It is six in the morning on the fourth of February, and I’m watching the sky slowly lighten enough to see waves foaming over small islands of rock on the Pacific coast, just north of Big Sur. The song of the surf and the occasional low boom of a wave striking shore has been background to my sleep since I arrived and parked in the deepness of the night. Sleep came only after first stepping outside, wrapped in a blanket, to lean against the car and watch the moonlit sea heaving in a slow rise and fall under the great expanse of stars and the endless universe. Behind me are treeless mountains, scrub-covered but revealing the folded shape of the earth, all slanting downward, as if to help the gravity-well of our planet urge everything to slide down into the ocean.
It feels like forever since I’ve felt this still. I am here now, grounded, and in this moment, all the pressure is off.
Exactly a month ago, I was blazing like a comet across the southwestern desert, crossing out of the endless arid plains of my corner of Texas as a rare snowfall began to drift down in the old hometown behind me. Late leaving, as usual when heading out on a long trip, after some hours driving through flat country marked by mesquite and tumbleweeds, prickly pear cactus, and oil wells, I entered New Mexico in darkness, and though I knew there was the grand geography of the mountains all around me, I couldn’t see them, first because of the dark, and then because I came to be driving into the sort of blizzard that wearies the eye, and dizzies the mind with fat flakes zooming horizontally, aiming at my windshield — great bits of brightness against the deep dark, illuminated by the headlights, like a starfield moving past Space Ship Chevy Suburban at light speed as we skimmed over the surface of Earth.
Emerging from the storm on descent from the mountains, I could see the lights of Albuquerque, land of my birth, sparkling in the distance, and though it was coming up on midnight, I decided to keep driving.
I was headed for California, and a month of Buddhist adventures, and all I wanted to do was drive, so drive I did.
I want to tell you about these adventures, which were just two. At the beginning of the month, there was the two-week Pali Intensive course offered by Professor Gombrich, and then at the turn of January into February, a one-week Vipissana retreat in Santa Cruz. I will touch only briefly on the class, mostly as it affected parts of the retreat, which is what I’m really wanting to share with you, to give a sense of what a week-long silent retreat focused on insight can be like.
But the insight portion began long before I got to the retreat center, with the recognition that I was thoroughly stuck in my meditation practice, and had been for years. I could see that the problem lay mostly in the endlessly boring ordinariness of the repetitive, recurring thoughts as I sat. Once upon a time, some years back, I used to find a peaceful place in my mind where thoughts slowed and sometimes briefly stopped, but I was getting no more of that. Now it had become a chore to sit for any length of time at all, short or long, and I dreaded it, to the point where I had at first begun to cut sessions short, and then to skip them altogether. My problem, it seemed to me, was in part a lack of self-discipline, but even more so an addiction to the other kind of thinking, the not-boring, not-repetitive kind of intellectual pursuits I so love.
Another aspect of the problem, which came to me when reading suttas on meditation, was that meditation was just plain no fun. Not that it was supposed to make one laugh out loud each time, but the Buddha does say that a critical component of the practice is joy. It seemed to me that he was saying that without joy it’s not likely one will be motivated to keep at it, and he sure predicted my behavior in that. For quite some time I had been trying to figure out what I needed to do to access the kind of pleasure that the Buddha says is not included in dukkha-production, the pleasure he experienced while meditating as a boy, which he grew familiar with during his awakening and afterward. I had not figured out what drove it, nor ever tripped across it just by having the right circumstances arise.
Now, I’m not one to ask for help, nor am I a social person, but more of a loner and a recluse. I’m definitely not a follower, so I have, for years and years, resisted the idea of doing any of the traditional things like developing a relationship with a teacher. I have always speculated about the way retreats are designed to open up the mind in very deep ways, which means they can be used to manipulate and indoctrinate participants, and I don’t really trust people with my mind. But months back, when I began thinking about driving to California for the Pali course, I thought about this in a slightly different way: it occurred to me that I might do what I did years ago when I was an undisciplined young woman who joined the Navy to have the military’s supporting structure give me cause to find self-discipline: then, as now, I could put myself in a situation where something in me had to change.
I decided to see if by chance there was a retreat run by the one teacher whose voice I trust, Gil Fronsdal. I would put myself in his care because he has never, in all the podcasts I’ve listened to, said anything about the dharma I disagree with, which is, considering where I stand, quite rare (not, I note, that I would expect him to agree with me on everything; I have no expectation there). This was especially important to me at this point because I was trying to set aside my dharma-debating nature for this little while, and just work on meditation. I checked the retreat schedule at audiodharma.org and lo! Gil was leading a week-long at the Insight Retreat Center (IRC) at the end of the month, so I signed up.
Dark Night of the Soul
The other insight, before the retreat, grew as I drove through the New Mexico night, an insight that ended with the thought, “I should apologize to Doug.” It began with me thinking about how intense my need had become to make clear to anyone who was studying the dharma, that there was a way of looking at it that made perfect sense on so many levels, that was so simple, and so clear, and so visible (just like the Buddha said it would be), and — most important of all — so helpful, that while trying to convey it to Doug and the world in general, I was winding myself up to a speed that felt frantic to me. Examining this desire to share what I saw, it was easy for me to recognize that three forces were at work: the sheer symmetry of the dharma would make me want to share it just for sake of joy in its beauty as well as its usefulness, but beyond that was my own impermanence looming as I approach sixty (not a lot of time left to get anyone else to see what I see, to keep it from being lost), and the recognition that my voice is so very small in the wilderness of Buddhist voices. In the small pond of Buddhism I’m not even a little frog, much less a big fish.
But now that the snowflakes weren’t taking up all my brain power in keeping my spaceship moving safely, I could easily see that the urgency I felt was damaging to me, to my message, and unkind to others.
So, Doug: I’m sorry for being so insistent, argumentative, and unrelenting. It’s disrespectful, and I apologize for it.
I resolved to slow down, and work on letting go of a little of the passion — not all of the passion, but just the parts causing problems. I had been working on Dependent Arising just about continuously for more than a year, and because I had wanted the book done before I left for California, I’d been working steadily and obsessively over the last few months, to the exclusion of everything else. Now it was time to wind down and let go. I aimed at not even talking about it while at the Pali course, though I wasn’t sure I was capable of the strength it would take amidst a group of people who were very likely to be interested, to avoid talking about a subject that is so central to everything the Buddha said.
I arrived in Berkeley in good time for the Pali Intensive. Fourteen curious students showed up at the Mangalam Center to get initiated into the mysteries of a language that is key to even greater mysteries, because Pali is the medium for the huge volumes of the oldest texts we have of the Buddha’s teachings. This was Professor Gombrich’s first time teaching the course in America, though he has taught it often in Oxford, where he held, until recently, the Sanskrit Chair at the University. He had taught Americans before — but not as many as this (only two in our group were not from the U.S., and one of those lives here).
There are just a few things I’d like to say about my experience in those two weeks: Berkeley has more Tibetan-based business than I could imagine in one city in the U.S. (trinket shops, restaurants, book shops, not to mention dharma centers); the Professor is great fun; the course really is intense; chanting in Pali seemed very odd in a course focused on quickly learning to translate (though I liked learning what the words meant); and it was wonderful spending two weeks with people who got my jokes, and made better ones themselves, in that camaraderie that only occurs in small groups who share an interest in something they can rarely talk and joke about with regular folks in daily life. I was not able to completely rein my passion in during the whole of the two weeks, though I made it about half way through before leaning my face into my upturned hands, trying to restrain myself when the talk turned to how central rebirth is to the Buddha’s teaching. Everyone was very open to discussion, and I missed them all fiercely the moment the course ended.
If you have any interest in delving deeply into the suttas, please consider visiting Oxford the next time the course is offered, or keep an ear tuned in case it gets held here in the States again. But make sure you have brushed up on your understanding of grammar, because you will really need it.
The one remarkable thing about Americans that the professor observed was their unwillingness to work as a team to learn how to translate, or to figure out the differences in that ancient grammar, from the way our own language is used. We are stubbornly independent when it comes to getting something new into our heads (though I note that when it came to developing plans to preserve the course for future generations, teamwork was visible everywhere).
This independence could not be truer of me. Just as with my resistance to finding a teacher and joining in at a retreat, in class — despite my atrocious inability to remember what grammar terms mean — for the most part, I doggedly worked at figuring things out for myself, rather than asking for help, because I tend to think that’s how I learn best.
Quiet in the Redwoods
Because I was at loose ends between the end of the Pali course and the start of the retreat, it was easy for me to answer the call for volunteers to come help at the Center prior to the actual starting day. The folks there were having a workday on the Saturday before the Sunday start, and they generously allowed me to come up in the afternoon on Friday, get settled in, share their evening meal (almost every item gluten-free, so I could join in — I was so impressed by their thoughtfulness), and so be there for Saturday’s chores.
The retreat center itself is new (remodeled from a home for Alzheimer’s patients), with a huge hall, kitchen, dining area, offices, and men’s quarters on the main floor, and the meditation and walking halls upstairs, along with the women’s quarters. The building is beautiful, the grounds blooming even in winter, and the location is on a hill surrounded by tall cedars, with a view of vineyards in the distance.
I got to meet several of the regular volunteers, and was particularly glad to help out Chris, both because she is a pleasure to be around and runs an efficient kitchen, and because it gave me a look at how things are done, which gave me confidence that my gluten-free diet would be well handled. There had been eight people at dinner on Friday, and about thirty more showed up Saturday — few would turn out to be retreatants; all were volunteering out of sheer generosity. At the end of the day what was most remarkable to me was that in a large group of hard-working adults, some of whom knew each other well, and many of whom were relative strangers, there was no drama at all: no clandestine conversations, no sharp words, no mean looks anywhere, no anger. Everyone just got right down to work, asked for help when needed, and we finished an hour early.
Now, when I tell you about my experience at this retreat, I hope you’ll understand this: it is my individual experience, and is probably not typical, so while you may get a sense of how retreats are handled at the IRC, and you’ll likely get some idea of why insight meditation retreats can be so powerful, you can’t accurately estimate what your experience will be from hearing about mine. This would be true even if I hadn’t had an unusual reaction. I’m told that if the same person, on two different occasions, went to the same place to sit the same retreat that was handled in the same way, they would have two different experiences. But, given what I heard on the last day of the retreat, my [reaction] to this retreat was not like other retreatants’.
This is also true of the meditation technique that would break the impasse in my practice: it is well-suited to my particular problem, and is unlikely to be one that would work for many people. This is why teacher-student relationships in meditation are really powerful: because they can help guide us through our very individual paths.
Sunday wasn’t to be a work day, so I had been able to offer rides to folks in the area who didn’t have, or could leave a car behind, since there is limited parking at the Center. I went up to San Jose airport and picked up my first rider just as he’d finished getting his bags, and then he acted as my navigator to go pick up the second, a little further north at a Metro station. The drive up and a little wait at the station meant the first rider and I had some time to talk, so I got to know him well enough that by the time we all got to the retreat, I felt I had a particular friend, one who could acknowledge with a light tug on my meditation shawl that I had, indeed, managed to finish the many-months-long project of crocheting it just in time, and the touch saying so much made me smile. He made small jokes based on what I had told him in the car, and we talked about the unknowns of a first retreat like this, and it warmed me to have someone I had connected to there.
The opening ceremony was a circle of the thirty retreatants, and two each teachers, managers, kitchen staff, and resident caretakers. The theory was explained that things would be simple, and regular, and all of our needs would be taken care of by all of us, since each of us would have jobs to do each day. Everyone sat the retreat, even the teachers, so we were all in this together. Silence would start with the first meditation after supper, and in addition, people would generally leave each other to their own spaces, the aim being toward no eye contact, or smiles, though if it did occasionally happen, it would not be cause for alarm or offense.
I found it difficult and uncomfortable to not meet others’ gazes. It tended to mean that I walked along looking at people’s feet, in the style made famous by the Buddha himself, with eyes forward and just a little ahead. People became inscrutable cyphers to me, but in a way this seemed to be part of the point. Rather like the “no drama” teamwork I had seen the day before, this had the effect of leaving each of us to work out our own issues, and only ask for help when needed. It seemed very Theravadan, this being one’s own light. This impression would be reinforced the first time someone cried during a meditation session.
There were to be two private meetings with a teacher, fifteen minutes each time, on two different days, so we weren’t totally isolated, and of course anyone who needed help had only to speak up, and they got it. There were times set aside after some talks for questions, but these were directed to teachers, not to other individuals.
It was a very safe, orderly environment, undoubtedly made more orderly by the lack of contact.
The final event of the night was a gathering in the meditation room, the official start of the silence, and began with chanting to honor the Buddha, then refuges in the Buddha, dharma, and sangha — all in Pali, so I ended up thankful for the chanting in Pali class — and then taking the five precepts, this time in English. Then we sat for silent meditation, and I found myself struggling with the end of a cold (having one’s nose whistle on the inbreath is a definite handicap).
Monday: Sitting And Silence
I didn’t manage to get to sleep until almost eleven, and woke up at three, unable to get back to sleep. Consequently, a lot of my day was spent focused on trying to stay awake while sitting.
Meditations start with a bell-ringer walking the halls and decks about ten minutes before, ringing the little cymbals to alert us that it is time to gather in the meditation hall. A little more warning is given for the first session in the morning. Five-thirty a.m. is the first bell, six the first sit, for forty-five minutes. Then quick chores, breakfast, a little open time, and sit again for morning instruction. Gil led these, giving clear information about what the focus was, and choices of techniques, as well as touches of humor well-grounded in both his life, and the ways people tend to react to things.
The first day was about the breath, which would be the anchor we would return to as a sort of home base for our meditations during each of the subsequent days.
As at home, I struggled to maintain focus on my breath while everything else intruded: thinking about the pains in my hips; my back feeling on fire from sitting so long; how close I kept coming to sleep, finding the edge between focus and thought, and drifting into dream, opening my eyes to gaze softly at a knot in the wood floor to keep awake, finding my eyes closed again, stretching them wide before resettling; and thinking about the sounds others made while feeling ever-so-alone in the room. This last was very odd: keen awareness of others also aiming to sit quietly, and understanding that most, if not all of them, were struggling with something, but with no outward signs of the effort at all, and certainly no indication of what anyone was encountering as interference between them and quiet observation of the breath.
At lunch, and free times, passing other people, seeing them only from the knee down, not even knowing which face to attach which pair of feet to, I felt weirdly isolated, and it was uncomfortable. And then I noticed (or thought I did) the absence of my first rider. After lunch I paid attention during both the sitting meditation, and to those heading out for the walking meditation that followed it, and I was sure I didn’t see him. My expectation was that he left in an orderly fashion for good reason and that no comment would be made to anyone on it, but still, he could be in his room ill, or have gone for a walk and met with trouble, and I might be the only one who noticed, so I left the afternoon manager a note, and returned to my attempts to stay awake while sitting, and to get my thoughts to slow down enough for me to stay with my breath.
At the four o’clock session, a dharma talk was given, this day starting with an overview of the six-day theme of the insights that are called the Three Characteristics and the three things that get cultivated to see into and balance them, which could be seen as the opposite qualities of those three cardinal insights into how we operate. It would be stability, as the reverse of impermanence; well-being, or ease, as the reverse of dukkha; and a strong sense of self (or confidence, courage, and trust) leading to insight into not-self. I was especially looking forward to hearing how a strong sense of self could be fit into the Buddha’s discussion of not-self, but the full talk on that would not take place till Wednesday.
The main focus of Monday’s talk, though, was on stability. This, of course, went straight to the heart of my problems with cutting short meditation and giving up even trying. Among other things, “Just keep showing up,” Gil said, and gave many good reasons for doing so, including a little discussion of joy.
It might have been during this afternoon talk that someone cried. It was certainly this day or the day after, at a moment when both teachers were sitting on their cushions on the dais, Gil speaking, and there was a pause in which I could feel that many in the room were wondering, as I was, what to do, how to behave, what would be done for the person suddenly experiencing an overwhelming amount of feeling. After the pause extended just a bit, Gil went on speaking. That was logical: nothing would be done. Though the social urge is to help, what we were there for was for each of us to work through, in our own way, our own issues. The environment was totally accepting of whatever anyone was going through. Of course the whole structure discourages unnecessary emotion, and so it is designed not to feed drama — to teach us as individuals not to feed drama, too, ours or anyone else’s — but neither is it going to shame anyone for necessary emotion, or even lack of visible shows of emotions. The socially awkward but necessary isolation from each other in the midst of a very social environment seemed specifically constructed to have people work together on the supporting structures (food, housekeeping), yet encourage them to remain each in their own intense little world.
By the evening meal, I got a note back saying the fellow I’d given a ride to had gone home. I was glad it was an orderly return; I was sorry about whatever drew him back; I hoped it was nothing that did permanent damage to him or anyone he loved. He was a really nice person, and I could tell already that I would miss him as an anchoring influence, though it occurred to me that maybe having a particular friend would undermine the process.
I was so exhausted, running on about four hours of sleep, worn down by the effort of meditation, and of not interacting with others, that I decided to skip the last walks and sits. I went to bed at seven — the last sit ends at nine-thirty — and fell instantly to sleep, expecting and hoping that a long night would make Tuesday go better.
As I was cleaning toilets after Tuesday’s morning meditation, I thought about the structure of the retreat: all the quiet people, each encapsulated in their own little cosmic bubbles, captaining their own ship through the local space of the retreat, and the outer space of their lives, rarely but occasionally bumping into each other without concern. Everything was taken care of, but by each of us, those with big jobs to do and small, everyone in the same situation, a fleet headed in roughly the same direction, on the same mission, but with no real contact between us. We could all feel safe knowing that if we truly needed help, there were others out there who knew the overall situation, whom we could advise of our particulars, and we’d be okay; but our main job was to take care of our own mission, whatever it was, whether our assigned chores, or tinkering with our mental constructs during meditation and the times between, in the vacuum of the social space we were traveling through.
The morning sit with instruction changed the focus from the breath to the body. There were tears. Every day someone cried. Sometimes more than one person cried. On this retreat, this was normal.
Tuesday was the first day of meetings with teachers. Those who had never been to a retreat before had the first openings which was logical because they’d probably need the most help to get on course. I got to meet with Gil.
At the opening circle back on Sunday, when we were asked to say our first names, where we were from, and a little more, many, many people had said they’d been listening to Gil’s podcast for years. A few added that they were feeling a little dazzled, a little star-struck, being there with him. I could understand that, even if it didn’t describe just what I felt. But when entering the little room and sitting across from him, he was just silent for a longer time than felt quite comfortable when I was already nervous about discussing my problems, focusing on my issues, so I was off-balance from the start of the conversation. (Of course, he is often quiet before speaking — he quite mindfully thinks before he speaks.)
When I tried to describe my problem — how thinking won’t quit for me — I didn’t do a very good job, or give enough detail. I’m not sure I had enough understanding, myself, at that point, but he did a good job of picking up on what I was saying despite my inadequate description, and he asked me to think of whatever does the thinking, as a muscle, and locate it, and see if I could describe how it felt when thinking, and if I could relax that muscle, or just give it a bigger space and let it relax into that space.
He asked me what thinking wants. I started to hesitate as analysis drawn from the Prajapati myth came to mind — of course my thinking mind would come up with that — but he told me to say the first thing that came up.
“Thinking wants to think,” I said.
“Why?” Gil asked.
“It wants to exist. It wants to know it exists,” I said, and then, apologetically, “Sorry, I can only be analytical” — of course, because that’s what my thinking is, and meanwhile, in my head, the analysis is going on, Sariputta-like, taking pleasure in the free rein: “and thinking only exists when it is in action, when it is thinking, so it can only know it exists when it is in the act of thinking, and if you tell it to stop thinking, it dies, doesn’t it, so it doesn’t take kindly to being told to stop…” but I didn’t say all that, I just sat there wishing my thinking would please just stop going on while I’m listening to Gil.
He encouraged me to make the transition from thought to quiet more slowly, to acknowledge the importance of the thoughts, and perhaps even what they were about, to treat thinking a little more gently, and not yank my attention from thought to the focus of the day’s meditation. He made other suggestions as well; I said I would work on them.
And I did. Well-rested today, and past the tension- and thought-producing anticipation of my first-ever sit-down with a teacher, I focused quite well on what I was aiming at doing during the next meditation session. I was kind and respectful to my thoughts, told them that they were deserving of a rest and that this wasn’t death, that they were still there, it was more like a quick nap so it could be at its best. I felt for the mental muscle and envisioned relaxing it, letting it stretch out comfortably. I tried this several times to no effect at all. Each time my tenacious mind returned to its yada-yada-yada about whatever it wanted to talk about, but I just smiled and kept trying. Then, after another round of soothing talk to my over-anxious five-year-old of a mind, and another continuation of thought, suddenly I was focused on my breath for a few inhales and exhales, and then in some odd way the focus on breath remained but receded a little, and the whole of my consciousness settled and changed in that way that reverses my normal way of sitting: where the usual is that thought is easier than focus on breath and body, here, focus on breath and body is easier than thought. I describe it as a spacious room with many doors; every now and then thought comes in, already speaking, confident of being listened to, but quickly noticing how very quiet it is in there, thought stops and backs back out silently. All this without any effort on my part.
It was that quiet place I had once been able to get to regularly, and it felt fine to be there again.
It lasted until the end of the meditation session.
Next, we did walking meditation, and I found that concentrating on feeling my feet touch the floor, while being aware of my breath, kept my mind busy enough that thoughts had a harder time taking over. The feel of this was entirely different than that last sitting, but still good.
At the next meditation, I could not get my mind to slow back down no matter how soothing and respectful I was, or how clearly I could feel that muscle relaxing. I would still be working on this two days later, with only that one success, when I had my second teacher session.
The afternoon dharma talk was on ease and well-being as the quality to cultivate as the antidote to dukkha, and it was excellent.
Emotion In Space
Wednesday’s focus was on feelings, and during this day’s sittings, we not only had One Who Cries, but One Who Laughs — not uproarious, disturbing laughter, but apparently irrepressible mirth, which was just as acceptable to all as were tears. I did not get to see who laughed, or who cried, because my eyes were closed, so in some sense, that some people felt and expressed emotions still left me isolated, almost more isolated by being made aware that there were emotions, but with no connection to whose they were or what they were about.
Gil described having the breath as an anchor, and noticing feelings that arose, staying with them while they were present, noting whether and where they were felt in the body. He said that research has shown that emotions don’t last long when not fed — two minutes, he said, and I agreed when he said that this was pretty cool. We sat for several minutes trying this out. Later in the same session he pointed out — and I was grateful that he did — that people have different emotional styles. Some people experience a lot of emotion, while for some it is quite rare. And there’s nothing wrong with either.
Of course just prior to his saying this, I had been seeing, once again, that when I sit nothing of particular interest comes up for me, by which I mean that I get thoughts, lots and lots of (mostly boring, mundane, chore-list) thoughts, but rarely any emotion at all. I understand lots of people get emotional insights and break-throughs. How exciting I imagine that would be, but this never seems to happen to me, never in going-on thirty years of (admittedly irregular) practice of sitting. And of course, the thought crept in: must be something wrong with me to be so emotionless, sitting here. And even if I instantly recognized that as nonsense, still, the thought’s there.
It does help to have someone trusted confirm that there’s nothing wrong with either the calm or the emotion, or, for that matter, any mix in between.
After a few rounds of paying attention to feelings while sitting and walking, during which I have very little to work on since emotions don’t arise for me (but thoughts sure do, so I keep working on relaxing that muscle), we mindfully answer the lunch-time bell, and go stand in line. What a contrast! It begins with just quiet contentment watching people’s backs in line — at least I can get some sense of who people are, by watching how they look from the back as they stand in line — and I recognize that contentment as emotion and study it. But then I get a glimpse of something yellow on a plate ahead of me. The food has been quite good, but on the sense-reduced side, and I’m starting to feel the absence of sense stimulation there, too. So with the sight of a block of yellow, the thought arises: “Cornbread? Could that be cornbread!?” and I feel a thrill of anticipation because I love cornbread. Then: “But it’s probably not gluten-free.” Crush of disappointment. “But it can be made gluten-free, and Chris has been so good about including me…” Rising hope again, as I watch the roller-coaster of emotion triggered by the sense of sight, and imagined taste, smell and texture drawn from memory. When I discover that it’s polenta, and gluten-free, my mind settles in a happy middle way.
The welter of these emotions and more, after the stillness of meditation, makes the whole process much more visible, and that means the system set up here at the retreat is working, at least for me, in this moment. As I sit eating my lunch, trying not to see what others are doing, but listening (because me hearing doesn’t noticeably intrude into anyone else’s world) I know that emotions are very often and in very many ways triggered by sensual stimulation. No surprise there, actually familiar because it’s what the Buddha said, and I’ve been paying attention since he pointed it out to me. These practices let us see the process for ourselves.
The afternoon dharma talk was by Max Erdstein. It began with the wonderful insight that when our minds are very busy, the world and the self seems fixed and solid, but when our minds are slowed down, through that stability, we can better see impermanence, and find ease. I admired the construction of that insight, which involved the three marks of existence and their opposing qualities.
When he said that the quality needed to gain an understanding of not-self might be called a strong, healthy sense of self, though, that sounded as though it contradicted my understanding of what the Buddha was saying. I found myself sitting with the emotion of resistance, with “No, no, no that’s wrong”-mind. I worked at keeping myself open to what Max was trying to convey, most of which really did make good sense. I agreed with him when he said “The goal is not to become a no-self. The goal is to see and understand something about not-self.” I agreed that it takes courage to sit and face our unedited selves, and that it takes trust in the path, and trust in ourselves, and I could see that confidence comes out of these, but I could not find the connection in there anywhere to a strong or healthy sense of self. I began to suspect that part of my problem was with the phrase “sense of self” because it seems to me that it is having a vague “sense” of having a self that is at the root of the problem the Buddha set out to cure.
After the talk ended, I spent some time in my room writing down what was said, and clarifying for myself what my problem was with that one part: how could there be any sense where developing a strong self was a good thing on the Buddha’s path when he always talks about there being nothing that we can find that is self, and ridding ourselves of our attachment to self? I could understand that those qualities mentioned did need to be fostered to get the insight into not-self, but it didn’t seem to me that there was any sense in which those qualities were part of a self. When Max said that the goal was “to see and understand something about not-self”, I felt he pegged what needed to be said. The problem with not-self is not that it is unstable, impermanent, separate, and it in no sense gives us mastery over all aspects of our lives, the problem is that we don’t know what it is that is actually going on, we don’t understand what it is that we label as “self”, we don’t know its qualities.
I lay on my bed writing because I knew if I didn’t, I’d be hanging on to it in all the rest of the day’s meditation sessions, on into the next day, worrying it with thoughts chewing at how and where the discrepancy lay, like a dog with a too-large bone. Yet even as I was writing, I knew this was trouble for me. At the opening circle, someone had asked Gil whether it was okay to write, or to journal, during the retreat, and he had said that notes would be fine but he discouraged writing full entries the way one normally would. And he was right. I could feel discursive thought winding itself up while I wrote, but still felt sure it would be doing this but less productively if I left it just in my head, where it would start and restart, not able to get it all out and orderly. It needed writing down so I could be done with it.
I skipped walking meditations to finish the thought, which was just this: It’s not about the opposite of not-self as a strong self, but instead it’s the opposite of our ignorance about what we’re calling “self” that needs to be developed. The quality that needs to be developed is knowledge, and whether we call that “knowledge of self”, or “knowledge of not-self”, or “knowledge of reality” really makes little difference, because whatever we call it, it is pointing to the same thing, which is that it is our ignorance of what is going on with us, of what we call self and how we think about it, that is the root of the problems that are in our power to fix. This is one of the things the Buddha is saying by building his teaching about Dependent Arising on the structure of the Prajapati myth: we think we know self and how it gets built and what happens if we behave this way or that way, but we are actually deeply ignorant of self, or what passes for self, and the antidote is knowledge.
The practice we were doing in that retreat is part of the process that gets us that knowledge, and it is hard work, and painful, and requires, if not courage, then stubbornness. But I don’t think that there is any sense in which it is a strong self that is the opposite of not-self, it is only the strength of our knowledge of what it is that we are calling self (because it isn’t that there is nothing that we are calling self, it is only that what it is, is not fixed or changeless, eternal, separate, or the captain of the ship of our lives).
During the rest of the day, I worked on staying awake — too little sleep was wearing on me — and putting the genie of my discursive thoughts back into the bottle I’d uncorked by writing. My understanding of myself proved correct in that I wasn’t obsessing over the opposite of not-self while I sat, but I wasn’t getting any further getting focus on breath rather than thinking, either. I was more successful with working on staying awake, though I admit to cheating a little when exhaustion got to be too much, and catching brief glimpses of others as they meditated: one who looked out the window and cried, one who looked around the room at others with a glow of love, and the many who looked very calm in their stillness.
When I saw that tomorrow’s teacher chat would be with Max, knowledge-of-self told not-self that I was here to work on my stuckness, and to let go of my tendency to debate dharma. As I sat, and in many other moments when I was trying but not succeeding to be mindful, I drafted possible approaches to how to ask Max for help. One of them involved the question of how we know what we know, which led me to ask myself how I know what kind of person I am. Am I someone who loves the dharma and wants to arrive at the best possible understanding not only by practice but by reading suttas and engaging in reasoned debates? or am I a dogmatic pretender who only wants others to come around to my point of view? How do we know what we know about ourselves, and ourselves in the world, and about the world?
Thursday’s focus was, appropriately enough, thoughts. Whereas on the previous days, the aim was to focus on the object, this time the discussion was about noticing what thoughts were, just long enough to get them to go away. My thoughts felt this was deeply unfair, and I was amused at my own observation that everyone else got the limelight but thoughts were still being driven away.
I was, of course, still having trouble with mine, so it was with a very modest emotion of hope that I went to speak to Max about my stuckness. I told him what I had told Gil, and very briefly what Gil had suggested to me, and I described to him the way it had not worked on the first several tries, and then it suddenly did.
“My question is this,” I said, “how do I know that it worked? How do I know that when my thoughts suddenly faded and I could focus on my breath, that it was the technique I used that worked, and not that the coffee suddenly wore off?”
That got a laugh out of Max, and that was gratifying.
He took the question seriously, though, and his answer was that I didn’t know. He said that we can’t expect what works one time to work the next, we can’t really expect anything specific. But he said that what it was all about was setting up the conditions for something to happen, and then to get out of the way and let whatever will happen, happen. And I saw the sense of that, and recognized that we know what works and what doesn’t only in a very generalized way, through long practice. We can see that the Buddhist path does lead to better lives, and we see it again and again, though it isn’t an instantaneous sort of thing where if you push this button you immediately get that result. It’s way slower than that.
We talked more about my thoughts and it took me a while to convey that this wasn’t quite your ordinary “I keep thinking thoughts” problem but it was more to do with how seductive sitting at my computer working on the dharma was, contrasted against how painfully boring sitting meditation was when all it was, was me wanting to be doing something else, or thinking about anything, anything, just to get through the time. Day after day I went from the sublime to the mundane, and I wasn’t getting anything out of the sitting and hadn’t been for a very long time. There was no longer any evidence, for me, that setting up the conditions led to anything working at all.
He recognized that I had a problem, and was thinking about it as I added one more detail. When I was growing up, I said, I was the little sister. There was my mother, father, and my sister was five and a half years older than me and it seemed to me she knew everything; I worshipped her for her vast knowledge of the world. But I knew nothing; I was just little, and in that situation, my opinion never really counted. I ached for the day when I’d be grown up enough to be taken seriously, but being petite in stature and baby-faced just about all of my adult life, it seemed to me that never happened. I always felt as though I had no voice, that what I said was never heard by anyone.
“Good insight!” Max said, and then, after a moment’s thought, he suggested that maybe I needed to stop trying to stop my thoughts at all, but just sit with them, and let them be heard. “Presence,” he said, and suggested that, instead of meditating, I just be present; let thoughts go where they will, notice where they go, but don’t stop them; do keep checking back in with the body fairly often.
So this is what I did, at the very next session, and the way it worked out came out as the opposite of the basic meditation. Instead of focusing on the breath, and finding myself distracted by thoughts, I allowed myself to focus on the thoughts, and be distracted by my body. Any sensation, not just the ones that asked for attention, got to serve as focus, including pleasant feelings, and random sounds. If my thoughts were willing to allow me to stay focused on something else, then I stayed there. This had the effect of more gently ending my thoughts, and lulling them to sleep in such a way that my awareness was still wide awake but my thinking just gave up, and soon I was back in the quiet room, where it was easier to pay attention to my breathing than to think.
In every meditation session where I was not especially tired or upset about something else, this worked very well for me. I even briefly reached moments of what could be thought of as joy, a simple pleasure in being in the moment with all the pressure I normally put on myself gone away. I got the opportunity to thank Max for the help in a note the next day.
My “yogi job” each day had been to work in the kitchen, helping set up for breakfast the next day. Three of us worked on different jobs, with Chris overseeing. Kitchen work requires that some talking be allowed. Though the idea was that we should only talk when necessary for business, being social creatures, some non-essentials snuck in, like compliments to the chef or requests for recipes. Two days back one of our team-members had been so mindful in the moments of her walking meditation that she forgot the larger scheme of things and didn’t show up in the kitchen until we were almost done. She was upset with herself. This day, she forgot again until half-way through and was even more distressed at behavior she described as very unlike her normal way of being. “I have always been a team player,” she said. Much emotion and thought bubbled up in me with the desire to give aid and comfort, and the first thought to come through I expressed as, “Of course you’re still a team player, no one here thinks otherwise.” But then I realized I shouldn’t be speaking, and others were giving comfort, and I left it there, frustrated, mulling the importance of intention, and my only half-expressed thought.
Impermanence was the subject for Thursday’s talk, and I agreed with everything Gil said about it, which was a relief. Little did I know, though, that I was, even while listening to the talk, experiencing a little insignificant loss that would have an outsized effect on me the next day.
The first thing I noticed Friday morning was that my little 27-bead rosewood mala was not on my wrist, and this was disturbing because, had you asked, I’d have said it was there when I went to bed. This felt like a breach of reality. You may be tempted to dismiss it as minor, and you’ll no doubt be sure there was a logical explanation, but I could find none. To avoid boring you, I will not go into all the possibilities of how the mala went missing that I came up with, but be assured that if any of them turned out to be the case, it would mean something was wrong, even if it was just as simple as me being capable of total lack of mindfulness, in a setting where I was focusing on being mindful.
I was not really upset by the loss of the mala — I could get another — but my faith in myself and the setting I was in was undermined. (The mala has never been found.)
We had covered the Four Foundations of Mindfulness as described in the suttas on the previous days: Breathing, Body, Feelings, and Thoughts. Today’s object of focus was our relationship to whatever arose as we sat. How do we feel about it? What kind of stories do we tell ourselves about it?
The afternoon dharma talk was about dukkha (aka “suffering”) and it was Max’s turn to speak. I had enjoyed every one of Max’s discussions on any subject, even if I had had some small objections to the one on the strong sense of self. A talk on dukkha seemed like a straight-forward enough subject. I was hoping that my analytical, dharma-debating mind would find no more fuel, but there it was, as soon as he started talking about two kinds of dukkha, the kind you cannot avoid — literal aging, sickness, and death — and the kind you could learn to stop, the kind we create ourselves. When he said that we couldn’t end all the dukkha (“What I would say is that because dukkha is a truth, a characteristic, it’s not something that we try to get rid of, not something that can be gotten rid of…”), I got stuck. I said to myself, “But isn’t that what Buddhism is about? Doesn’t the Buddha say that he teaches dukkha, and the end of dukkha?” The voice in my head said, “Does Max not believe in nibbana? In liberation?” How could this be, I wondered. “Is he saying we just have to accept suffering?”
Well of course, he was, in part (the end of the sentence above was, “…but rather, it’s something in this practice to meet, with wisdom. Something to be understood.”). And I agreed with what I could see he was saying, if not the way he chose to say it. There is sickness, aging, and death, and they do cause us grief, and sorrow, and that is not actually avoidable. It would be unhealthy, I thought, to not feel grief sometimes, to be so untouched by what we see going on around us that we feel no pain at all. But that, in my (admittedly non-traditional) understanding of what the Buddha taught, is not what he was telling us we could avoid. Dukkha is confined to the totally unnecessary anguish we give ourselves, usually in response to literal aging and death — which are really stand-in terms for impermanence. It is not the fact of impermanence, aging and death, that is the problem (otherwise there would be no escape) but it is in our relationship to impermanence that the trouble starts, and it is in changing our relationship to it that we end dukkha.
The problem with the part of the talk that stopped me lay in the confusion added by including literal aging and death in the definition of dukkha. I went back to my room to write, and clarify my thinking on how they are needed for a rebirth-view of what the Buddha taught, and how they just complicate things in a pragmatic approach to Buddhism. And while I was doing this, I recognized that I was effectively lost to the retreat. The combination of the mala unsettling my confidence in myself and the slightly skewed but supposedly safe world I was in, and my dropping out of no-thought firmly into a conflict in my understanding of the dharma, knocked me so far off the course of practice that it became very hard to focus on what I was supposed to be doing.
But I did persevere, continuing to work on slowing my thinking, and looking at the relationship I had to whatever arose. But outside of meditation, what arose was the feeling that I hadn’t followed the expected path of the retreat.
I was increasingly noticing that whenever there was talk about how we were all a community, supporting each other — and I saw heads nodding in agreement, and more loving looks around the room — I didn’t feel what it seemed to me was being suggested that I should feel. I recognized the disconnection between my reality and that of others, a conflict that I associate with many childhood situations, in which the kid knows something is wrong and asks what’s up, and is told nothing is going on and everything is just fine. Which is true: what’s felt, or what we’re told?
It seemed to me that assumptions were being made about what was happening with other people, possibly assumptions that others are going through the same thing we are, and fellow-feeling is based on that comforting notion — but where is the evidence that it is true? In the absence of expression or dialog, it’s just speculation, and the “like-me” basis for building a sense of community seemed to me to be what the Buddha was trying to get us to see is a mistaken basis for making assumptions, and choices. Generic feeling for all we have in common with others is all well and good, but it isn’t the same thing as genuine community — to my mind, universal love comes too cheaply, with no investment in actually knowing others, and it was this knowing of others that was lacking.
My nerves began to jangle, just slightly, with a mindfulness bell that called me to notice that I was being told how to understand what was happening around me, in contradiction to the evidence I had. I thought we were here to learn to see for ourselves, and I wondered what drove the message that we were a community, a family, when so little of what goes into building community — only mechanics — was in evidence.
Saturday, the focus became even more refined, on asking ourselves how we are aware of what we are aware of. I might put this, “How do we know what we know?” and I really loved this, because even if these last two objects of attention aren’t in the suttas — I haven’t read every sutta, so they could be and I just haven’t seen them yet — they do strike right at the heart of what I hear the Buddha wanting us to see: the finer and finer detail of how we come to understand and interpret our experience the way we do.
The last talk was on not-self, and it was very good, but I was long-past ready to pack my bags. I thought about the best route to take riders home, and where I would sleep the next night. In my mind, I was half out the door and on the way, and the other half was still trying to remain present, thinking about the silence and that, at least if I had disliked it, with the blankness of expression created by the setting, the return to normal wouldn’t seem like the loss of something precious, and it wouldn’t upset me much.
Wow, was I ever wrong.
Sunday we sat, as usual, first thing in the morning, did our brief chores, and had breakfast. Then we had shorter sits interspersed with packing and cleaning. The plan was for a final circle in the main room, reflecting the opening circle, followed by one last meal as a group — “a snack” they called it but it was really quite an ample and filling offering.
The most difficult part for me was the closing ceremony. As we worked to fit enough chairs for all participants to form a circle around the edges of the big room downstairs, the sometimes-late team member from the kitchen came by, and we talked. When I tried to finish my unexpressed thought about how her intention was not to get out of work, but to be mindful, and we all understood that, the well of suppressed emotion bubbled right up past my mouth and leaked out my eyes, and I knew I was in a bad situation where my responses were going to be wickedly outsized in proportion to what I’d normally feel. Just as she had been trying to say that the work-shirking woman was not her, I felt that this overly touchy being was not me, by which we both meant “This is not how I normally behave, or wish to behave.” The conditions of our situation in the retreat had the effect of making who we were in these moments noticeably unlike our average self; another lesson in the impermanence of what we identify as self.
We chanted honor to the Buddha, and the refuges together, which had begun to feel familiar and comfortable. Gil talked about leaving the retreat gently, being kind to ourselves, being aware that we might need to take special care, and not overwhelming ourselves with an instantaneous return to the way things were before. We might not want to read the hundreds of emails — and answer them all — right away, he said, which got a laugh. And we might find ourselves talking too much; he suggested we pay attention both to who we were talking to and what we were saying, which got another laugh.
After all the good advice was dispensed, each person who wanted to had a chance to say whatever they wanted to say, and as this began, I realized that I really was in trouble. There had been a week of silence, yes, and the return to speaking voices took some adjustment, but for me, more significant than that had been the silencing of individuality, and of feeling, of knowing what was going on with others. I had been aware all along that I missed it. Now I was going to be slammed with it. I got the opportunity to have a great deal of genuine, heart-felt emotion poured in great gushes into the empty space created by the last week, and as more and more people spoke up — perhaps feeling that they should say something — there were sentiments that seemed a little thin, or over-the-top. It seemed as though most of the forty or so participants spoke, and by the end of it, it hardly mattered whether the expressions touched me or didn’t, it had more than overfilled my capacity, and I longed to escape. Had there not been so much emphasis on making sure everyone was included, I would have slipped away, just to be kind to myself; I wished some sort of permission had been given to skip this flood of contact with others’ emotions.
By the time we went for that lunch, everyone seemed pretty comfortable with the broken silence. Since I was already on complete overload, I sat at the far end of a table, away from others, but the sound level seemed so huge that I took my tray outside into the cold air to get away from it. I was accompanied by one very sensitive person who carried on calm and sane conversation with me, which helped to soothe the rawness I felt.
And then the retreat was over and I was taking some very nice — also calm — riders home while looking forward to piloting Spaceship Chevy Suburban back out for a little tour of this area of the planet.
Space and Breath
Hours have passed. The sun just now turned the tops of the mountains into gold while lighting breaking waves far from shore, as well as highlighting white caps and seagulls which sparkle in the distance, both such small bright sparks against the teal sea that they are hard to tell apart. Now the sun is fully free of the shadowing mountains, and the sunlight close to shore reveals the depth and variety of colors of the water. The slow motion violence of the waves following one after the other endlessly, reminds me of the breath, as though it is the planet breathing. No two are exactly the same, each striking the hard and seemingly changeless rock of the core of the planet, of the self, without desire to make any difference at all, but carrying a little bit away, or simply widening a fault imperceptibly with each rise and fall.
I had come to the retreat thinking of myself as a loner and a recluse, and knowing that it is hard for me to ask for help. The situation I’d ended up in highlighted the flip side of this self-concept: I love people, I need them, and want to know about them. This may seem as though it contradicts the loner and recluse side of me, but it doesn’t, not really. I’ve known for a long time that the reason for my preference for quiet and my own company is that I am easily overwhelmed by emotion — by those of others, and by their reflection in me.
Sitting and just paying attention to the breath makes it easier to see all this, and wear away my assumptions about myself, illuminating their complexity.
I’m not sure what the endless wearing away will bring, only that it goes on.
Time now to get this spaceship moving.