Tag Archives: silent retreat

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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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.

. . . 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.

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.

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