Note to self: When going on retreat, drop all expectations about what you think or want to happen on that retreat because no matter what you want or expect, you’re going to get something completely different.
A little over a month ago, I went on a ten-day retreat at Spirit Rock focusing on concentration practice. Ever since I had my surprising and wonderful samadhi experience at the my last retreat in December, I’ve been quite interested in concentration/samadhi and, as one teacher called them, the spiritual goodies that come with a highly concentrated mind. The focus of my practice for the last four months had been concentration (vs vipassana/mindfulness) in anticipation of this retreat. I was approaching my practice with almost an athletic vigor (as athletic as you can be sitting on your ass and focusing on your breath). My motto going into the retreat was “jhana or bust”. (Who me? Striving?)
I got to the retreat shortly after registration opened so that I could get my pick of “yogi jobs” (a daily chore either in the dining hall or general housekeeping) and find a good seat in the meditation hall. At my last retreat, after being assaulted from behind by a serial cougher, I found myself moving my seat to the very back of the room against the wall. There I was safe from anyone stabbing me in the back with their germs. Call me misanthropic, but I found the relative seclusion quite comforting and safe. So, this time I immediately looked for a suitable space in the very back of the room. I found one nestled between a credenza and a pile of cushions. Yes, this will do nicely. So, I grabbed a zabuton, a zafu and a couple of knee cushions and secured my space. This would be my meditative home for the next nine days.
By the second day the wall of cushions had been dismantled by the other yogis in this sold out retreat. My left flank was wide open. You can guess what happened next. I’m not the only one who has the impulse to move away from the herd, so soon I had a neighbor.
For most of the retreat, in my mind (it was a silent retreat, after all), I called my neighbor Mike. I don’t know why. To me, he looked like a Mike. He wasn’t a bad looking fellow, but his face looked etched with sadness or worry. And while after a day or two of retreat, most of us do appear a bit grim, Mike seemed pained and lost. Of course, I say this in retrospect. At the time I didn’t see his pain, I just saw him as a pain in the ass.
To say Mike was a tad restless is like saying Glenn Beck is a tad crazy. While it takes most everyone a minute or two to settle into their meditation posture at the beginning of a sit, Mike’s preparation took much longer. Of course, that could have to do with selecting among, and placing his vast collection of meditation props:
When Mike initially moved into my space I found his shenanigans really annoying. In fact, even outside the meditation hall, I found reasons to be annoyed with him. I found fault with how he moved about on the trails outside, and the amount of food he put on his plate and the speed with which he ate it. At one point I saw him with a bag of groceries, and I even found his choice of food and beverages annoying. I was developing my first VV – Vipassana Vendetta – a common retreat phenomenon whereby you project a whole awful story upon a fellow yogi whom you find unpleasant. My retreat journal, rather than filled with insights or ruminations about the dharma, was filled with complaints – nay, rants – about Mike and his noisy-ass self.
* * * * *
Perhaps five days into the retreat, my annoyance turned to bemusement when Mike caused a minor commotion when he fell off his kneeling bench during the dharma talk. He cracked a self-effacing smile and waved off any concern. A smile. He was no longer just an annoyance, and for the first time I saw a human being.
After his tumble, I regarded him with a bit more patience, and I came to appreciate that once he got settled in he really wasn’t a bad neighbor. He didn’t breathe loudly, cough, or have a nose whistle. His pre-meditation restlessness honestly did not have an adverse affect my sittings.
* * * * *
About a week into the retreat, during the session where one of the retreat leaders would normally guide us in a loving-kindness meditation, one of the leaders decided to switch it up and lead us in a forgiveness practice. Uh oh. Even the word “forgiveness” got me a bit emotional.
To those whom I may have caused harm, knowingly or unknowingly, through my thoughts, words and actions, I ask your forgiveness.
To those who may have caused me harm, knowingly or unknowingly, through their thoughts, words and actions, I offer my forgiveness as best I am able.
For any harm I may have caused myself, knowingly or unknowingly, through my thoughts, words, and actions, I offer my forgiveness as best I am able.
The floodgates opened. I wept for the way I treated my mother. I wept for the way I had been treated by my father and brother after my mother’s death. And some of the wettest tears were for how I have treated myself. For the entire 45 minute sit, I silently sobbed, my shoulders shaking with sorrow.
When the bell rang signaling the end of the sit, I was still moving through all the emotion. I decided to stay in the hall to cry whatever tears still needed to be cried. I heard people file past me as they left the hall, and then it was quiet again. I moved through the pain and was starting to come to a place of forgiveness. It was then I noticed I wasn’t alone. Mike was still sitting right next to me.
Mike was not one of those, like myself, who continued sitting even after bell had rung. He would usually gather himself up relatively quickly and leave the hall. Yet, here he was, still in the hall, sitting quietly, 15 minutes after the sit finished. I glanced over to see if I could figure out why he was still there. He didn’t appear to be meditating. His posture was relaxed and he was gazing at the floor. As usual he seemed lost in his own world, yet I had the strangest sense that he was there to support me, to protect me. I took comfort in his company as I resumed my process.
Finally I arrived at that place where I felt forgiven. Cleansed. I got up from my seat, stretched, bowed to the Buddha in gratitude and headed out to the courtyard. And I noticed that shortly after I left, Mike did too.
* * * * *
On the last full day of the retreat, in the afternoon, the cone of silence was temporarily lifted so that we may practice some mindful listening and speaking. We were told to get into groups of three and each person take turns talking about their experience at the retreat. Even though Mike originally went gallomphing off in search of other partners, another woman and I managed to corral him into our triad.
We all introduced ourselves and I learned his name was Charlie. Charlie is a much nicer, friendlier name than Mike. After the other woman spoke, it was Charlie’s turn. My view of him had changed so many times in the course of nine days, I didn’t know what to expect. He spoke of his own struggles both in and out of meditation with such vulnerability and tenderness, I couldn’t help but be moved. He was raw with emotion. Towards the end of his time to speak, he turned and spoke directly to me.
“I didn’t know whether or not we’d ever get a chance to speak, so I wrote you a note. I wanted you to know how awful I feel about how restless and noisy I was throughout the retreat. I’m such a mess sometimes. I just hope I didn’t ruin your retreat for you. I feel awful.” he said with genuine remorse.
I smiled and did a quick edit of my words. He didn’t need to know the part about driving me crazy during the first week.
“Hey, I’m a big girl. If you were ruining my retreat, I would have moved. Sure, you were a bit restless at the beginning of a sit, but you settle down nicely. No worries.” I hoped my smile and nonchalance would appease his guilt.
Then it was my turn to speak. I started getting a bit verklempt as I gave an abbreviated version of my forgiveness epiphany and how that alone was worth the price of admission. Then it was my turn to address Charlie.
“You know, I want to thank you for staying there with me through all that. I don’t know if it was intentional, but I really felt like you were there to support me.” Tears were starting to run down my face.
“Believe me, it was completely intentional. You couldn’t have moved me from that spot with a Mac track.” he said getting emotional himself. “It was very profound experience for me. Seeing you break down here in the hall made me realize that this is a safe place for me to confront some things I’ve been avoiding for years. It really opened me up. And I want to thank you for that.”
“It’s ironic,” I said, “I went into this retreat with a serious agenda to get ‘somewhere’ in my concentration practice. That’s why I hid in the back of the room. I certainly didn’t expect my heart to break open, much less have an effect on someone else.”
“Well, that’s what sangha is for”, he said with a gentle smile. And then the bell rang signalling the end of our talking time.