It was 6 a.m. on the first morning of the retreat, and after a restless night’s sleep I was sitting on a wooden bench before a still farm pond, examining again my intention for being there. For several weeks I had been working on trying to listen to an all-too-familiar set of physical sensations, the tight, aching knot in my lower gut that seemed to be there every time I felt for it, and had been there as long as I could remember. When I was feeling particularly stressed or anxious it would become a ball of pain; other times it lingered on the edge of my awareness like an overworked muscle. A teacher at my Friday mindfulness group had suggested approaching unpleasant physical sensations like messengers, listening for what they might have to tell us. Every time I tried this, a similar result would occur: the knot would dissolve and move into my chest, shoulders and face, where it registered as a profound sadness. The sadness, however, seemed mysterious ; no matter how I tried to listen to it, it remained inscrutable. I had determined I would use my time on retreat to listen unrelentingly, to concentrate my awareness on this phenomenon until it yielded its secrets.
As I sat in the deep stillness near the wooded pond, a silence broken only by the sound of squirrels skittering on the trees and the clank of a recycling truck making a stop at the farmstead across the pond, I spoke inwardly to the knot in my gut. “Whatever you have to say to me, I’m ready to listen,” I said. “Speak.”
The bell in the cinderblock tower of the Christine Center rang, calling us to 7 a.m. yoga. After yoga came breakfast, featuring bowls of granola and a fruit salad of strawberries and melons. I tried to eat mindfully, feeling the grit of the granola against my teeth and the silken sweetness of each piece of fruit as it settled on my tongue. The tastes, textures, colors – it all seemed movingly beautiful, and I was surprised at the emotion a simple breakfast could arouse.
* * * *
As luck would have it, one of our first exercises at the morning practice session was listening to physical sensations, questioning whether the beliefs we held about our bodies were true. Once again, I sat and allowed my awareness to settle in the dull ache in my abdomen. The connection was strong this time, and the resolution to sadness was nearly overwhelming. I simply didn’t know what to do with it; it seemed too big to contain, and its only response to my silent, bewildered questioning was the brute fact of its presence.
Tears began to wet my cheeks. I paired up with Liz, who sat beside me for most of the retreat, for the dyad discussion that followed the exercise. I wish I could remember what she shared about her experience; I was taken up with managing my emotions, trying not to fall apart completely as I tried to describe what was going on. She seemed a little taken aback at first but listened with patience and concern.
Katherine, the retreat leader, closed the session by saying that difficult things could come up on retreat, and if we wished to talk to a teacher during our private time, a couple of them had volunteered. I made my way over to Janice, and asked if she had time. We went through the hallway into the suite of offices and conference rooms in the center building, where one of the nuns offered to let us use a small meeting room.
I told Janice about my morning’s experience, and how it was a very strong version of a pattern I had noticed sitting with these sensations before. After inquiring whether I’d had medical attention and knew my knot wasn’t a physical problem, she asked, “Mark, on a scale of 1 to 100, how ready are you to open up to what your body is trying to say?”
“I really want to know what’s going on,” I told her, “it’s one of the reasons I came on retreat. I think, like, 90 percent.”
“Describe this ache to me. Does it have a shape?”
“I’ve kind of been visualizing it as an egg.”
“An egg. Interesting. How big is it?”
“About the size of an ostrich egg.”
“Oh, a big one. What color is the egg?”
It’s a question I had never asked myself, but as I tried to visualize it the image came quickly. “It’s kind of a bright yellowish green.”
“Is it smooth and hard?”
“No – it’s soft, and kind of slimy.”
“Let me ask you something. Is there anything inside this egg?”
“I don’t know. It feels like there is, but I can’t tell what.”
“Do you think whatever is in there is trying to get out? Can it get out?”
“I don’t know. It doesn’t seem to be trying very hard to, if it is.”
Janice paused. “Mark, what do you think would happen if you tried to break it open?”
I flashed on an image from my childhood. My father had found some duck eggs in the field that had been abandoned by their mother, and he jury-rigged an incubator to try to hatch them; I saw those brown eggs laying on their white towel, and remembered how we children were admonished never to touch eggs when we found them.
“It would seem wrong. Like a violation of some kind.”
“Ok, Mark, let me ask you again. On a scale of 1 to 100, how ready are you to know what’s in that egg?”
I grinned through my tears. “Given that I’ve just described it like something out of a Ridley Scott movie, maybe I’m not as ready as I thought. Maybe 75 percent?”
Janice and I discussed some ways I might explore these feelings further, perhaps using the writing exercise we often used in class, or using drawing or other creative expression to try to get better acquainted with my egg. “Do you think this would be a good place to pause?” she asked. I thanked her for her kindness and told her our discussion had given me a lot to think about and work with. She gave me a hug, and we both headed for the dining room for lunch.
* * * *
At the end of the evening session, we were invited to get comfortable, because we were about to listen to a piece of music that would last for a half hour. At any time, we could light a candle on the centerpiece, and leave the meditation hall. I grabbed a blanket and headed for one of the couches ringing the outside of the round room and facing the large windows.
Gentle guitars and tabla accompanied a woman’s rich alto voice:
When I’ve done all that I can
And I’ve tried to do my part
Let sorrow be the doorway
To an open heart.
And the light on the hills is full of mercy
The wind in the trees, it comes to save me
The silence, it will never desert me
I long to hold the whole world in these arms
May all beings be happy
May all beings be safe
May all beings, everywhere, be free
The final lines were repeated again, as the music swelled softly beneath them. And then again; and as I realized that I was listening to a loving kindness chant, I immediately felt my heart throb, and I knew I had to get up off the couch and rejoin the circle.
As I stood up, I saw four women sitting around the centerpiece as if at the points of the compass. They had lit candles and their faces were bathed in a golden glow as they sat gazing contemplatively at the growing sea of tea candles before them in the center of the darkened hall.
I have thought about it often since, yet I still don’t know what it was about that image that seemed to cause my heart to suddenly open like a sluiceway on a dam. I don’t remember ever feeling a sensation so pure and powerful – like a river of emotion pouring from me unstoppably. By the time I got back to my cushion the tears were already streaming down my face. I sat for a long while, watching as my fellow retreatants went to the circle, placed their candles, sat a while in the golden glow, and silently rose and departed, each face and gesture full of poignancy. The music was an ever-changing kaleidoscope of voices – monks and nuns chanting Sanskrit mantras, improvised vocals in Spanish and French, a Tibetan throat singer’s high harmonic wail, all while the guitars pulsed like gentle breathing and the voices carrying the metta chant faded and returned.
I rose, knelt before the round blue cloth, and lit a candle. Kneeling there with my palms together at my heart, I felt the intense, almost painful glow in my chest seem to flow and flow. I got up, but I couldn’t bring myself to leave; instead, I went back to my cushion and sat down. Liz was beside me, lying on her side with her knees drawn up and her arms resting together out in front of her; we were the last two students in the room. I think I’ll always carry that image with me – her simple, childlike repose as I sat upright next to her, the two of us and the whole room bathed in music and a soft golden light that seemed like the glow of love. The river in my chest intensified, and I knew there was no way I could stop it, even if I wanted to.
Finally, as the chant increased, a voice read what I recognized as the Metta Sutta and several quotes from the Dhammapada. And then it was over. I arose and went out of the hall into the cool darkness, my face swollen and wet, my heart still in an utterly untamable state.
* * * *
As soon as I got back to my hut, Wisdom, I knew I couldn’t stay there. My heart continued to surge with connectedness, and I felt a powerful longing for company. So I wandered out into the gravel road and walked to the lavatory, and from there back to the center, hoping, I guess, to run into someone, nothing but the starlight to guide me. As I neared the center I saw people; they turned out to be three of the teachers, two of whom were working a camera with a telescopic lens into the night sky. I felt uncomfortable, shy all of a sudden, but I walked over to them anyway.
“Isn’t the Milky Way incredible?” Katherine asked me. I looked up; the silvery galactic band stretched right across the top of the sky, brighter and clearer than I’d ever seen it, a vast extravagance in the darkness. That’s what they were taking pictures of. Katherine left, and I hung around a few moments, but it was clear no conversation would happen, and as a retreatant I was supposed to be observing silence anyway. I wandered back to Wisdom.
My heart felt bruised and hollow; but the loving kindness chant still rang in my memory, and anytime I listened to it and remembered the scene inside the hall, my heart lit up again and filled to overflowing with that painful, joyful emotion. Not knowing what else to do, I stacked a few folded comforters on the floor, put my zafu down and meditated, alternating sitting and walking for the next two hours, letting the hollow feeling float in the space of awareness. Then I walked back to the center, and made myself a cup of tea in the silent but still lit dining room. I drank it and made another to take back to my hut, where I managed to finally fall asleep.
That feeling of being on the edge of ecstatic release went on for the next two days. Sometimes I would let it flow, set off by the beauty of a face, the poignancy of an insight, the color of fruit in a bowl, or the memory of the lovely metta song that seemed to play endlessly inside me. Sometimes it was exhausting, and I sought relief in the intense heat of the wood-fired sauna or the silence of the meditation hall. I alternated between amazement at the capacity of this old heart of mine to be capable of such incredible tenderness, and genuine concern about what would happen to me if I couldn’t get control of myself. And I took great comfort in the presence of the teachers and my fellow students, still barely more than strangers to me, for whom I began to feel genuine love. Oh, and the egg? Nowhere to be found.
Sunday morning came, and then Sunday afternoon, and then it was time to go. I began to feel an anxiety bordering on panic. How could I leave these beautiful people? How could I possibly take this wild, battered thing in my chest back to the world I lived in? I lingered as long as I could after lunch, wandering around the grounds and taking some last photos. A few at a time, everyone started to drive down the long gravel road off the property. I made myself pack my car, and after a deep bow to Wisdom, drove off with the others. We made a little convoy at first, the only cars on the rough county trunk roads winding through the forest. On the state highway and then the interstate, I kept the couple of cars still with me in view as long as I could, but they eventually turned off, and I was alone in the sea of traffic heading south.
As I drove, however, a curious thing happened. Instead of growing anxious as I reached civilization, my heart began to feel light. I understood that I could let go of the people and the grounds and the activities of the retreat, and that golden, lovely glow would still be there in my heart. It would be there whenever I needed it. For the first time in a while, I started working on a poem:
The farther I drove down 27 South
The more the dross fell away –
All the beautiful, painful things
I was clinging to
Kept dropping somewhere behind me.
By the time I hit the Interstate
I knew the soft gold that remained
Would travel with me everywhere.
It has been more than a month now. Gradually I’ve settled into my old routines, but not all of them. I’m rising earlier now so I can do some yoga before my morning sit. I walk the dog and eat my breakfast mindfully, in silence, so every morning is a kind of mini-retreat. Metta is also a daily part of my practice, and it’s less of an effort now, my heart opening easily and offering love freely, even to myself. I’ve cut back on meat and alcohol, and am trying to take better care of myself generally.
Most importantly, the way I see people has changed. I’ll often be touched, suddenly and inexplicably, by the sight of faces in a crowd, or the line of traffic wandering onto Madison’s isthmus in the morning. I think I am more tender toward my wife, kids and colleagues, and I feel an impulse of friendliness when I encounter strangers, something unheard of for an introvert like me. And my egg has been a less frequent visitor; when it arrives, I am even sometimes able to investigate it with compassion.
It is just experience – I give it no more significance than that. Yet it seems something has changed in a way I was unprepared for, and the experience of my first retreat continues to reverberate and perplex me. And so, patient reader, the next time you hear someone speak of MBSR and the other mindfulness approaches as “dharma lite”, as some kind of cheapening of the Buddhist tradition, I hope you will recall these scenes from a mindfulness retreat, and reflect that at least one life was changed.
May all beings everywhere be free.
PS: In case you’re interested, the lovely metta meditation they played for us Friday night was In These Arms: A Song for All Beings, by Jennifer Berezan and friends, which I could not recommend more highly.