. She was in the same small group as me. The ten of us had three group interviews during the week, each time with a different teacher. It was virtually the only time we could talk. Like the woman with lung cancer, Mary felt horrible, sure that she was wrecking “the space” for one hundred people. Each of the teachers encouraged her, and asked her to see that she wasn’t in any sense “less than”.
Mary started coughing on our first day, Sunday, and continued until maybe Friday. That morning, at the 6:00 am sitting, Mary was silent. Although many in the room almost audibly sighed with relief, I found myself in a different place: I missed Mary’s coughing. I came to see that it represented for me a suffering human being, a human being to be revered, and a way for me to get out of my head and feel compassion.
I missed Mary’s coughing for the rest of the retreat. At the very end, we had a couple of hours where we could talk to each other. I went up to Mary and thanked her. Although on the surface her response was astonishment, something else was brewing inside and her smile said it all. Her hug too.