Two weeks ago I returned from a ten-day meditation retreat that I did over New Year’s, from December 29th 1994 to January 8th 1995. The retreat was actually more like twelve days, if we include the day getting there and getting back; both travel days had activities scheduled at the retreat center, as well as the four-and-a-half-hour drive out to and back from Madera County, North of Fresno.
It was difficult to make the time off to go on the retreat. I have been saving my vacation time for a while, thinking that I would visit my older sister at her home in Switzerland this Fall. I have wanted to go and do this ten-day retreat ever since someone in a yoga class told me about it two-and-a-half-years ago, however, and I knew that it was time to go for it, to step into the fire of really living my interest in Buddhism. So, six months ago, when my friend Jules told me that she was going over New Year’s and asked me if I wanted to go too, I asked my work supervisors for the two weeks off. It ended up that one of the two weeks was vacation time but the other one was leave without pay, which was financially difficult.
The California Vipassana Center campus was in the woods in the middle of nowhere, near a lumber town called North Fork (“vipassana” is a Pali word that means “spiritual insight” – and Pali is an ancient Buddhist language, similar in function as Latin is to Catholicism). There were trees all around, on many mornings the paths showed signs of visits by deer, and hawks flew overhead of us.
It rained many days, sometimes torrentially (I didn’t realize that it was also raining torrentially on the coast until I got back), and it snowed some too, but several of the afternoons were soothing and warm. Nonetheless, what I usually wore, indoors or out, was boots, two or three pairs of socks, jeans with long underwear and padded knee-length shorts underneath, two tee-shirts and three sweatshirts, and a hat. I was not very active (my metabolism slowed down as the days wore on, as evidenced by needing half my usual food intake by the final day) and I feel cold easily anyway, but, wearing so many clothes, I felt comfortable while I was there. My nose did run and my throat got clogged up, so, I had either allergies or a chronic low-grade cold, the whole time that I was there, however.
Going there was like being a monk for two weeks. or like being in a non-violent prison. The schedule was to wake up at four am, sit in meditation for two hours, eat and rest, sit for three hours, eat lunch at eleven am, rest, sit meditation for four hours, eat fruit, sit for an hour, watch a video-tape discourse on Buddhist teaching and on the theory of meditation starring the head teacher guy from Burma, sit another half hour, optionally ask any questions we had for the assistant teachers (Americans), and then go to sleep, usually at around 9:15 pm. I followed my friend Cori’s pre-retreat advice, however, and, after the first two days, I slept through the first sitting, getting up at 6:15 am; those first two days, when I got up at four, I was tired and slow much of the day, but the other days, after nine hours sleep, I was, for the most part, sharp.
On arriving, we took Buddhist lay vows, not to kill, steal, lie, engage in “sexual misconduct,” or do one other thing, I forget what it was, while we were there. We were totally segregated by sex, which made easier to follow our additional promise to not act sexually in any way while there (something, I found out later, that almost all people failed miserably to abstain from, mentally, while sitting in meditation). We were also not allowed to leave an area comprising a few buildings and paths, not even to get anything from or put anything in our cars, which turned to be a rule that I came to appreciate; it made focusing on the mediation paramount and easier. We were not allowed to talk, make eye contact, gesture, or have physical contact with any other meditators, another rule that I came to appreciate for the same reason – although, people being people, there were plenty of little infractions. On the third night, for example, I talked for a while with a dude from my cabin who I had overheard telling the assistant teachers that he was considering leaving. I urged him to stick it out, which I am glad that I did. In general, I seemed to miss talking and I seem to have found any reason I could to ask questions of the assistant teachers and to go to the managers with little logistical problems.
I didn’t exercise the whole time there, which I missed, except for push-ups every other day and some walking. I could see, from their absence, how many good feelings I usually get from being mellowed out after anaerobic exercise (running and biking) and being pumped up by lifting weights.
The food was healthy vegetarian – cooked vegetables, brown rice, tofu, weird sauces and herbs, breakfast cereals, soups, potatoes, fruits, tea and milk, casseroles, etc. Sometimes I liked it, sometimes it made me gag, but most of the time I was happy just to have a break from wrestling with my wandering mind and I was so focused that I just ate it and concentrated with one-pointed mind on biting and chewing.
They had a tea out each day called “Smooth Move”, which was “a gentle herbal laxative”. I passed on both this enticing brew and the stewed prunes with lemon slices that were put out each morning, although both were generally popular. Maybe they were helping people to achieve the “free flow of energy” that the teachers kept talking about.
The accommodations were livable (hot and cold water, heaters, plenty of lights) but the showers were primitive (and sometimes gave only cold water) and the bed was hard, my shoulder felt tweaked many mornings. Everything they have there is given by donations or bought with donated money, however, so I was overall impressed with how nice things were, considering.
I was in a bunk cabin with five other dudes, all but one of them in their twenties and also first-time students. I hadn’t talked with any of them more than a few sentences before the vow of silence fell on the first night, and I wondered (and made stuff up) about them during the course. I shared a bunk bed with and sat in the meditation hall next to one guy, a big, brooding, athletic chicano dude. During the course, he looked to me to be angry and easily irritated, going through a lot of stuff and wishing that he wasn’t there. I was a little intimidated, and I tried not to rock the bunk bed too much getting comfortable before falling asleep. On the last day, however, when I finally talked to him for a while, I found him to be just a dopey, nice guy, who was happy that he had taken the course.
We learned three types of mediation while there. The first three-and-a-half days, we worked on a technique known as Anna-Panna Sati meditation, which is focusing attention on the breath as it enters and leaves the nostrils. The point of this is to focus the mind, to develop the facility of clarity and concentration that Buddhists call “Samadhi,” by releasing all distractions (other physical sensations, thoughts, the other people in the room) from our focus. At first, my mind raged and stormed, it was a torrential waterfall, I would be lost in thought, fantasy, aches and pains in my knees, plans and memories, wondering about the people around me, itching and fidgeting, and other distractions for five, ten, fifteen minutes before I remembered that I was trying to focus on my breath. Eventually, however, I “tamed the beast,” and I just let go of distractions and returned to my breath, without condemning the distractions or in any way pushing them away. My consciousness became a lake with shallow ripples, resting on the area right below my nose, for long stretches of time.
My mind occasionally returned to an experience of chaos and anxiety, although this happened less frequently as the days went on. Throughout the ten days, whenever I felt chaotic and needed concentration, I used the mediation technique of focusing my awareness on the breath.
While I eventually found Anna-Panna to be helpful, I was initially frustrated, because I came there not having had the best results in the past from working with breath-focusing techniques. Also, I had a certain expectation of what “Vipassana meditation” meant, and I thought that the Anna-Panna was their take on Vipassana. I was relieved when I realized the real order of affairs.
We learned a second technique, which the instruction introduced as “Vipassana meditation”, on the fourth day. This second technique involved bringing the consciousness through all of the sections of the body, part by part, sequentially (small parts – the top of one toe, a part of the scalp, the left eyelid, the back of the right bicep, etc.), and feeling the sensation that was there. We would try not to change any sensation, just allow it to be what it is. If the area was blank and unresponsive or was intensely painful (as my knees and upper back often were) we were instructed to remain in the area for a while and just feel (or wait there, undemandingly and with equanimity, waiting for a feeling). We swept down the body, and then turned around and went back up again. There were also advanced instructions and variations on the technique that I would take a while to try to explain.
My first sweep of consciousness through my entire body took me hours, and the experience was of intense pain and anxiety. Over the days of the retreat, however, I grew to be faster and more familiar with sweeping my awareness through my entire body, and I grew to find performing the technique grew to be pleasant. The basic point that we were taught was: to get out of our rational thinking, to keep on with the practice whatever experience we are having, to feel all sensations in the body with detachment and equanimity, to feel pain and unpleasantness without avoiding it, and to feel pleasure without grabbing after it or trying to hold on to it.
The last technique, called Metta-Panna (Love Meditation), was one that we learned cursorily on the last day, and it involved consciously ending our meditation by wishing to all beings in the universe whatever peace and equanimity of mind that we experience in mediation, and love and good fortune in a broad sense. So, you being a being in the universe, I wish you the peace and love of a meditative state, and also love and good fortune in a broad sense.
I sat on cushions with my legs extended and my back against a post or the wall some of the time, but, most of the time, I knelt, with a cushion or a wooden bench supporting my butt. I have an injured right knee, a partially torn arterial crutiate ligament from a year ago, and it and also my other knee would hurt like crazy. I think that I developed much strength of mind by keeping on with moving my attention up and down my body, keeping focused despite the pull of these pains, and also despite the pull of sleepy foggy sensations, body itches, the noises made by people in the room, thoughts, and other such distractions. Sometimes my knees would hurt so much, sometimes people would be very noisy, one time a bug crawled into my ear, but I kept on with wherever in my body sweep that I was; this ended up bringing a great amount of bliss. On the seventh day, I sat basically still (my only large movements were to periodically sit up straight) for two-and-a-half hours straight; for the last hour of that sit, I was in great physical pain, but also great spiritual joy.
I suppose that I could have taken Ibuprofin to reduce pain and swelling in my knees, but this would have mellowed out many of my intense physical sensations, so, since meditation necessarily involves working with pain with a skillful consciousness, I felt that I would have been wasting my time on the cushion. I was a little worried that my knees would be damaged, but my knees always ended up fine after a little walking-it-off, and they are fine now. So, this worry turned out to be typical of the tricks that the mind pulls during meditation in an attempt to hold on to its power.
A truism about mediation is that it dethrones the mind as master of the organism and makes it just another component, a tool of the whole, and that the mind will put up a vicious and uncompromising fight to avoid losing the throne. William James said something to the effect of that the aim of life is to make our central nervous system work for us rather than against us, Alan Watts said we need to “get out of our own way,” both of which I agree with, but I know people whose minds, their interpretive and goal-achievement-seeking psychic structures, may just about kill the host organism rather than give up control. It is clear to me that, in some ways, my mind is on the side of my organism, it is a powerful part that contributes effectively to the whole, but, in some ways, the only thing my mind seems to look out for is itself, and it in some ways seems to not care whether the rest of me is healthy or not.
I did often have a fear come up of becoming passive and weak by engaging meditation and Buddhism, and I don’t really know if this is a tricky lie of the ego-mind, saying “you can’t survive without me being in control,” or whether it’s a valid fear. Many people that I see involved in Eastern paths strike me as passive and frightened at life, trying to opt out of the game out of fear of losing the game, trying codependently to develop some transcendently-supermoral “loving-kindness” and to do the right, morally pure thing out of fear. I see lots of people scared of emotion and the hustle-bustle of the real world. I don’t want to be a person like that, and I am frightened of being so. Also, some people whose opinions I respect are somewhat critical of meditation for these reason.
On the other hand, many Buddhist teachers and masters do seem to me to be radiant, strong, naturally loving, fluid, effective, clear, peaceful, powerful beings, as do many other non-weak students. They seem to have a clarity and detachment combined with a dynamic aliveness which is attractive, and, I find myself, as they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, “wanting what they’ve all got”. I have also seen myself go through meditative and other Buddhist practices with dubiousity, and emerge on the other side strengthened (although the strength that I get is a relaxed, receptive, being, strength, rather than a RAWWWR sort of strength). Also, the whole theory of how meditation works, also, is basically cogent and believable for me.
Perhaps one answer is that one develops an ego and then transcends it; the idea is, first you “conquer” the world, then you renounce your conquest. One does the unnatural and difficult, one first goes out on dates, does job interviews, learns computer skills and foreign languages, memorized facts and procedures, and then one lets go and does what is natural. First one needs to learn to thrive in this plane of time-and-space and the demands implicit therein, and then one can be relaxed and cosmic about the press of those demands. Those that try to transcend before succeeding in the battle of life do so prematurely. But if this is so, should I be doing anger release and goal-achievement workshops instead of meditating, should I be trying to learn skills and be active politically and vocationally, trying to be stronger, more skillful and achieving, and save the Buddhism for when I am forty? I really do not have an answer for that question.
One piece of theory that makes sense to me in explaining the whole Buddhist meditation trip (and one that I learned in a Humanistic Psych course my senior year at UCSC) is as follows : there are two modes of consciousness, the receptive and the goal-focused. The receptive makes no demands on phenomena, it accepts all as it is, it is the more comfortable of the two, it is just aware of how things are without agitation, it is how one feels while falling asleep or while relaxing in a hot tub after a full day of physical work – you can think of people that don’t like you or important tasks left undone but it doesn’t perturb your peace, somehow it is all ok and will all work out. Getting to this mode of consciousness is a central point of alcohol and drugs. The goal-focused mode, however, does not accept reality as it is, it feels a deficit to things as they currently are, it thinks in terms of better-worse and right-wrong, it is striving towards something that is currently not present, and its extreme manifestations could occur during an antagonistic argument or right before an externally-imposed deadline – one feels incomplete, one feels a need to change something. My psych teacher said that his take on Buddhism was that meditators are trying to achieve a receptive state of consciousness at all times, even while arguing or while struggling with a deadline or doing anything else. That makes sense to me, and seems like a laudable goal that I feel good about committing myself to.
A different issue: the meditation teachers wanted us to become viscerally aware of certain Buddhist teachings through the meditative process. For example, they asked us to notice what are known as the “three attributes” of reality: Anicha (everything, mental or physical, inside of me or outside, is impermanent, constantly rising and passing away), Anata (there is no ultimate “self” or soul beyond physical and mental processes), and Dukkha (human reality, conditioned by experience, is suffused with suffering). I didn’t notice those three attributes naturally, and I didn’t want to *try* to do notice them, that seems to me to be the opposite of the meditative mode of consciousness. I got a little irked with the lengthy meditation instructions that kept telling us to look for these things. It seemed like Buddhist fundamentalism, contrary to the Buddhist teaching of trusting one’s phenomenological experience over metaphysical religious dogmas.
One insight that I did naturally have is as to what was strongest and most frequent in pulling my attention away from the objects of meditation. It seems clear that I have strong mental attachments to fantasies about being a rock star, thinking about rock stars and bands, theorizing about why I am behaving and feeling as I am, and also sexual fantasies (the whole retreat, I continuously checked out the female side of the room – but then again many other people seemed said to me later that they had done plenty of out-checking themselves). It became clear to me, experientially, that I am not running these habits of mind, that they are often running me, and that my attachment to them *uses* me and is not healthy for me-as-organism (as opposed to me-as-self-image).
Sitting on the cushion, hour after hour, my mind wandered plenty, sometimes it would be gone off on a thought, plan, memory, and analysis for fifteen minutes before I remembered that I was supposed to be trying to meditate. What was nice is that I had little sense of “I’ve failed” when this happened, and I had little analysis or searching back as to why I had wandered off – I just returned to my technique without anything added. This made me happy, because, many times in the past, while trying to maintain a meditative witness-consciousness, I have been rigidly self-critical and self-punitive when my mind has wandered. The first day of learning each technique (i.e. days one and four) were difficult and painful, I was often trying to force the technique to work, but, especially towards the end, I was more and more able to be in a receptive state of consciousness, just letting the mind-body process happen, as it wished, just watching it without needing it to be any certain way. I was not being a frantic swimmer swept up and down and almost drowned with each passing wave, I was instead just being the big fish, watching the waves bob up and down. I just calmly and serenely swept my awareness up and down through my body, the same way each time: I felt like I had removed the drunken-monkey ego-mind, with its compulsive drivenness and its demand that it get its way and that I do whatever jumps in my mind to do and that I think about whatever it jumps in my mind to think about.
I rarely slept well while on retreat, and I often woke to intense, vivid, emotional dreams, especially towards the end (which was a time when many “impurities” of consciousness were boiling off of me each day as I sat on the cushion). These dreams were not nightmares, they were not terrifying, but they were unpleasant, disquieting, wrong somehow. Many of them were starkly sexual.
At the end of the retreat, the vow of silence was lifted, as we were allowed to chat and connect with the other people who had been on the retreat with us. In the first thirty-six hours that moment, I was super-high, euphorically happy. I felt my awareness anchored in my body, I was keeping the meditative awareness sweeping up and down my body, as I finally talked to many of the other people from the course, male and female. I was funny and personable and charming, they were funny and personable and charming, everyone was funny and personable and charming. I finally talked to the other people in my bunk, Alvin the brooder, Alex who wanted to leave, and the other two. I also finally talked to my Vipassana crushes – the women I had repeatedly checked out during the sitting sessions. And all the other people on the course that I talked to were interesting, to a person – a stripper, dead heads, yoga teachers, a former hipster from Berlin, a karate super-black belt, cult members, and, mostly, nice groovy personal-growthy people. I felt in a let-go mood, not interested in making friends, a little burnt out and overwhelmed, missing my friends back at home. So, despite having gone through the war with these people, I didn’t exchange numbers with many people.
The course was “free of charge”, but they do ask for donations from old students (people who have completed at least one previous course), to help fund future students courses. On the last day, I became an old student, and I gave my donation. I figured that what I was basically doing was paying for my stay, and I had heard that it costs them about $175 per student per ten-day course, so I gave them $200. I asked one of the managers, and she said that a couple people gave $1000, a few $500, and some gave $20, some $50.
There was one homeless man on the course, I wonder how much he gave. During the retreat, I had judgments about this guy: he seemed like a weird-o to me, emotionally troubled, constantly fidgiting, and not following the instructions and rules. I steered clear of him, and avoided all eye contact both before and after the vow of silence was lifted. Then, on the car ride back, I found out that he was a homeless man that another meditator had brought because he (Mr. Homeless) is trying to get his shit together and turn his life around. I felt terrible, and wished that I had talked with him. Finding that out about him changed my perception of him instantly.
On the car ride back to Santa Cruz (to drop off two friends) and then over the hill to Menlo Park, I kept my attention moving through my body, keeping on with the meditative technique that I had been doing for the week and a half, and I felt relaxed and mellow. I gave a ride there and back to a man who was a friend of my friend Jules (who I also drove); driving to the meditation, right after two tough weeks, I couldn’t stand the man, he seemed to me to be full of himself, immature, and impolite to me, and I felt clear I didn’t want to drive him back. But, then, miracle of miracles, upon leaving, I found the man to funny and warm and I felt full of love for him, my brother in meditation and in humanity. I believe that this change was a result of the purifying, centering effect of the meditation technique on both me and on him.
The Burmese teacher that we watched on video tapes and who is the grand poobah for this meditation center and for twenty or thirty others around the world is named S.N. Goenka. He is a charismatic, formerly successful businessman who turned from a superficial Hinduism to making his life revolve around Buddhism when meditation cured him of the debilitating headaches that he suffered at the height of his wealth. On the positive, his lectures were genuinely funny and inspiring and guiding and informative. He seemed to have an advanced and accurate view of the work and the joy involved in the meditative path, which he communicated wonderfully. Also, the way that he set up his centers showed a great deal of wisdom as to what is needed by meditators – I felt a trust that he and the people running the place knew what they were doing, I felt taken care of.
On the down side, I felt like he is mildly fundamentalist. He claimed to have nothing against other religions, but he seemed to constantly diss them in little (although funny and, usually, accurate) ways. He also seemed to have a weird messianic thing about his specific lineage of Burmese Buddhism being the only true branch of Buddhism. One more problem that I had was that, in addition to his inspirational talks and his easily comprehendible stories and analogies, he threw out lots and lots of ancient Buddhist mental theory and terminology, the twelve co-arising thises and the five impure thats, much of which I was already familiar with, but that I thought would be a turn-off for a beginning student and much of which seemed inappropriately introduced as absolute Truth.
His lectures and the set-up of the camp involved much focus on morality. His philosophy, as he stated it, is that meditative practice can only really bloom and is only really a help to the individual and the society if it is in the context of morality. At first I balked a little, I live in the post-modern, relativistic, post-Nietzsche age, where we all know that morality is arbitrary and repressive. After some time, however, I grew to find the emphasis on morality inspirational. I realized that the Buddhist precepts of morality, far from being repressive, actually serve to make me feel better about myself, more able to look people in the eye, and are ways of being that I feel good knowing that other people in relationship and community with me are attempting to follow. Also, the continuous emphasis on giving and donating of my time, energy, and money (“dana”), rather than being irritating and guilt-inducing, as it has often felt for me in Christian contexts, left me feeling inspired and uplifted. Perhaps it is because I genuinely feel an alliance with Buddhism, and genuinely feel like it gives to me, which makes me feel like I genuinely want to give from out of that emotional abundance.
I was fascinated with the American people who seemed to be making this meditative path/organization/community the primary focus of their life, i.e. the assistant teachers, the long-time students, and some of the senior volunteer staff. They seemed to view all the rest of life from the primary viewpoint of this Buddhist sect’s teachings, many of them had taken several month-long retreats and courses and teacher-training courses, they all called Senor Goenka “Goenka-Ji” (Indian for something like “Sir Goenka” or “respected Goenka”), they all meditated daily, they all seemed pretty sure of where they were going (enlightenment) and to what their primary commitment was (the organization). Before the retreat, I imagine that I would have found such a level of commitment to be creepy or cult-like, but I actually found it to be inspiring, like a heartfelt generosity and commitment evolving out of a heartfelt gratitude to the meditative technique and the Goenka Vipassana organization (and Goenka, personally). I envied their certainty, but I doubted that I ever could or would want to match it. I’ve seen too many divergent paths that all seem to get me free and functional to fall so totally in love with one. I do hope to continue my involvement with Vipassana meditation, perhaps with this organization, perhaps with others (The Spirit Rock Center in Marin, the International Buddhist Meditation Center in L.A., maybe some of the Zen centers around the Bay Area), but I doubt that I’ll ever be as uni-focussed as these folks were. Actually, who knows who I’ll be when I’m forty? Maybe I’ll be super-devoted to one spiritual or psychological path.
Seeing these people also makes me think how in this fractured, post-modern era, with a loss of any over-arching, compulsive philosophy or religion, everyone seems to find their own little community of belief, and often picture themselves as some of the few elect who have found meaning, who have found a refuge from the storm. People find their regular twelve-step meetings, their farmer’s collective, their Christian church, their Junior League, their renaissance revival group, their academic sub-specialty (with its conferences and journals), their union, their Scientology center, their musical subculture, their tattoo-biker crowd, their Unte-Reader-idea-discussion-salon, their Elk’s club, their therapy group, their E.S.T./Landmark center, the crowd at their favorite bar, their group of deadheads, their sports team fans, their extended biological family, their gun-rights grassroots political action cell, their Star Trek fan club, their meditation organization, their political activist organization … you get the idea. It constantly amazes me how the people around me all seem to find their little religious-philosophical community that gives their life meaning, their little “us, in contrast with the world” group (although I believe that most groups that I mentioned don’t have a confrontational attitude literally), and how little people seem to realize that other people find their little oasis of social support and philosophical meaning to life in a different manner (or even that other people do so successfully at all).
Well, enough out-there intellectual analysis. One other thing that was interesting was a dude from South India, to whom I gave a ride to the center (he got my name and number and the fact that I was willing to give a ride from the Center staff). I liked him a lot, I found him interesting, intelligent, and polite. He said that he was surprised when he came to America, to further his career as a programmer, at how impolite, money-and-career-minded, and hurried-not-leisurely-or-relaxed Americans seemed to be, in contrast with Indians. I can believe it. We talked on the way there, and he got a ride from someone else back, I would have been bummed to have lost his company had I not been too relaxed and centered to get bummed out about much. It was fascinating to me that he was Indian but devoutly Christian and that I am an American, interested and engaged with Hinduism and Buddhism. I wasn’t sure if he would balk at the meditation and the attendant teachings, his being quite Christian and all, and (without reacting or losing composure) I watched my mind run that concerned thought during the days I was sitting on the cushion. The man told me that he ended up loving the meditation, however; he said that he saw it as a great discovery as to how to actualize the teachings and example of Jesus Christ (I imagine that he came from a tradition with a less restrictive interpretation of the Bible than that of many American churches). He told me that he respected my background in Buddhism, which had me feeling honored, and asked me how he could continue his exploration of Buddhist meditation. I told him that I would help him to locate books, classes, and groups, if he really wanted, but I told him that I felt that his life would be better if he learned some about western psychology, to learn how to communicate, have fun, and generally rock out, seeing as how he was already peaceful, introspective, and polite. He laughed and agreed with me and told me he appreciated my insight into him, which, again, had me feeling honored.
I expected to feel euphoric, connected, empowered, and happy when I returned home, as I often do after personal-growth workshops, sweat lodges, or other such experiences. I didn’t, however. Immediately upon returning home, I felt calm and centered, but also aware at how my centered consciousness was being pulled away by all sorts of distractions, which scared me; I didn’t want to have worked so diligently only slip painfully back into all of my lazy and destructive habits of distracted and uncentered mind. The world seemed too busy, aggressively-marketed billboards by the side of the road seemed obscene, people seemed disingenuous and superficial, rock music seemed too frenetic and noisy, and my home seemed filled with too much crap – too many bright and busy posters, CDs, books, clothes, papers, appliances.
[Not literally my house – but kind of how it seemed to me]
Being back at my house on a rainy Sunday afternoon , after being around people for so long, I felt lonely. This was exacerbated by the fact that I had zero e-mail messages awaiting my return (I later found out that my email’s server had been down while I was gone). My heart was warmed by the many phone messages full of love waiting for me, however, which maybe I created for myself by the warm e-mail messages and Christmas cards that I sent out right before leaving for the retreat.
My blues evaporated immediately when I got back to work. I found myself extraordinarily centered, and I saw a new, focused way of being at work that I can’t remember having ever seen possible before. I knew that I couldn’t remain that peaceful the rest of my life, it probably wouldn’t be a permanent and total change, but seeing the possibility was inspiring. Again, I was the big fish, far below the ocean’s surface, calmly and dispassionately watching the waves violently crash up and down, rather than the drowning swimmer, desperately holding on as the next wave crashed in on me.
As always, some people at work and in the rest of my life would be pleasant and some people would be dismissive or passive-aggressive, and I was feeling it all as mildly interesting, minorly impactful on my inner peace. I felt my centeredness and peace disappear, little by little, with each spacing out on some mental exercise or with each unpleasant conversation, but also to deepen with each work-task completed and with each pleasant conversation. Generally, however, for much of that first week, especially the first two days, I felt a warm and powerful peace that was far beyond the vagrancies of the moment.
I am glad to be back in my everyday life – going to work, cooking my own food, lifting weights running and yoga, music and reading, friends and dating, and emotional and psychological issues – even though some of my bad habits of mind have returned, and even though I am nowhere near as centered, clear, relaxed, filled with spiritual love, naturally morality-minded, and resistant to the little addictions and other compulsive behaviors that make me unhappy as I was immediately after the course ended.
I feel significantly more of those positive qualities than I did before the retreat, however, and the last two weeks have been filled with even more victories, clarity, and good feelings that my life is normally filled with. It is clear to me that the benefits of meditation, which are many and are, with effort, powerful, are not garnered just from one ten-day retreat; like anything else in life, i.e. having friends, breathing, physical exercise, etc., meditation seems to involve constant practice as long as I am alive. I have made it a point to do some formal sitting since getting back (i.e. four hours last weekend) and have been focusing on my breath as I drive or fall asleep, focusing on the soles of my feet as I walk, and doing other such remembrance practices. I feel like doing the retreat renewed my faith in meditation and also in my life, both of which, I can see on this side of the experience, were dimmed (and are probably dimmer now then what is possible and optimal and what they will be for me in the future).
There is a Buddhist meditation teacher who teaches in Los Angeles named Shinzen Young who I have been listening to teach on audio tape. He says the following about meditation (and I think that his little model here also applies to the process of psychotherapy and other similar pursuits): what most people do when confronted by the slings and arrows of life is to tighten up and turn away. This works for a while, we can tighten our muscles, make our breathing shallow, deny that we care about issues, say that it is all the other person’s fault, and otherwise pull the defensive shit that we are all so familiar with. Being closed and defensive works – to a point. But, after a too much of this, we are all tight and rigidly defended, miserably half-alive, covered with an armored shell that is itself covered with the shit that’s been defending ourselves from.
What meditation does is to teach someone to do the opposite of tightening up and turning away; instead, one opens up and turns towards the shit (disappointments, other people’s hostility, other difficulties) as it flies in. Eventually, one becomes so open that the shit hits and slides right off, there is no pain or suffering, i.e. an enlightened person is so open and fluid that nothing in life tightens them up. For most of us, though, we spend most of our time in an awkward intermediate stage, where we are doing our best to open up to and turn towards the shit as it flies in, no longer tightening up and turning away – but, it hits us dead on as we struggle to open up all the way and it *hurts*. I have felt myself going between all three states since returning: so open that it all slides right by, opening but feeling the sting of life, and tight armored and defensive too.
I guess that one of the primary signs of what the course did for me has been how generous I have felt since returning. I have managed to resist many of my spontaneously-arising kind-hearted impulses that I have felt, but I have, for example, felt naturally compelled to buy an excellent book on meditation that I received as a gift years ago (“JOURNEY OF AWAKENING” by Ram Dass) for various friends who I think might appreciate it. I have also felt inspired to provide information about the course to various friends and family members, telling them honestly what I think that they would get out of it, and to write this testimonial of my experience (which is by far the longest thing that I have ever written to be sent out over the Internet). If you have read this far, then I sincerely thank you for your interest and in your taking the time to read my writing. I hope that it clarified something for you or provided you with some vicarious life-experience.