Category Archives: dharma adventures

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.

Giving up the written word

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The other day when I was meeting with my Kalyana Mitta group (basically a Buddhist support group and book club), one of my sangha mates said. “I have to confess I was naughty and brought a book with me on retreat.” I looked around the room to see the reaction to his revelation. For the most part, everyone looked understanding and sympathetic to his disclosure. On the other hand, I probably looked fairly puzzled. Doesn’t everyone bring books with them on retreat? Oh god, am I the only one?

Of course, I have read and heard teachers advise against reading or writing during retreats. It breaks the continuity of mindfulness. The oft-used analogy is if you put a kettle of water on the stove and then take it off, then put it back on and take it off, the water is never going to boil. Same thing with our mindfulness. If we keep losing it by getting lost in words (written or being written), it breaks the continuity of the mindfulness and we’re never going to get the full benefit of the extended practice period. OK, yeah, I get it. But, honestly now, are people actually holding to that?

Apparently, people do.

Tomorrow I’m off on retreat again – five days up at Spirit Rock at a silent retreat co-lead by my golf club wielding teacher. When I met with him yesterday, I wanted to get some clarity on the reading thing.  He confirmed what I had heard before and whipped out the ol’ kettle analogy. I get it, but what I can’t understand is what people do in their rooms after the last sitting and before they fall asleep.  We have no access to electronic media – there is no cell or WiFi signal out there. And certainly no TV. Do people simply sit in their rooms staring mindfully at the walls?

My teacher looked at me rather gently as he told me the obvious: after the last sitting, people simply go to sleep. Oh right. Sleep. At 9:30 at night. Sleep. With no need to wind down, no transition. What a concept.

I have often marveled at how many of the dorm windows are dark when I come out of the last session at 10 or so.  I’m usually one of the last to leave the sitting, so I know all my  fellow yogis aren’t in the hall. Maybe they’re down in the dining hall enjoying a nice rice cracker and a cup of tea.  Doubtful. So the only other option is that they are already in bed. At 10 o’clock. Does not compute.

As you may have surmised, I’m a night owl. I tend to go to bed between midnight and 1 am.  Trust me, I’ve tried to go to bed earlier, but it doesn’t work.  I even diagnosed myself with a mild case of Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder.  I’m fortunate, it doesn’t impact my life that much since I tend to stay away from jobs where I have to be at work early or where my boss is a stickler about tardiness.

I’m also one of those people who cannot simply hop into bed and fall asleep no matter how tired I am. I need time to wind down. Even if I get home really late, I watch a little TV to let the mind know it’s time to stop thinking. So, on retreats with no access to mind-numbing TV, I will spend some time journalling and then take a dharma book with me to bed and try to read myself to sleep. And even that doesn’t always work, especially when I’m struck with anxiety or energy surges from a long day of meditation. As much as I love Spirit Rock and being on retreat, I’ve had plenty long dark nights of the soul there when I’ve found myself battling anxiety and sleeplessness.

Since this is a short retreat and with my teacher co-leading, I’ve decided to push myself a bit. I’m giving up the written word for the duration of the retreat. No reading, no writing.  I’m going to keep my kettle on the stove. If that means I’m still in the hall meditating at 2am, so be it. Basically, I’m going to meditate until I’m exhausted and can hopefully fall asleep without my routines.  (Though, don’t expect me at the 6:30 am sit.)

It sounds a bit extreme, I realize. But, worry not, I’ll still have a book tucked away in my suitcase if my plan doesn’t work out.

Struck by the golf club of wisdom

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Years ago now, back when I was still deeply involved in the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT), I felt I was very firmly “on the path”. I had my bags packed for Enlightenment, or at the very least, some Pure Land.  I had my map, which we chanted at the beginning of each class – Prayers for the Stages of the Path. I trusted that my Spiritual Guide knew how to get to the top of the mountain, I just had to be willing to make the schlep.  I was going was to a place beyond suffering where I would abide in bliss and emptiness and hang out and radiate blessings to all the poor suckers still stuck in samsara. Or at least I thought it was something like that.  The only model we had for enlightened beings were old Tibetan dudes, most of whom were dead.  Enlightened beings never looked like me.

When I stepped off the Mahayana path and started down the much more mindfulness oriented path of Vipassana, my spiritual goals changed.  I stopped fetishising Enlightenment as the end all and be all. That may come eventually, but for now I was simply trying to stay present, right in this moment.  And by going on retreats, I was able to get a taste of some of the bliss that comes with a highly concentrated mind, and experience the peace that comes from mindful attention to my moment-by-moment experience.

Yet, I still had this sense that I would never totally have my spiritual shit together.  All the teachers I had come to admire had traveled to Burma, Thailand, India, etc. and did long retreats. Instead of old Tibetan dudes, my new spiritual role models became the prototypical Spirit Rock teacher – a Marin-dwelling, Jewish psychotherapist.

One day, not so long ago,  I was on my way to see my therapist – a Marin-dwelling, Jewish Spirit Rock teacher. As I drove up to his home office I saw him remove a set of golf clubs from the back of his car. Golf clubs? Gurus don’t play golf. I was completely thrown. We probably spent half the session talking about why I was having such an averse reaction to the fact that he played golf (nay! loved golf). No conclusion was reached by the end of the session. I left as baffled as I was when I arrived.

The next morning as I was driving to work I was still mulling my rather extreme reaction to the golf clubs. Then it hit me. Seeing my teacher with those golf clubs pretty much shattered the picture in my head of what a person who has their spiritual shit together is like.  So, I mulled, if that picture is false, then who is to say that I can’t have my spiritual shit together? Why does my awakening have to look like an old Tibetan dude’s, or  my Marin-dwelling, Jewish therapist/teacher’s?

Those golf clubs struck me like a vajra.  For the rest of the trip into the office,  my ordinary view of other drivers and pedestrians shifted, and I saw them as potential Buddhas (beings who totally have their spiritual shit together).  The hipster girl walking across the street talking on cell could have been a Buddha. The old Chinese lady getting off the bus with her bag of groceries had a Buddha nature. Even the cabbie who cut me off may have been fully enlightened. So why not me?

I never realized how much I had been holding on to these pictures of what a person who had deep spiritual realizations looked or acted like. Nor did I know how much I had excluded myself from that picture.

But, no more.

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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. . . 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.

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.

A sangha of two

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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:

a kneeling bench
two zafus
two gomdens
two knee pillows
two meditation shawls
two chairs
three zabutons
four specialty pillows from home
an extra pair of socks
a wad of dirty tissue

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.

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Checking in

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Oh, hi.  It’s been a while, hasn’t it?  It’s been about two months since I last checked in with y’all.

Things here at Chez LazyBuddhist have been fine, for the most part.  Though I  did just lose Mrs. Peabody to cancer.  I had to put her to sleep last Friday.  Horrible decision, but I believe the right one.  She had a fast-growing tumor in her face which made it harder and harder for her to eat.  Maybe I erred on the side of too early – she still had a lot of life and spirit in her – but within a couple of days she would not be able to eat at all, then the risk of her going into a very painful condition called stasis would be quite high.  I did not want her to suffer. Everyone has assured I did the right thing at the right time, but still, it pains me.

It’s funny, I never thought I had a close bond with Mrs. P.  I always likened our relationship as a slightly icy mother-in-law, daughter-in-law relationship. I tolerated her because she made my boy bunny, Mr. Binkles happy.  They were a bonded pair. But, Binkles still has his mommy relationship with me, which I think made Peabody a little jealous.  She never came up to me and ask for petting, or even bothered to check in with me occasionally as she did her evening romps around the house.  I was OK with that. She was a very pretty bunny, as well as a very calm, confident one. Watching them simply be bunnies, either together or separately was always a joy.

I surprised myself a bit with how emotional I’ve been about this loss.  At first I thought I was mostly going to be upset with how it would affect Binkles. But, the copious tears I cried before, during and after her death tell me I was more attached than I thought.  She was a quiet presence, but one that was filled with life and an innate intelligence  I miss you, Mrs. Peabody.

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My spiritual practice has been going great guns.  According to this cool iPhone app, Insight Timer, for the last two months, I’ve been averaging 52 minutes a day meditating.  And next week at this time, I’ll be out at Spirit Rock again at a nine-day concentration retreat.

I’ve found a sitting group where I’m comfortable.  It’s a large group so it’s fairly easy to just blend into the crowd.  I still aspire to find a group where I can make some connections, yet not get consumed by the group.  It may be possible with this one, I just need to feel comfortable enough to show up at their monthly pre-sitting burrito party. For now, I’m happy just breezing in, having a lovely meditation, listening to the dharma talk, throwing a few bucks in the dana basket, and then breezing out.

The rest of my life has been fine. I’ve been working with some old traumatic/emotional shit in therapy.  Not always fun, but I think it’s worth it. Will the result be a new, improved Not-So-LazyBuddhist?  I doubt it. I’m actually pretty OK as I am. It will just be nice to clear out some of the obstacles that obscure my light.

Hope all has been well with you. I’m hoping this writing dry spell will end soon.

Bumpy landing

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Two weeks ago at this time, I was just settling into a five day silent retreat at Spirit Rock.   The evening dharma talk was over, and I was heading back to my room, exhausted, but relieved to be there.

Unlike at the last retreat I did there, there was no  initial anxiety about my ability to handle the silence, the frighteningly healthy food, or the shared bathrooms.  Even though I only drove 30 minutes to get there, the relief upon arriving was as if I had traveled hours along treacherous roads.  I felt like I had come home.

Cocooned in the silence, all those layers of psychic and muscular armor began to fall away.  No need for small talk. No need to impress. No need to explain.  Safe. Silent.

This time I decided to follow the retreat schedule as laid out by the retreat leaders: starting at 6:30 am, there nine sittings a day, plus five walking meditation sessions.  And yes, this Lazy Buddhist was in the meditation hall at 6:30 every morning (OK, OK I did miss one).  I even got into the whole walking meditation thing. In fact, I came to really like and appreciate the walking meditation, especially since I struggled with sleepiness during most of my sittings.

Ironically, on the next to last day, I had a meeting with one of the teachers and had reported that my experience had been almost disappointingly stable.  I had come to the retreat with an expectation of having “stuff” come up. I was expecting tears. I was almost looking forward to tears.  He just smiled and said “you never know, you still have the rest of the day.”   Indeed, you never know.

During the post-lunch session, usually the sleepiest of the day, everything changed. I certainly wasn’t sleepy anymore.  I can’t say I woke up, but I think I got a glimpse that awakening was indeed possible. I could wake up. Me. It no longer felt like an intellectual concept.  And it blew my fucking mind.

On the last day, after they raised the cone of silence and people were allowed to speak again, I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to speak and I didn’t want to leave.  A door has been cracked and I wanted to fling it wide open.  But, the “real” world was waiting for me. I had bills to pay and creatures to care for, so running off to a cave and meditating for a few years was not in the cards for me.

Going back to work the next day wasn’t too bad.  Even though I still felt completely stripped of my emotional armor, I didn’t feel too exposed since I was clothed in my psychic uniform that I wear everyday at the office.  But, it was when I was with those nearest and dearest to me that I felt rather raw.

I probably haven’t been the easiest person to be around. I keep wanting to retreat into my beloved silence.  And it probably doesn’t feel particularly good to be told by someone you care about that “I’ miss my silent retreat” when all they want to do is to engage you in their holiday traditions. Yes, it probably was selfish of me to do retreat so close to Christmas. This year there is no tree, no decorations, and so far I haven’t even purchased any presents.  I really just wanted to skip the whole thing this year.  Oh right . . . it’s not all about me, is it?

I’m planning on doing another retreat this Spring. But this time, I’ll give myself plenty of buffer time afterward in order to land properly, and with no major holidays around the corner.  In the meantime, however, I’ll put on my big girl panties and try to get into the Christmas spirit.

How can I help?

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I’m going to be contributing to my friend Frank’s blog, Still Kicking as he documents his journey with cancer.   I’ll be cross posting here, and some posts may feel narratively disjointed because it’s a response to Frank’s story.  So I encourage you to visit Frank’s blog for the full picture.

Frank had a morning appointment at UCSF to meet with his oncologist. I hadn’t heard from him so I assumed he had found street parking and  and didn’t need to take me up on my standing offer of validated parking in my office building around the corner from the UCSF Cancer Center.  At this appointment he was to get the results of  a bone scan he had done two days earlier to check whether or not the  aggressive  cancer in his prostate had spread. I had asked him the night before to shoot me a quick text when he was done with his appointment to let me know how it went.

I expected to hear from him around noon, so when I didn’t I  kept my iPhone on me as I went about my work day.  During one particularly boring meeting, my boss had to nudge me to make me stop fidgeting with my iPhone as I was unconsciously trying to coax it to give me some good news from Frank.  But, due to some uniquely modern problems (he had run out of minutes on his cell phone plan, and my texting had been shut-off due to a billing snafu with AT&T), we didn’t connect until the next day when I called him the old-fashioned way – land-line to land-line.

I could tell as soon as he picked up the phone that something was up.  Usually Frank answers the phone  with a cheery “hello?” But that day he sounded drawn, wrung out.  He cut to the chase quickly. “It’s the worst possible scenario – stage IV metastatic bone cancer.”  I was stunned into silence. “Needless to say, I’m devastated” he continued.

As soon as I could find my voice again, I said quietly, “Oh my god, I’m so sorry, sweetie. Is there anything I can do to help?”  It’s a question I’ve since asked too many times.

Our conversation was brief, as his other phone was ringing with someone he had made an appointment to give the news to.   I ended the conversation with the words “I love you” – words I’m normally stingy with, but I meant with all of my heart.

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Over the next week or so, in various phone calls and emails, Frank freely shares with me his emotions in coming to terms with the diagnosis,  and the agony of having to wait until all the testing is finished before a treatment plan can be formulated.  Whenever Frank seems strong, steady, I’m happy.  But, when he’s having a hard day, my own fear and discomfort come to the fore again. And with that discomfort comes that question, “how can I help you?”

Of course, there is nothing wrong with the impulse to help.  It’s one of the  human race’s best qualities. It’s our Buddha nature shining through our normal fog of self-involvement.    But, for the me the words “how can I   help you?” were almost becoming a mantra.  Every time Frank  seemed in distress,  I would recite my mantra, “how can I help you?”  Finally, the meaning behind the mantra became clearer to me: I was desperately looking for some way to not feel helpless.   Here is my dear, dear friend who has been given a dire diagnosis and there is little I can do to assuage his fear or keep him free from suffering.  Sure, perhaps I can give him some comfort, or a few hours diversion, but I can’t take away his pain.  I can’t change the course of his journey, no matter how much I want to.  I’ve never felt so helpless in my life.

With each phone call or contact, I found myself relying on my mantra, “how can I help you?” Finally one evening it dawned upon me that this  relentless desire to help went beyond feeling helpless about Frank’s situation.   I desperately wanted something to keep me busy so I wouldn’t have to think about my own inevitable march towards aging (if I’m lucky), sickness and death.

While I’ve had both pets and parents die, I haven’t had any close friends die.  Sure, I’ve gotten that twinge of mortality when I get news of the passing of some old high school friend. But, it’s not supposed to happen to someone so strong, so healthy, so full of life as my friend Frank. And if cancer can strike this healthy, vital river guide, what are my chances of making it out alive?  Oh.  Right.  None of us do.  I’m no exception. Shit.

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The weekend after Frank got the bone cancer diagnosis, our friend Rae and I went to a weekend of teachings by Ani Pema Chodron here in Richmond.  She is an incredible woman – funny, wise, earthy and a bottomless well of compassion. I think what most impressed me was the way she listened to people during the Q&A sessions.  At times it felt like I was at a Buddhist version of Lourdes.  People brought such immense suffering and laid it at the feet of Pema.  And she was fully present for it.  She never cringed, never wavered. She stood there and took it in and never looked away.

I think I have figured out my role in all of this, what I can do to help.  I’m going to take my cue from Ani Pema and simply be present for whatever happens. That image of her, standing still and strong, taking in the suffering of others and reflecting back love and compassion is imprinted on my mind, and will continue to be source of inspiration.

So, that will be how I will help – simply to stay fully present and just love Frank unconditionally.  Oh, and provide free parking.

Writin’ it out

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It’s an old friend, this sense of discontentment, this sense of being lost, not knowing where I want to go, much less how to get there.  But, like all humans, I want.  I suppose in Buddhist-speak, we’d call that craving.  Some cravings are pretty concrete and attainable – I want chocolate, I seek chocolate, I eat chocolate.  Craving satisfied. For now.  Others are more amorphous, like I want something different, something new, something to distract me from how mundane my life feels.

For a while I thought it was recognition I wanted. I mean, who doesn’t want to be recognized for the witty, fabulous, talented ________ (fill in the blank with your aspiration du jour) that you know deep down inside that you truly are. For me, my most recent aspiration was to be a Writer.  And yet, when I started to get recognized and complimented in the real world, by real flesh and blood people, my output shuts down.  The veil of  the LazyBuddhist falls and underneath you find the quivering mess that is Mary.  So, Mary runs and hides and can barely eek out a word for even private consumption.  I could hardly put together a grocery list, so severe my graphnophobia became. God forbid I put anything down in writing and possibly reveal to the world I need cheddar cheese and toilet paper.

So, I’ll blame the holidays and the darkness. It’s a common phenomenon, this winter funk.  With the new year mere hours away, I’m taking steps, again, to crawl out of my comfortably-appointed well of self-consciousness and self-pity.  I corralled some of my friends to join me in signing up for a 10 month long program called Awakening Joy.  I still miss not having a sangha.  I know I want that back in my life, and to be able to know I’ll be seeing a handful of my good friends at least once a month while hearing some great teachings makes me happy.

And it appears that writing and I are once again on speaking terms.  I wouldn’t say we’re friendly or particularly close at this time, but it’s a start.

Happy New Year, my friends.  May you all find the peace and contentment we all crave.

Back on the path

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As I sit here at my desk at the end of the work day I am of two minds.  One mind, the nice one,  is saying “go home.  You’re tired, you poor thing. You haven’t been sleeping well.  Just  start the class next week.  Be gentle with yourself.”  The other mind, the really annoying one, is saying “stop with the excuses, you lazy sod.  Get your ass over to Spirit Rock.  Later, you’ll be happy you did.”  I hate that other mind.

Tonight is the first class of a 10 week series called Essential Dharma, Part 3.  I took Part 1 a few months back, but then listened to the nice mind when it came to signing up for Part 2.  Because I figured I was doing my week-long retreat and that was more than enough dharma and meditation for a while, so I didn’t give myself too much grief for not attending Part 2.  After all, after my retreat my meditation practice would be in tippy top form and I wouldn’t need the structure of a weekly class to keep on track.  Right?

Well, that was true for a few weeks, and then one day would go by without meditating, then two, and then I was only meditating once a week, and then even that became a stretch.  

It’s not as though I have completely forgotten my Buddhist training.  I do try and live by the five precepts: no killing, no stealing, no sexual misconduct, no harmful speech and no intoxicants.  I’m still a decent person. It’s not like in the absence of a sangha or a teacher  I have become a reality show contestant, or even a Republican.  Though, I do have to say I probably could use some work on the precept of no harmful speech.

I need the structure.  I know this about myself.  And I love my meditation and my Buddhist practice.  So, where’s the debate? 

OK, OK, annoying mind, I’ll go.  I hate it when you know what’s best for me.