Tag Archives: meditation retreat

There for the whole show

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For  day or two after leaving Spirit Rock, I find myself sometimes looking at a clock and reminiscing about what I was doing at that time while on retreat. For instance, it’s 7:04 am right now. Yesterday at this time I was walking down the hill to the dining hall for breakfast having  just finished the 6:15 meditation session.

I now find comfort in the regimentation of retreat. This was probably my first one where I went to every single sitting, and did at least some walking during each session of walking meditation. Since I brought neither book nor journal, there was no running back to my room during the walking sessions to record my profound thoughts about how, for instance, I was dead sure Ann Coulter was on this retreat. (Seriously, I was entirely convinced that this very tall, thin, rather hard looking blond woman was Ann Coulter infiltrating our blessed retreat just so that she could make fun of us on FOX News. As it turns out, she was not Ann Coulter, but a very nice woman named Diane. And while I understand she can’t do much about her build and general features, I would advise her to do away with the straight blond hair if she wants to stop frightening gentle souls and woodland creatures.)

There two events that occurred while on my retreat that ended up hijacking all my hopes for a blissed-out few days (which, yes, I realize is not the point, but let’s face it, no one goes into a retreat hoping to see how fucked up their mind really is. While your teacher may be pleased about your insight into your obsessive monkey-on-a-mixture-of-alcohol-meth-and-prescription-drugs mind, it doesn’t always make for a pleasant experience.)

The first event happened right out of the gate. On the first morning, I came back to my room after breakfast to find my phone blowing up with text messages. This was surprising on two fronts: first, I’ve never had any connectivity before up at Spirit Rock. It has been one of the rare times I am grateful for AT&T’s shitty service. But, apparently that has improved, therefore the texts; second the texts were all wondering if I was OK and how was the weather in Scotland.  Finally, it became clear – my Gmail account had been hacked. A message went out to everyone I have ever emailed in the last 8 years saying something to the effect that I was stranded in Scotland after having been robbed at gunpoint – please send money.

I went to the manager’s office to plead to be able to use their computers to change my passwords on not only my email, but some of my other accounts. After a quick chastisement from one of the retreat managers about having phone turned on, she let use one of their computers to go in and stave off any further damage.  As far as I could see, they had only messed with my email account despite my being a very bad bad internet user and having the same password on multiple accounts.

So, having done all I could do to secure my accounts, that should have been the end of it, right? But, noooooooooo. When you’re sitting silently for over 5 hours a day, your mind has the opportunity to really make up some totally mad shit, and then rehash that over and over and over . . .  Plus, the texts kept coming in: my brother contacted the FBI; a friend of mine played with the hackers and agreed to send them the money, all the while bcc’ing the Edinburgh police in hopes they might nab them while picking up the imaginary transfer at the Western Union office; and someone asked me to pick up a kilt for them. But, when I realized I was just getting hooked into the amusement and drama, I decided to give my phone to the manager to hold on to for the duration of the retreat. It was time to let go.

My head settled down a bit for about a day, but then another drama decided to take my mind for a joyride. My “yogi job” (a daily chore all retreatants do) this time was dinner prep, which is mostly chopping vegetables. That should be nice and meditative right? Unlike my preferred yogi job of housekeeping, which is an individual task, supper prep is a group event.  There were five of us chopping veggies, scooping dough, or squeezing prunes (I never want to touch another prune in my life).  On day three, one of my co-yogis was watching me as if she was waiting for me to spit on the food or something. At one point, she went in to talk to one of the cooks, who then also came out to look at me.

Oh lordy lordy me, paranoia will destroya, ya know? My mind started to go ape shit. I was already extremely uncomfortable doing the task. Standing for long periods over a cutting board does a number on my back, which was already feeling challenged from the long periods of sitting, which was probably exacerbated from a sleep deficit. For the next 24 or so hours, my mind spun out over my imagined infraction mixed with back pain. And thanks to the joys of mindfulness, I was there for the whole show.  Great. Fucking great.

By the end of this short retreat however, I was weepy that it was over, and was fomenting some long-term plans to one day sit a three-month retreat.  Despite, the physical and psychological pain these retreats sometimes bring up, I know, on a deep level, this is what I need to be doing.

The question

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Since I left the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) close to five years ago, I’ve been spiritually promiscuous. I’ve tried on a number of Vipassana teachers and sanghas in hopes of finding some place that feels like home. I’ve toyed with a local Dzogchen teacher, studied Mahamudra with a Vajrayana teacher and earlier this week, I returned from a six-day retreat that combined Dzogchen and Vipassana.

Usually when I return from retreat there is a bit of an afterglow. The real world seems rather harsh in comparison to the quiet I feel inside. That wasn’t the case this time. It was an odd retreat. Not bad. Just different than what I’m been used to at past retreats at Spirit Rock.  This retreat was co-led by two heavy hitters in the Dzogchen and Vipassana worlds (whom I’m not going to name simply because I don’t want this blog to show up when someone Googles them).   The main draw for me was the Vipassana teacher who literally wrote the book on Metta/LovingKindness. But, since I had been dipping my toes back into the world of Tibetan Buddhism, I was also interested in what the Dzogchen master had to say.

I wish I had been warned that this was primarily a Dzogchen retreat with an emphasis on the teachings (approx three-to-four hours a day from the Rinpoche and another hour from Ms. Metta).  In the past, I’m used to four-to-five hours a day of sitting meditation, plus another two-to-three doing walking meditation. During this retreat I barely broke two hours of meditation per day, and the walking meditation breaks were really just 15 minute stretch breaks.

Which is not to say the teachings weren’t amazing. They truly were. All the things I loved about Tibetan Buddhism – the intellectual rigor, the precision, and the magical infusion of “blessings” – came flooding back to me. Ah, why did I ever leave?  But, then in the evenings, when Ms. Metta gave her teachings based in the Theravada tradition, I was reminded why I had changed direction. There is a beautiful simplicity and practicality, a psychological resonance, and a strong sense of morality.  I have found a teacher and a sangha I connect with and my practice is strong, why would I want to stray off this path?

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Retreating

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On his way out of the office yesterday, one of my staff members stuck his head in my doorway.

“Have fun at your retreat! Bye!” he said before dashing away.

Fun? Is that really the operative word for what one does at a silent meditation retreat? I decided to I simply thank him for the kind wishes rather than debate whether ‘fun’ was the correct word. As a matter of fact, a number of people had said the same thing to me as they were leaving.  Perhaps, it being so close to the holiday season, they were under the impression I was off to some kind of Buddhist version of Christmas.

I’ve worked with this group of people for the last three years so they have grown accustomed to my occasional trips to Spirit Rock to go dwell in silence for a week or so. I would say there are three basic opinions of my desire to do retreat:

  1. Slightly envious. There are a couple of people whom I consider my work sangha (aka “The Namaste Bitches” – it’s not as harsh as it sounds, it’s all in the enunciation).  When we have the luxury of time, we talk dharma, turn each other on to teachers, and generally support one another’s spiritual endeavors. When I’m debating whether or not to do a retreat, they are always firmly pro-retreat.  I think they see me as their retreat proxy. One of them has young children at home, and right now she just can’t be away for days at a time. The other is too young, cute, and gay & living in San Francisco to be spending time in silence in Marin with a bunch of mostly middle-aged straight people.  He calls me boring and I call him a slut.  But hey, we’re sangha, we can do that.
  2. “Not my cup of tea, but if it makes you happy.” I would say most of my colleagues fall into this category. They can see some appeal of spending quiet time someplace pretty, but a week in silence meditating six-to-seven hours a day, plus another two or three hours zombie walking, is not something they would choose to do for themselves.
  3. “Why don’t you go somewhere fun instead?” One of my colleagues, someone whom I now consider a good friend, really tries to be supportive and mostly holds his tongue when it comes to my spiritual quests, but still asks me, rather gently, “wouldn’t you rather travel with your partner and see someplace you’ve never seen before, and you know, maybe talk?”  He loves to travel and would someday like to find a boyfriend with whom he could go to exotic, romantic places.  I think he thinks I’m wasting a perfectly good boyfriend by insisting on going to retreats by myself rather than spending my vacation time with my beau.  The other colleague is not so gentle. When I told him I was going on retreat, he screwed up his face and said “another one? Didn’t you just do one of those last year?”   He’ll then ask how much these things cost and then tells me how much of a vacation I could get ‘somewhere fun’ for the same price. And when I tell him I happen to enjoy going on retreat, he’ll once again screw up his face, and ask “whyyyy?”   It’s at this point I tend to get really distracted because he looks so much like an ex-boyfriend of mine. That is, if my ex was gay and Asian. They have the exact same hair cut, vocal inflections and gestures.  It’s really uncanny, and a bit disturbing too.

So, tomorrow I head over to Spirit Rock for a week-long Metta retreat with Sylvia Boorstein. I’m looking forward to it. Who knows? Maybe I will have fun. But, if I can find a few moments of peace and love in my mind, that will be worth the price of admission.