Tag Archives: meditation

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.

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Lost

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I’ve got a couple of pieces that I’ve been working on. And is the case with postings that turn into opuses, they may or may not ever get finished. So, for the sake of trying to maintain some momentum, I’ll share something I wrote  recently for a class. The writing prompt was “Lost”.

Sitting in a chair whose history is long and poignant, my eyes gently shut. Feeling my body vibrating, parts pinging their presence, settling in. And finding the the breath. As usual, it’s a bit shallow, never quite reaching my belly. And with attention, it lengthens, deepens into the belly and through the back. And again. And again. Its pace slowing on its own. Unwinding, breath by breath. A scene starts to play out in my head. A movie I must have made in my sleep. Characters arise fully formed. Bits of dialogue. Lost.

Finding the breath again. “Start again” as one of my favorite Leonard Cohen songs advises. I wonder when Leonard Cohen is coming back to town. The man puts on a damn fine show. “Don’t dwell on what has passed away” I start to sing to myself, “or what is yet to be.”  Lost.

Coming back yet again to the breath. Finding my home in the equinimity of a quiet mind. There we go. That’s it. Damn, I’m such a good meditator. Shit. Lost again.

The pain in my lower back sidetracks the trip back to the breath. That’s OK, I can investigate that. Stupid pain. Can’t it see I’m trying to meditate. No, sense it. What is it? Tight? Sharp? Deep? Shallow? Ouch. I don’t like it and I want it to go away.  Lost.

Oh. Where did that pain go? OK, back to the breath. Feeling the coolness of the in breath right at that spot between my nose and lip, and reaching for some sensation there on the out breath. Opening once again to this moment. I really should write about this sometime. Lost.

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.

Excerpts from my retreat journal

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We were warned at the end of our retreat to not try and come to any conclusions about it until about a week or two after the retreat ended.  Fair enough.  There is a sense that things are still being processed in my head, in my heart.  However, after fussing about on this blog about all my fear and trepidation (or as my friend Annie called it, “living in the wreckage of the future”) about my impending week-long silent meditation retreat at Spirit Rock I figured I should post something to let you know I survived.

At first I was going to write out the entire daily schedule – all eight sitting meditation and five walking meditation sessions – but then I realized that you may get the impression that I am not truly a lazy Buddhist, and would insist I change my moniker. But, be assured, my laziness is still quite intact.  While others were hauling their asses to the cushion at 6:30 in the morning, my lazy ass was still in bed.  My day started at 8:45 am which, in my mind, was an entirely reasonable time.

So, here are some daily notes from the journal I was keeping during my retreat.  Enjoy.

Sunday evening:

  • All my worst fears seemed to be coming true.  After parking my car and putting my luggage in a truck, I am instructed to hike the 1/2 mile uphill to check in.  Why can they give my luggage a ride and I have to walk?  I arrive sweaty, cranky and reaching for my asthma inhaler
  • My relief knows no bounds when I discover that I have a single room.  Also relieved to see that the shared bathrooms in no way resemble that of the high school locker room of my nightmares
  • As we (the 70 or so retreatants) left our first session in silence, a beautiful full moon was rising over the San Geronimo valley.  Many of us stopped for a minute or so and just took it in, and then moved on.

Monday:

  • I HATE walking meditation!! I’m incapable of slowing my walking down to a crawl without toppling over.  Instead of moving slowly and serenely, I pace impatiently and mutter how stupid this practice is.
  • People who annoy me (thus far):  the old dude who sits behind me and breaths loudly; the angry-looking Asian guy who has way too many cushions, yet still can’t sit still; cushion hoarders in general – I just needed a couple of the small knee cushions for my back, yet they are all gone because some people have four or more of them; yoga chicks.
  • I think the teacher and I have a different definition of the word “feast”.  Tofu, kale and green salad does not a feast make.
  • Slept much of the day.  Missed all of the afternoon sessions.  Entirely expected.

Read the rest of this entry

A case of nerves & the shaving of the Sasquatch

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Up until this week, I was doing a very good job of not thinking about the week-long meditation retreat I had signed up for at Spirit Rock.  When I initially signed up I was pretty excited and more than a little proud of myself.  It was a big step, and to me, indicated that perhaps I wasn’t such a lazy Buddist after all. (BTW, if you’re here just to see a shaved Maine Coon cat – a big percentage of my visitors, apparently – just skip to the bottom.)

There are things about this retreat that make me nervous as all hell.   In terms of my top attachments in life, I would say this retreat is going to be challenging at least three of my top ten:

Privacy: I have lived alone for over 25 years now.  And I like it.  I like it a lot.  Yes, that probably does make me a bit selfish and spoiled.  Except for on the weekends when the boyfriend is here, I am free to keep my own schedule, to clean up or not according to my whims,  and essentially do whatever I damn well please without having to worry about its impact on another human being.  During the retreat I will probably be sharing a room with someone.  Someone I can’t even speak to so as to take away some of the awkwardness of sharing a room with a stranger (the retreat is silent, remember?).   Plus, there is only one bathroom on the floor, so who the hell knows how crowded that will be.  (Yes, I have issues about doing certain bodily functions in public restrooms – and while this is not exactly public, I will be sharing it with complete strangers so it might as well be.)

Comfort: If I have a choice about challenging myself physically, chances are I’ll choose not to.  I know that in addition to three hours (!) of walking meditation a day, that there will be a lot of hiking around the hilly grounds, and who knows what other physical challenges await me.

Routine: While I don’t think of myself as a highly structured person,  I do have my routines.  And something that is definitely NOT part of my routine is getting up at the crack o’ dark.  According to the material I’ve read about Spirit Rock’s retreats is that the first sitting starts at 6:00 am!  Also, they are adhering to a very healthy eating schedule where the main meal is at lunch, and instead of an actual dinner around dinner time (for me 8:00-ish), there will be a “light supper at 5:30”.  What the hell?  At least there are are no prohibitions about bringing food, so I’ll be heading over to Trader Joe’s to stock up on energy bars, nuts and fruits.

The close to four hours a day of sitting meditation doesn’t scare me, nor does the silence.  I’m good with all that.  I’m looking forward to deepening my concentration and seeing what crops up from the darkest regions of my mind amidst all this silence. So, that’s where I should be focusing my attention instead of sitting around freaking myself out.  So yay! I’m going on retreat (she says with questionable enthusiasm)

OK, I need to stop thinking about this for now.  Instead, let me share with you Sasquatch’s trip to the groomers:

Virtuous confusion

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Back when I was in the NKT (New Kadampa Tradition) it was highly discouraged to read other Buddhist authors other than Geshe-la, or to take teachings from other traditions. If you did you were deemed a “mixer” and therefore not serious about your spiritual path. And while there was no written rule to this effect, once you got past the introductory programs, it was became pretty evident. The reason for this, we were told, was that it would divert us from the path that Geshe-la very clearly delineated in his books and study programs, and in general would just confuse us.

And you know what? They were absolutely right. Ever since I have started reading other Buddhist authors and exploring other traditions, I am confused. Which is refreshing. And disquieting. Refreshingly disquieting. Definitely not comfortable.

There was great comfort in my good fortune to happen upon Kadampa Buddhism and the very clearly laid out teachings. I will be forever grateful for their study programs which gave me such a good grounding in basic Buddhist principles. The fact that it was a fairly rigorous study program appealed to me and played to my strengths. I’ve always been a bit of a smarty pants. I catch on to intellectual concepts very easily, and can piece them together with other concepts to get a sense of the bigger picture. I’m good that way. With physical endeavors, not so much. But sitting on my ass thinking about shit? Oh bring it on, baby.

The method of meditation that I learned combined analytical contemplation with placement meditation. In other words, we would be meditating on an idea we had learned in our studies. In the analytical part of the contemplation we would deeply consider the topic, compare it with our own experience, use our imagination, etc. Once we had gotten to the object of the meditation – a determination or conclusion – we would focus on our mind on that single-pointedly, trying to deepen that feeling or thought and taking it from a merely intellectual construct to something we know in our heart. Our basic practice was Lam Rim – aka, the stages of the path – and by doing our round of the 21 meditations we would become deeply familiar with all the stages of the path to enlightenment. And while by doing this practice for a decade I definitely have a good grounding in the Buddhist path, but I think like many of my friends and others I have known in the NKT, I got a bit too fascinated by the map, and lost sight of the ultimate destination – enlightenment.

My new teacher, Anam Thubten, is not big on categorizing himself in terms of tradition. He’s slippery, that one. But, he keeps hitting home the point that we have to go beyond mere concepts because on the other side, there lies enlightenment. Great. Awesome. Count me in. I loves me some Heart Sutra. Yet, when I sit down to meditate and try to let go on my concepts, well . . . I just end up focusing on my breathing, which isn’t the point either.

So, since I seem to be lacking in any kind of practice of awareness or mindfulness, I decided to take an six week Introduction to Vipassana course at out Spirit Rock. Spirit Rock and Vipassana feels worlds away from the my experience in Tibetan traditions. So, there was a part of me that was desperately trying to fit what the young, very soft-spoken teacher was saying with what I already knew. I even mentally rolled our eyes when he asked us to lay on the floor and do an exercise I consider more a part of yoga than I do Buddhism. Oh lordy, aware of my body? I don’t do body awareness, thank you very much. May I get back in my head, please?

But, I’m staying open and giving it a try. It’s just another facet of the jewel that I haven’t explored yet. I need to suspend my judgment, and just let the questions arise and not stress out when the answers don’t come.

How not to meditate

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Back when I was teaching meditation, I used to give my students the following advice on establishing a meditation practice:

  • Find a quiet, private place where you won’t be interrupted during your meditation time
  • Try to avoid meditating in the comfy chair or couch – those places seem to be more conducive for naps or watching TV than for keeping the alert, focused mind needed for meditation. Optimally, you should sit on the floor on a cushion.

I’ve never been particular good at following directions, not even my own.

My meditation practice waxes and wanes depending on what time I wake up and when I have to be to work. Morning meetings wreak havoc on my practice. And when I do my morning meditation, I probably do not choose the optimal conditions, but I doubt I would have it any other way.

This morning I had enough time to meditate. So, after I had my cup of coffee (otherwise I can’t focus worth a crap) I wandered into the sun-room and plopped myself down in the comfy chair that overlooks the avocado & peach trees. Wrapping myself in my slanket, I check my posture and start to settle in. Within a couple of minutes, here comes Alaska. He jumps up and for a minute or two stands awkwardly on my lap and then finally settles down. Being such a fragile old chap these days, he is so light that his presence doesn’t really disturb what concentration I have been able to muster.

Breathing in, breathing out, watching my mind as it starts to wander away, bored with the breath. Come back here you silly mind, settle down. Breathing in, breathing out, ah that’s better . . . th-thunk!

Sasquatch has an amazing ability to know when I am trying to meditate. After the characteristic th-thunk! of him jumping off the bed, there will follow the sound of 29 pounds of cat trundling towards my chair. I am braced for his leap onto the arm of the chair and his eventually settling in with his upper body on my chest. He and Alaska greet each other as brothers with a nice head lick and then jostle for position. Eventually we are all still again. Breathing in, breathing out (but a little less fully with 40 pounds of feline on top of me) , the mind once again starts to settle and . . . OUCH! Mr. Binkles! The rabbit has decided he wants in on the action and starts scratching at my leg for attention.

Both cats give up and jump down. Apparently my lack of concentration is disturbing their meditation. And with the cats gone, Mr. Binkles goes about his business and leaves me alone. Taking a quick glance at my clock, I see I have to wrap it up. So, I recite the Heart Sutra, do my dedications and I’m out of there.

Did I have a nice, deep meditation or profound spiritual experience. No, not really. But, I do get to practice patience and love, and there ain’t nothin’ wrong with that. It’s a lovely way to start a day.