Tag Archives: retreat

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.

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.

Endless comparisons

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One of the insights I realized while at last month’s meditation retreat (they don’t call it Insight Meditation for nothin’), was that I spend a lot of mental time comparing and judging.   It’s a strong tendency for me.  For others, they may spend their time reformulating the past, or strategizing their future.  But for me, my mind falls into a well-established groove of constantly checking on how I measure up with others, or how others aren’t measuring up to my standards.

I guess that’s really the difference between comparing and judging: when I compare, there are two distinct subjects – myself and others, with the myself part of that equation being quite strong and explicit.  Whereas in judging, the I is more implicit.  The I sits in judgment of others. I assume that my I is correct and is the supreme arbiter of all that is good and right in this world.   So, for example, at my retreat, since a big part of my identity is the idea that I’m sincere spiritual practitioner (I know, I know, I’m missing the point) I found myself comparing myself to my co-retreatants in terms of their ability to sit still, stay awake during the sitting and the level of knowledge displayed during the Q&A sessions.  And while this mind could have focused itself on those whose performance and knowledge were superior to mine, my ego prefered to focus on those people to whom I felt superior.   And then there were those with whom I couldn’t compete at all, in particular, the young, nubile yoga chicks in their stretchy tight pants and impossibly firm buttocks. My I (or my butt) was not even in the competition, yet I felt completely free to judge them as being shallow or there for the wrong reasons or having an eating disorder.  My mind was not kind to the yoga chicks.

Of course, at their core, both of these minds, the comparing and judging minds, come from the same place.  From a Buddhist perspective, one would say that source is the self-grasping mind that sees the I as quite real, and therefore develops all sorts of machinations to prop up and make this I feel good (self-cherishing).   But, from a less intellectual  and more gut level perspective, you can say these minds arise from insecurity, a fear or belief that I’m simply not enough.

But, it’s one thing to recognize this, it’s quite another to reduce the volume or silence this constant chatter in my head.  Lately, though, I’m trying to challenge those voices.  For me, the comparing mind can be quite insidious and keeps me locked in what is safe and known, because it wants to be in situations where it can feel superior.  So, I’ve started taking a writing workshop, Writing from Real Life – Personal Essay Workshop.  The very idea of sharing my work and taking criticism from real flesh and blood people who are in the same room as I am is absolutely terrifying. But, as my teacher, Alison Luterman said, when we get to a certain age, we have to start doing stuff that scares us.  So, in taking this class, I’ll be challenging my comparing mind.  Or at the very least, having some amusing conversations with it.  Perhaps even challenging it to a debate.  And hopefully, one day, having realized that I am indeed enough, telling it to shut the hell up.

A big step

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It’s been a while since I’ve written anything about my spiritual quests.  I mean,  originally, way back when, that was sort of the point of this whole blog.  I even named it Stumbling Along The Path to imply that this blog would be about one woman’s foibles as she pursues a spiritual path, a Buddhist path, a path to enlightenment even.   I documented my life both in, but mostly out of the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT).  Since I left the NKT about a year and a half ago, I’ve been seeing different teachers and traditions, though nothing steady.  When I stumbled out of the NKT I was left somewhat bruised and a little wary.  While it didn’t stop me from continuing along the path,  my steps were a bit more tentative.  I didn’t want to start plodding along another path until I was fairly certain of where  it would lead.

Today, however, I’ve taken a big step.  You see, I’ve been flirting with Theravadan Buddhism for a while now.  I took a series of classes in Vipassana meditation last year, and would, when I could find parking (that is another post all together) go to teachings in Berkeley.  And then a few weeks back, on quite the spur of the moment,  I signed up for the first of three ten-week classes at Spirit Rock called “Essential Dharma”.   And while I have not been as diligent about doing the homework and readings as I probably should be, I do appreciate having that weekly obligation that keeps me engaged in my practice.   I’ve found without some structure, it becomes far too easy for me to stray from any practice at all.

But today, I finally dove in and signed up for a week-long residential retreat out at Spirit Rock. Silent retreat.  Getting up at the crack of dawn retreat.  Sharing a room with a complete stranger and a communal bathroom down the hall retreat.  I’m equal parts excited and nervous.  I’m nervous because adhering to a rigid early morning schedule is not my thing, and especially a little scared of not having access to any means of escape from my own mind.  No computers, no phone, no TV, no idle chatter.  But, I am excited about the prospect of being able to really deepen my practice and develop my concentration.

Back in my NKT days, I used to tell people that I was going “on retreat” when I was going to an NKT Festival.  I think it was just easier that way.  If I had told them I  was going to a “festival” I would have to explain how being stuck in a moldy hotel in the Catskills or priory in Northern England was in any way festive.  But, while we were all sequestered away from the “real” world for a period of time, retreating in our own way, it was far from austere and contemplative.   And yes, I did do the Vajrayogini retreat where I spent two of the weeks alone and fairly concentrated, but I was in the comfort of my own home, my protective cocoon.  So, this coming retreat feels like it will be my first real, serious meditation retreat.

I trust I will be in good hands.   Unlike in the NKT where your teacher may have less experience than you in terms of practice, the teachers at Spirit Rock have been around the practice for a very long time, and are very experienced in leading retreats.  So, when my head starts to explode, I feel safe that I’ll get good counsel from one of the retreat leaders.

Now, if I can only get over my fear of communal bathrooms, I think I’ll be all right.

You gotta have faith? Part 3

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So, where did I leave off? Oh, yes. I believe I had burst into tears yet again over my struggles with faith. Yet, a kind monk showed me that this blackness in my mind was just a passing storm and could easily be placated with a good thrashing about the head with a dharma book and some chocolate. But, something definitely had shifted.

When I got back home from the bliss bubble that is Festival, I started taking my practice quite seriously. While I had been a dharma student for nine years, it didn’t mean my meditation practice was particularly stable. I kinda figured if I meditated 2-3 times a week at class, I was good to go. But, now I was trying to get in some serious meditation everyday. I also took up a simple daily purification practice, which surprised the hell out of even myself. Purification was one of those concepts I had definitely put on the back burner because I simply didn’t buy into it. It seemed so . . . again, Catholic is the word that is coming up for me. Yet, without much ado, it felt like the right time to take it on.

It was also coming up to the time where people traditionally do some Vajrayogini retreat. The longest I’ve ever done is a week, and always considered doing the long 110,000 mantra retreat something I would have to put off until I was unemployed or retired. Yet, the crazy idea was going through my head that maybe I could pull it off this year if I could talk my friend John into doing it with me at his place. I couldn’t/wouldn’t want to do that month long retreat at the residential center in the city because a) I didn’t want to stay there because I had elderly, sickly cats at home b) I didn’t want to commute and c) many of my fellow practitioners annoy the hell out of me. However, when I posited the idea to John, he laughed and laughed and laughed. OK, OK I get it. My teacher, who was thrilled I was considering doing the retreat, suggested I just do it by myself at home. Wha? Me? The world’s laziest practitioner? That requires discipline! I don’t do discipline. Yet . . .

Somehow it all worked out, and I managed to complete my month-long retreat at home by myself. At times blissful, at times grueling. It was exhilarating, it was exhausting. It felt sacred, it felt banal. And at the end it felt like one of the biggest accomplishments of my life.

Coming soon – Part 4: the dharma center implodes.