Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The gift of silent retreat

During a meditation retreat, a woman came up to me and mouthed how much she liked a particular jacket I had on because of the colors.

It was an awkward moment for me. If there is such a thing as a visual mumble, I am pretty sure I did that when I tried to smile and move on.

In strict retreats, even eye contact is considered a break in silence. One might even say that the loud colors on my jacket were inappropriate. Most people wore plain dark clothes.

In silent living, it is hoped that an environment is created that limits our stories or neurotic tendencies, because less is apt to get activated when we minimize the external stimulus. Then we just have our own minds to deal with. Except, people are still people.

I had a roommate at the same retreat who kept breaking the silence to ask permission to do things in the room or try to figure out how to minimize her discomfort with the silence.

Then there was the man who felt he had to tell me that the etchings on the metal lamppost were from squirrels gnawing at it and that perhaps they were meditating while doing this. I didn't see the connection, unless they were simply living out their "squirrel nature." But he was determined to tell someone and I was the nearest someone.

I was amazed and frustrated by how many people could not contain themselves.

Looking back, I had hoped to glide through the retreat in my own bubble. Yet, something about the woman who made her way through the crowd to express herself, broke through and pierced my consciousness in a particular way.

Pema Chodron talks about our attachments to stuff. What would it be like if someone liked our favorite red sweater, she asks, and we gave it to them. Right then and there.

Earlier this summer, I attended a Vipassana retreat with Ralph Steele who said, "Don't take what isn't given. What if you depended on your livelihood by receiving only what was offered? Now that is a radical idea."

I am struck by my own fears and tightness around money. If this doesn't squelch soulful living, I don't know what does. Yet, I don't want to be stupid about money and other resources either.

While my "story" includes periods when resources were very limited, I am not destitute. It was time to stop thinking of myself as impoverished and to let go of the grasping of material things. This is just one jacket.

My sense of this woman's delight moved me to give her the one-size-fits-all jacket at the end of the conference. She nodded an "ah-hah" as she remembered our intersection a few days earlier saying how much she loved the colors. It was the end of the retreat and time to go.

Who was this woman? She is the woman who liked bright colors and who expressed so elegantly in a non-verbal way something that brought joy to both of us. And, that is all that I need to know.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The universe came together in a wonderful way last week. As my 50th birthday was being marked, I celebrated by attending a weeklong silent meditation retreat. This was the first time I've gotten to spend that much time in silence and I didn't know how it would go.

At the beginning, we were asked to set our intention. I hadn't really thought about setting a goal for the retreat. But as I sat on my cushion, it occured to me that "integration" was my goal. I wanted to integrate the whole 50 years of my life on earth and make peace with it.

As it turned out, little things along the way arose that reminded me of past wounds or difficult experiences or wonderful life events. The important ones just showed up like they do whenever I have the time to reflect. Some memories that came to mind surprised me because I had forgotten them. The beauty was that I had nothing else to do but tenderly hold whatever arose and let it go. It was like a non-linear life review.

The week basically was a typical meditation retreat with sitting and walking meditation scheduled from 6:15 a.m. until 9:30 p.m. everyday. Scatterings of yoga and meditation talks were offered. Meals changed up the rhythm of the walking and sitting meditations, but were also meant to focus on ways of being present to the moment.

The practice of lovingkindness meditation was particularly soothing and supportive. What was so helpful was that the stage was being set by the workshop leaders for opening the body, heart and mind in a tender and safe way. First we practiced lovingkindness on ourselves, then others we love, then strangers or people we are less reactive to, followed by those we have experienced difficulties. Finally, we ended with focusing on loving the world and all that entails.

I don't know what the conditions were that allowed me to be so open, but I was able to work with a most difficult relationship and bring that person into my heart in a non-reactive way using a method I have found difficult in the past - Tonglen.

Tonglen is a method that focuses on breathing in a difficulty or suffering and turning it around to a positive energy or releasing it to the universe on the out breath. I typically find my body resisting this practice. Drawing in pain and suffering intentionally usually adds to my own sense of physical and psychological restriction or resistence. It just didn't work in the past.

To experience my difficult person and the suffering they caused without resistance or reactivity is huge for me. Usually, I would try to force loving this person and my heart would be in such pain or I'd feel sick. But after an adulthood of working on my issues, years of meditation practice, and being in the right place and time for this work, I was surprised by this awareness of non-reactivity. I could breath in the suffering and let it go without resistance. What a concept!

More than that, by the end of the week I came to view that what I was really experiencing was equanimity.

Equanimity is the idea that we hold all experiences and beings with lovingkindness - all of it, no matter what. It had been such a confusing concept to me. I'd get all tied up in imagining what is was supposed to look like, but could not understand how that actually worked. I was not able to think my way into this awareness.

In that past, I would try to love everyone else with all their flaws, but I could not fathom anyone loving me for who I am - you know, if they really knew me. At the end of the retreat, I gained a gentle, but revolutionary understanding of equanimity as my heart softened and I loved everyone else... including my difficult relationships... and finally was able to included all of me, too. What a sweet and tender revelation.

At the age of 50 years, I am finally getting a taste of equanimity. And, it was surprising that I had to include me. Wasn't that what the beginning of the week practices were about? How many times had I done this practice and had not had the ability to bring all of me along?

I was also reminded that these Buddhist practices are all inter-related. One practice leads to another; and, one never knows why the path is a little different for each person. What is so great about Buddhism is that people are given permission to explore and test for themselves to see what works or doesn't work.

Who knew that I'd experience such wonderful things after living 50 years on this earth? It is a bit like finding ripe fruit for the picking. How delightful!