There were more farts during group meditations than I can remember from any prior retreat, and from time to time they seemed to form some sort of chain reaction: one person farting, followed by another, then another. A sort of flatulent call-and-response, if you will. Then, on the seventh day, he farted.

It was during one such chorus of farts (in the male side of the meditation hall) that someone let loose machine gun style — pop, pop, pop — and the young guys in the back started to chuckle. Snorts were stiffled, but even so a chain reaction began, and soon at least a half-dozen male meditators were caught up in it.

I smiled and waited. This was the most commotion that I’d ever sat through, and it crossed my mind that according to some Zen stories, people get enlightened in the most curious of circumstances, like hearing a frog croak. Might a fart be a similar catalyst for liberation?

After a long minute the laughter seemed to die out and a tenuous silence suddenly hung over the entire room. Not a sound was heard. I had begun to think that the laughter had passed, but just as I settled in for more mindfulness, a guy in the row behind me snorted, then snorted again, and again, and suddenly that group of a half-dozen began to join him.

This is when the head teacher put the hammer down.

“You are here to work seriously,” she said. “If you can’t control yourself, go outside.”

To their credit, the guys managed to get themselves under control, after being rebuked, and from that point on, meditation proceeded as per the norm.

Here’s the interesting thing to me: people would fart outside of the meditation hall, but there was no laughing, no reaction of any kind. This made me think: on their own, farts aren’t very funny. (Well, my nephew thinks they are, but he’s seven.)

What’s really funny about farting is when it happens at an inappropriate time. The Queen is going down the greeting line, with everyone honored and paying respects, then someone bows and cuts one loose. That sort of thing.

One of my high school palls used to say: Better to let it out and bear the shame than to hold it in and feel the pain. This was something of a life motto to him, at the time, and it’s definitely a mantra that many meditators at my retreat ascribed to.

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