Sleeping With Ants

or: Zen, Anthony Bourdain, and Ant-Commandos. In which our hero discovers he is never alone.

Sleeping With Ants
Photo by Ashley Batz / Unsplash

or: Zen, Anthony Bourdain, and Ant Commandos

“Zen Sesshin” means different things to different people. For many, it refers to an austere practice where a group of monks meditate, often while kneeling, for several hours every day. When not meditating, they work. Somewhere in the middle, they catch a few wisps of sleep.

For others, like the zen organization I work for — handling all of their audio-video needs — the sesshin is a more gentle entryway into this world; sitting and walking meditation take up a large portion of the time, but daily visits with a number of teachers, long talks about philosophy and poetry (coupled with generous Q&A sessions), and a goodly amount of free time to just go and play are all provided for.

For me, sesshin is a chance to explore the edges of my solitude. Since I’m working while I’m at sesshin, I don’t follow the program; I film the talks, edit them, and then spend my afternoons in my own company. Usually, this means reading and writing. Given the level of socialization I experience during the rest of my life, this can be comforting.

Of course, solitude is fickle. What is sometimes comforting can quickly turn sour. I’ve experienced this wilting of a good thing in the past, where something is introduced to my day that curdles my experience and leaves me desperately wishing to be anywhere, anywhere other than sesshin.

And so it was that, five days into this year’s summer sesshin, I found myself encountering one such moment when, as I lay down to sleep, I felt a sudden itching on my leg. Turning on the lights, I found a welt quickly expanding just above my knee. Several others soon blossomed elsewhere, on my legs, and my side, and my arms. Their source soon became apparent.


Teeny, tiny ants, their little black bodies hardly more than shifting lint on the white sheets, had made their first valorous foray into the world of sleeping giants.

“Well,” I said, “that’s fine. I’m in a room with two beds. We can work something out. Your side.” I pointed at the now-occupied bed. “My side.” I pointed at the unused bed on the opposite side of the room. “My side,” I pointed again. “Your side. Okay?”

And so I migrated to the second of the two cots available to me, turned out the light, and soon started drifting down toward the land of dreams.

Itch. Itch. Itchitchitch. Burn.

I jumped up and on again went the light. A small inky body, scurrying along the inner edge of the sheet, seemed to pause for a moment and mock me with its tiny antennae. I squished it between thumb and forefinger in retaliation.

“Ha,” I said, pleased with my superiority. “Take that.” Unfortunately for me, it quickly became apparent that my vanquished foe was merely one of many intruders; he had been merely taking point for a whole regiment of his fellows.

“F*ck,” I said, aloud, to my not-as-empty-as-I-would-like room.

What followed was a brief territorial struggle, whereby I unleashed the full fury and might of two-hundred thousand years of evolved brain power. Smoosh. Smoosh. Smooshsmooshsmoosh. Soon, I had amassed a sizable war-crimes standing in the local ant community, blocked up their most apparent point of ingress, and, in the process found that the multiple ant-bites had reactivated my allergies. My nose dripped unpleasantly, forcing me to pause in my battle to wash my sinuses in steroid solution.

After a while, however, it became clear that I could not refuse the little buggers entry. They were no longer storming the gates, true, but there were still dozens — perhaps hundreds — scattered throughout the room. Tiny groups of ant special forces, scurrying across the carpet in a clear attempt at guerrilla warfare.

“Fine. You win!” I grabbed my laptop and fled to the foyer, insisting to myself that I would lay on the rickety wicker bench and its faded cushions, watch something on Netflix, and sleep in peace. However, after several unsatisfying minutes with a new Netflix sci-fi series so loaded with tropes it could hardly move, I realized that I had made a mistake.

In leaving my room, I had escaped the ants, but I had also declared myself “open season” for the mosquitoes that were now gathering like dusky storm clouds above my head. Well, shit.

Given the option between this thunderhead of bloodsuckers or the ants, I chose the latter, and returned to my room. By this point, it being well passed midnight, my body fairly quivered with exhaustion. I opened the door carefully, perhaps expecting some mutated ant from the Fallout video game to erupt at me from the corner of the room, six-inch mandibles snapping for my throat.

However, my earlier resistance seemed to have disoriented my enemy. No black battalions marched toward me across the carpet — there were a fair number of stragglers still crawling this way and that, searching for their comrades, trying to regroup.

I watched them for a little while, thinking. Then I pulled the bed away from the wall, discarded all the blankets and sheets — for these contained a number of the hit “comm-ant-dos” (not sorry) who had initially attacked me — turned on Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown and called it quits. If nature wanted to take me, I decided, then I would let it do-so, and I would bloody-well enjoy Tony’s introduction to the noodles houses and experimental cinema of Hong Kong while I was at it.

To my surprise, I drifted off without a hassle, comforted by the wry witticisms and poignant observations of my host.

In the morning: no fresh bites.

Oh, there were still ants, but for some reason they no longer teemed in their original masses; none seemed to have made the effort to reclaim my sleeping spot. Perhaps they were simply satisfied with their earlier win, for I noticed that they still scurried across the surface of the other bed.

Later that morning, when talking to three of the teachers during breakfast, the subject of my home invasion came up.

“Ohh…” mouthed one of the teachers, a look of sympathy and horror appearing on her face as I described the welts on my skin — I’m nothing if not a capable dramatist.

But, in that moment, I realized something. Her expression might have been a mirror of my own — after all, this encounter with nature’s tiny foot-soldiers was not exactly pleasant. But I realized that, in my own experience, it had been a rather mellow evening — sure, I was tired and a bit sore, but my mood was hardly any worse for wear.

It occurred to me that, while being attacked by ants, the only moments I actually felt uncomfortable psychologically were when I started to think about “how hard the next day will be,” or “they should work harder to keep their rooms free of vermin in this place,” or even the seemingly innocuous “this sucks.” The rest of the time, I’d been far too present with the moment-to-moment issues to think much of anything save for the occasional “DIE!” as I murdered ants and mosquitoes who drew too near. Later, when I had gone back to bed, I had made a conscious decision to not be bothered by whatever might come next.

And so, despite the remaining welts and the lack of sleep, when I arrived at breakfast that following morning, I felt relatively settled in my skin. That teacher’s horror as she listened to my tale did not match my own experience even though it would not have been crazy to assume that it would.

Zen meditation has a wonderful stopping power. After a while, when things arise in your life, the gap between action and reaction is extended — or slowed. You get a little more time to experience the experience — and, somewhere in that moment, you sometimes have a hard time figuring out what you were upset about. Sometimes, just sometimes, you feel a little more at home with the world just as it is.

This could have been an experience that left me running for the hills, utterly miserable. Clearly, other people might have experienced it that way — I might have experienced it that way, given slightly different circumstances. But, instead, the day was just a day; the ants were just the ants. Of course, there are worse experiences in life than a run-in with some Formicidae. But, the more often I remember this experience and others like it; the more often I open the gate and let the experiences in without judging them, the easier it gets to just “be.” And, in the end, Mother Nature is certain to find ways to remind us that we are never — actually — alone.

Still, later that morning I changed rooms.

Hi there! I’m Odin Halvorson, a librarian, independent scholar, film fanatic, fiction author, and tech enthusiast. If you like my work and want to support me, please consider becoming a paid subscriber for as little as $2.50 a month!

Subscribe for my regular newsletter. No spam, just the big updates.