Who could have guessed that my greatest teacher during a meditation retreat would be the most humble of human activities — passing gas?
It was the fifth day of a nine-day silent retreat at Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. As a seasoned practitioner, I have long used my breath as my anchor, returning to it when my mind inevitably drifts off. After the first few days of the retreat, I decided to experiment with sound as my main point of awareness. In the past, I had only occasionally used a sound like rainfall or wind or music as my anchor, so I consciously opened myself to listening to the noises were around me. When I did, the meditation hall came alive with an acoustic array that I had previously filtered out. The distant buzz of airplanes, the subtle sound of people shifting on their cushions, and the chirping of crickets and birds became omnipresent.
Among the myriad sounds, I soon realized, was the near-constant gurgling of people’s digestive systems. The hall was actually quite active with a cacophony of churning and twisting, popping and squishing, punctuated with an occasional burp or cough. The symphony of collective digestion became my new acoustic anchor. As I listened to these sounds and watched my mind move from one grumbling stomach to another, it slowly dawned on me that there was one digestive sound that seemed to be missing: the sound of passing gas.
It’s not that I wanted to have flatulence be an anchor for my meditation practice. But here we were, 100 people on retreat, sitting together for hours on end, and this particular sound was nowhere to be heard, even though digestive systems were in full force. We were, after all, eating the same food, and yet, nary a peep from the cushion. The only conclusion I could draw was that either everyone there had the best probiotics on the planet, or there were a lot of clenched sphincters in the room.
By turns perplexed and piqued, I realized that in all of my years meditating, I had never heard anyone pass gas in a meditation hall. At this point, it seemed like such an obvious noise to be heard, along with the array of other sounds people were emitting. It’s quite possible that I simply never noticed the sound of someone else farting. But now that I was listening intently to the world around me, it struck me as sort of odd not to hear it.
And as I reflected, I also realized that in all of my meditating, I had never heard any teacher comment on whether farting was verboten or frowned upon or whether there was even any kind of decorum about farting in meditation halls. (The IMS retreat had a “scent-free” rule — i.e., no scented deodorants or clothing washed in scented detergent — but somehow the rule didn’t seem designed to forestall the sulfuric undertones associated with the common fart.) Was there any teaching in the dharma about this? Had the Buddha ever addressed it in a sutra somewhere? Despite being a normal part of human life, was the humble fart a too minor or too uncomfortable topic of teaching? In the face of such dharma-related conundra, I decided to ask the teachers during the Q&A period held each morning’s guided meditation session.
In the spirit of vipassana, or insight, the retreat teachers reminded us each morning during a guided meditation that what was arising in our minds and bodies was not personal, but the result of impersonal causes and conditions — in a word, karma. Everything was simply nature, arising as a result of these innumerable causes and conditions. Whether they were thoughts, emotions, sounds or sensations, all of them were to viewed as phenomena that arose in the mind, passed, and new phenomena would arise in their place. We were guided to reflect that “X is arising” or “X is being known.” This morning was no different, and as the teacher reminded us to “allow the mind to open to the full range of human experience,” I wondered whether that including passing gas.
Committing myself to making this public inquiry, a certain amount of trepidation soon began to arise and make itself known in my mind. In fact, the entire sitting period before my heart was beating fast, my palms turned clammy, and my mind jumped between asking and not asking. Should I or shouldn’t I ask this question? I watched with great compassion for my own mind, twisting and turning. Having already inspired a certain curiosity, the fart as dharma now led me to watch my mind’s reactions at daring to ask this question in such a sacred and venerable space as IMS’s meditation hall.
When the Q&A portion began, I vaulted my hand upwards and, when called upon, began by saying that I had a question that might seem “slightly irreverent.” I prefaced my question with a preamble about how my expanded use of listening had led to the discovery all of the digestive processes in the hall. I further added that I had never heard anyone ask about this, and then lobbed my question, like it was a hot potato: “How do we practice with passing gas in the meditation hall? After all, it’s not my gas — causes and conditions!” The meditation hall erupted in laughter at this novel application of the dharma, and the teacher, not the slightest bit unnerved, acknowledged the room’s collective response: “I guess you heard the question!” The teacher responded exactly as I suspected she would: the practice was the same as with any other phenomena. Work with the aversion to passing gas, to the smell and sound, and if the gas is excessive, kindly spare your fellow meditators by leaving the hall.
The rest of the retreat became an even more exciting listening exercise. Would anybody fart in the meditation hall? Would I? I didn’t resist passing gas, but I oddly found that my position on the cushion actually made it difficult, physiologically speaking, to do so. Nevertheless, it was liberating to let go of expectation, control or worry about this aspect of the body. Nor did I hear any one else release. But, in truth, the real liberation for me was in experiencing the mind and its emotions as I asked a question that broke with the norms of the retreat and with social decorum. For me, the very act of asking about farting became a teacher. After I asked the question, I was able to watch my mind replay the event, wondering whether people now thought of me as “the guy who asked about farting.” (In fact, after the retreat had ended, several people came up to me to thank me for asking the question, which they had often thought about but had never been willing to ask.) The topic of passing gas had become a powerful tool of practice, allowing me to work with discomfort around simply speaking about a topic that caused a lot of people discomfort — both mental and physical.
The upshot is that the ignoble fart became a rather noble dharma teacher. In fact, I encourage everyone to work with it. As one of the most basic examples of human nature, we attach quite a bit of social opprobrium to flatulence. It inspires all kinds of aversion in individuals — aversion to unpleasant odors, aversion to shame, aversion to acknowledging our biological reality. That opprobrium extends to even talking about farting, especially in the rarefied space of a meditation retreat. As a practice tool, you can work with numerous aspects of the mind: aversion to the actual experience of gas in the digestive system (yours or others), fears and shame around what others will think of you if you do pass gas, clinging to a future moment when gas is no longer present or hoping that your body doesn’t “misbehave,” all of which is just a form of clinging to a certain image of what it means to be a good meditator.
In truth, flatulence is just one more experience of the human body. In allowing ourselves to pass gas while in meditation with others, we are allowing our natural selves to emerge and be experienced in their fullness. That includes what I now like to call “breaking noble wind.” So I say to you: if you have not broken noble wind while sitting on the cushion during a meditation retreat, then you have not truly let go. Some part of you is holding on — out of fear and aversion to breaking social norms and facing judgment. Instead, relax and accept that there’s dharma in that fart. And whether you are the one expelling, and you feel shame and aversion, or you’re a fellow practitioner and you’re working with aversion to someone else’s unpleasant smell or sound, just remember, as with all phenomena, this gas too shall pass.