Tag Archives: Sylvia Boorstein

. . . and returning

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The first 24-48 hours after coming off a silent retreat can be challenging.  People move way too fast and speak too loudly. You have to cook your own meals, which are in no way as tasty or healthy as those that to which you’ve become accustomed in the dining hall. Since I’ve been home I find myself  just sitting quietly doing nothing as if  I’m still waiting for the bell to ring, calling me to the meditation hall.  And then looking around at my messy house, I realize I ain’t at Spirit Rock anymore.  And while I love being home with my critters and my comforts, I sure wish I could have a few silent sincere yogis come clean my house, cook my meals and ring a bell reminding me to meditate. Oh, and while I’m wishing, I want to adopt Sylvia Boorstein as the Jewish grandmother I never had.

This was a particularly sweet and easy retreat for me. Unlike previous retreats where it takes me a day or two to land and become accustomed to the schedule and the bed and that blasted hike back up the hill from the dining hall, I settled in rather quickly.  Since this is my third retreat there in 13 months, all that stuff that used to be new and scary is now familiar and comforting.  But, there was one new twist to this retreat, I wasn’t there alone.  One of my closest friends, Frank, decided to join me. This was his first Spirit Rock silent retreat and while I had no concerns that he could handle all the meditation, I was a bit worried how he was going to take to the silence. Me, I love love LOVE it.  I was really hoping that Frank would grow to love it too.

The focus of this retreat was on Metta (or loving-kindness for those whose Pali is a bit rusty. Some teachers even translate it as mere friendliness of heart). So for seven days, we meditated on cultivating a heart full of loving-kindness directed towards an ever expanding circle of beings.  If you are not familiar with the practice, Wikipedia has a pretty good description here.  The practice is quite beautiful and inspiring. In fact, on about the fourth day, the physical sensation of my heart expanding became so intense I thought I was possibly having a heart attack. I nearly tackled  poor Sylvia on her way out of the dharma talk, so badly was the need to be reassured that I wasn’t  dying. She assured me I wasn’t, and that what was happening was actually a good thing. (Yes, a heart full of metta, a concentrated mind and a tendency towards panic attacks makes for some interesting physical sensations.)

Some highlights of the reatreat:

  • I got to be a bell ringer! I’ve always wanted to ring the big bell that summons people to the meditation hall. And no one could accuse me of being tentative with that bell. I whacked the hell out of it. No one was going to miss the 4pm dharma talk because they couldn’t hear the bell. No, not on my watch.
  • Turkeys!! God, I love those stupid turkeys. I was actually quite concerned when I didn’t see them for the first couple of days. But when I finally saw the flock, I was so happy I almost wanted to cry (yeah, metta not just warms the heart, but apparently it supercharges the tear ducts).
  • On the sixth day, when the silence is lifted for a short period, Frank and I found each, embraced, and the first words out of our mouths were “I love you” (and I, of course, started crying).  He loved the retreat. I was filled with mudita. Plus, it was such a relief to finally be able to talk and laugh openly.  For the entire week every time our eyes met in the dining hall, we both had to suppress bursting out laughing.  Nothing was particularly funny, but I think we were like two naughty children in church who can’t help but giggle when everyone else around them is so silent and serious.
  • Coyotes! It’s hard to believe, but I think this may have been my first experience of hearing coyotes howl at the moon. When I first heard it while doing an evening walking meditation, I was transfixed.  And then when I was awoken by a pack of coyotes howling outside my window at 3am, I was in awe. But, when they woke me again at 5:30am, I thought to myself “Jesus, coyotes, it’s just the freakin’ moon. Give it a rest”.
  • When deciding which retreat to sit, there is usually at least one teacher that is the main attraction for me. In this case, it was Sylvia. But, as always, there were no duds, all the teachers add their own hearts to the mix. But, often there is a pleasant surprise, a teacher who I fall a little in love with. For this retreat, it was  Heather Martin. She didn’t  look like the typical Spirit Rock teacher, who tends to look a bit earthy, or at the very least, psychotherapist-y.  Heather looked like the prototypical middle-aged English Rose. But, she was delightfully honest, funny and very wise. I would love to sit another retreat with her.

I think that’s all I want to say about it. It’s funny, at previous retreats, my narrator seems to be ever present, and I tend to instantly translate all my experiences into stories. This time, she was notably absent, and my retreat journal, which is normally voluminous, was quite brief this time.  Which isn’t great for my writing aspirations, but I think it’s good progress towards my deeper aspiration to greet each present moment, no matter what it brings, as a friend.

May you be happy and peaceful
May you be safe and protected
May you healthy and strong
May you live with ease.

Another dharma adventure

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Tonight, my band of merry NKT outcasts and I drove out to Spirit Rock Meditation Center in west Marin County for a teaching by Sylvia Boorstein, a Buddhist teacher and author, and co-founder of Spirit Rock.  It’s funny, most everyone who has even a passing interest in Buddhism in the Bay Area has been to Spirit Rock at some point in their spiritual quest.  But, this was my first time.  In my mind Spirit Rock was for those who wanted Buddhism to make them feel all warm and fuzzy.  In other words, not for serious practitioners like myself (yes, I’ve made such progress in reducing the ego, eh?) 

There were probably about 300-350 or so people comfortably crowded into an unremarkable, low-ceilinged room.  While everyone was getting seated, Sylvia sat in front and smiled like the beneficent grandmother we all wish we had had.  Such a soft and lovely presence, with eyes filled with mirth and kindness.  Even though it felt like it took for ever for people to get settled,  she showed no sign of impatience or annoyance.   The crowd, like most I’ve encountered at Buddhist events, was overwhelmingly white and mostly middle-aged, though this group did have its share of younger people. 

Her dharma talk was filled with personal stories which illustrate how the dharma shows up in our lives daily and in every moment.  It felt like she threw a lot out there in terms of analogies and anecdotes, so almost everyone could grab a piece and take it home with them.  For my friends Steve and Rae, they loved the analogy of the big screen TV with the picture within a picture.  For most of us, we are always looking at our own lives projected in the big picture, and the rest of the world is tiny and in the corner.  If we wish to be happy we need to reverse that view.  Me, I liked the saying “Life is difficult.  How can we not be kind?”  It was the kind of dharma talk that didn’t necessarily challenge you, but rather left you feeling inspired and yes, warm and fuzzy – and wanting to adopt Sylvia as your mom or grandma or neighbor.

As my friend Deborah and I drove home we noted that lack of a real structure or detail in her talk. I felt inspired – yes!  I want develop this mind of loving-kindness, it sounds awesome!  I want to put others in the big picture!  But how we are to accomplish that wasn’t really addressed. 

So, for myself and my friends, the quest continues.  Geshe-la’s presentation of the dharma is very clear as to method, but what it lacked in the teachings was often the humanity and inspiration.  Teachings such as tonight were all about the humanity and inspiration.  I’m still looking for the middle way in presenting the Middle Way.