With Serendipitous timing, I was recently able to attend a meditation retreat, “Insight Meditation For the Curious”. I had just quit my job, which was causing me terrific stress, and my next one wasn’t due to start for nearly a month. I had a car I loved, a Volvo wagon that was terrifically speedy, who’s lease was expiring in 3 weeks, with more than 5,000 miles remaining.
I’d been practicing various forms of mindfulness meditation for about a year, with varying results, and my teacher throughout this time told me there was a three day retreat coming up at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. It would be led by Mark Coleman, who I’d read about before. I live in Seattle, and Spirit Rock is about 800 miles away.
I signed up for the course, shuffled my queue of audiobooks, and headed South.
I woke up in Redding, California on a Wednesday morning at 8:00 am. I had a mushroom omelette at my hotel and started the relatively short drive towards Woodacre, California. I was caffeinated just right thanks to a strong cup of tea, and the weather was perfect. My car was driving fast and smooth, and everything was alright.
Well into my audiobook by this point, I simply enjoyed the drive down I-5 until I got to Davis. I had an early lunch at In-n-out burger. This place holds the same rank for me as Waffle house in the south and White Castle in the mid-west. It isn’t actually good, but when you want it, nothing else will do. As I can’t have it in Seattle, I always go when I can. I enjoyed the burger, and ate a few french fries (which was a few too many). I could digress into fast food fries, but a treatise on potatoes might end up being longer than the matter at hand. It was an un-extraordinary but satisfying lunch. I suppose that’s the point of fast food.
I walked around downtown, enjoying the feel of a college town with all its bookstores and gift shops. I bought a copy of “The Dancing Wu Li Masters,” a book about quantum physics written in 1980 to teach people about science without using math. I was afraid I’d left my kindle at home, and I was still unsure about my ability to refrain from external input for a few days. I figured a book that was first published by Bantam New Age, the imprint that published Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, would be less objectionable should someone take issue with me not-so-stealthily importing external stimulation.
Twenty minutes away, on twisty roads that I’ve only ever seen in sports car commercials, I realized I would hear nothing but soft voices and hummingbirds for four straight days, so action was needed. I listed to Steve Aoki’s “Boneless” for the last miles of my ride. This is music that is best played at levels slightly louder than a missile launch, with ranges of bass-lines and pounding drums that only sound good when you can feel them. And it was so loud that it was shaking everything in the car, including my eyes, so the world literally looked as if it was vibrating to the rhythm of the dropped beats.
I turned down my stereo and arrived on the property a few minutes past the start of check-in, about 3:00pm. I was greeted by a sign that read “Yield to the present,” augmented by “And construction vehicles.” The lady at the front gate said, “It’s just an eight minute walk, but leave your bags here, save your back.” I chucked my bags in the back of a beat-up little black pickup truck and walked up the hill, following the hand drawn arrows pointing to registration. I strode past the bookshop, and next to the newly constructed, but not quite finished, community meeting hall. To the left of me were deep woods, to the right, sunlit green hills. I could make out walking paths from the main road. The last gate I crossed warned me that I was entering an area reserved for retreatants only. I had arrived.
Checking in was simple, and was my first opportunity to practice my mindfulness — I got to wait in a line. The first welcome was an opportunity to pick out my “Work Meditation.” I knew this was coming, and had hoped to work in the kitchen, doing prep work for food service. While I was the one of first to arrive, I didn’t have the run of the work list, I was offered a position as a morning or afternoon dishwasher. All of the blank spaces next to the work duties and I am saddled with the one thing I can’t do, having my hands submerged in water and detergents. I politely told them my hands would fall off if that was the case, but I would like anything else in the kitchen that wouldn’t involve wet cleaning. “Perhaps you’d be better suited at housekeeping,” I was told, as I eyed the “Morning vegetable chopper” line on her signup sheet. I shoved myself over, and the housekeeping steward asked me if I’d like to vacuum. Vacuuming is the only housework I really enjoy, so I accepted it with glee. I was to vacuum the upper floor of an adjacent residence hall on one morning, and on the next, the lower floor. I’d also be washing windows and sweeping sidewalks.
The next stop was the room assignment and basic instructions. I’d be staying in room 426, in the last building. I was told to go stake out my spot in the main meditation hall, then grab my things and move in. I was free to do whatever I’d like in the hours leading up to 6pm. There were cookies in the dining hall, and I had a few with a cup of tea and sat for a few minutes taking in the beauty and quietness of my new surroundings. I walked up one of the paths, just for a few minutes, but far enough to feel totally alone. I discovered a Buddha shrine that was covered in trinkets and weathered photographs and memorial notes, and for the first time, but not at all the last, the tears came from my face. Hundreds of people had been here to lay down something as simple as a small vending machine costume ring to elaborate framed photographs with messages of loss. I sat for a few minutes, dealing with the frisson that accompanied my emotions, reveled in it briefly, and tried to bring myself back to normal. I carried myself up the hill, on a path that gradually became too steep to continue up in my floppy rubber soled shoes. I was met with a nice view of the meditation hall and four residence halls. I stumbled down the hill on the opposite side, unable to find a path back, and it was nearing the first event, a meeting with the retreat managers in the main meeting hall.
There was a list of practical advice, a period of Q&A, and some basic instructions. Don’t use smelly soap, do your work meditation, supplies are in the manager’s office, and were provided with emergency contact information, should we need to escape or otherwise require assistance. It was all common sense, spoken softly. We were left to dine together in the dining hall, where everyone was as chatty as a cocktail party. We ate a dinner of bean soup, salad greens, and a loaf of chevre. I tried to sit alone, but there wasn’t enough room, and I was quickly joined by a bearded flannel wielding fellow named Chris, also from Seattle, and a redheaded woman named Gwen, dressed in a hand-knitted mustard sweater that fit her like a poncho. Small talk was occurring in 360 degrees, and I was eagerly awaiting the silence.
After dinner, At 8:00, we all gathered in the main meditation hall.
Mark’s opening words described the stresses of everyday life that we were escaping. Though we were in this container of an environment, we would still have stresses. It was important to notice them, because whatever was going on “out there” would still be with us “in here”. Added to that, there would be a new level of quiet for us first timers. We would be stressed in new ways. We’d have feelings for the pretty lady across the room or hateful vendetta for the person next us for no better reason than they were breathing too hard.
A list of five precepts to abide to while we were in this retreat (and to guide us when we left, I suppose)
- Refrain from killing.
- Do not take what is not offered — no stealing.
- Speak Truth (no gossip).
- No sexual misconduct.
- No intoxicants.
After the rules and Q&A, Mark and Spring introduced noble silence, rang a singing bell and then gave us a few more instructions. He asked us not to be mindful for the next minute, but to sit and try not to notice anything. Predictably, every sound, smell and sense came surging forward. When the minute was over, he told us “That is the most aware you’ll probably be this whole retreat.”
They then explained walking meditation, and sent us on our way to go practice. It was 9:30, which seems mighty early in the evening for bedtime, but after driving and sitting all day, I mindfully walked straight to my room, and went to sleep. It was so quiet I could hear my neighbors walking around in their stockinged feet, the door latches closing three doors down, and every animal rustling in the tree outside my window. I read my physics book for about six pages, but couldn’t keep my eyes open.
My clock stared me down. 5:41am. Someone would walk into the dorm in four minutes and strike a gong, but I was already heading to the shower. There were 10 rooms on each floor, several had double occupancy. Shared among each floor were two semi-private shower and toilet stalls. I wanted to get in and out quickly, but was surprised that I was not interrupted in the bathroom once during the entire retreat except for the occasional nod on the way in out out. I was expecting a line for the showers and toilets in the morning, but everyone was strangely absent.
Another clang from the alarm bell at a few minutes after six, and we gathered in the meditation hall for the first of the days four seated meditation sessions. I found myself in a lucid but dream-like state during almost the entire session. After breakfast, more walking meditation and more sitting. This was as exciting as it sounds — me thinking about mediation, trying to clear my mind, and simply being present. No profound feelings, yet, just a centered effort of presence. We were told that we’d be having smaller meetings with our teachers, and there would be a posting of times outside after the morning sit. My name was absent, which meant I’d have my group meeting the next day.
There was a session about Metta — loving kindness meditation. The idea is to think well of yourself, those you are close to, those you may have trouble with, and the whole world. It is a simple technique, but it is not easy. And I’ve been trying it, but it never clicked. Just repeat the phrases below for the above groups, in your head, and your heart should open. It was with this process that I’ve heard a lot stories about transformative breakthroughs.
- May you be filled with loving kindness.
- May you be safe from inner and outer harm.
- May you be well in body and mind.
- May you live with ease.
- May you be happy.
These are the same words I’d heard before, or a very close variation. With the same results, which is to say not many. Not yet.
After lunch, I walked up a path behind the dorms, slowly, but mindfully. There were lizards trying to attract mates by doing push-ups, birds noshing on ants, and bees pollinating the rosemary flowers. There were a few fellow retreatants, but we all kept our distance.
I walked up through the hills on the west side of the campus, and encountered a sign, halfway into the woods. “Form your own opinion, but leave the flesh of our beautiful madrone tree out of it.” Perplexed, I looked for context. Slightly above my eye level, carved into the tree nearest this sign, a carving, older than me, perhaps, read “There is no hope.” Carved next to it someone replied “Maybe.”
One of the side effects of sitting with proper posture for long periods of time is that your bad habits in sitting are cured, but painfully. As if my shoulders were a balled up fist of 30 years, releasing them hurt. My neck and shoulder muscles were so sore when relaxed that they throbbed. There was a yoga class, which promised to be easy, with Broderick. He was a tall, lean fellow, crazy hair and a crazy beard, but the stillest, kindest eyes, I’ve ever met. He helped me adjust my posture and told me that it was normal to feel the stretchy pain in my upper body. His class was indeed easy, but very effective. My knee pain and shoulder pain was virtually eliminated by a few simple poses he went through, all with humor and grace. When we started doing hip work, he told us we shouldn’t aspire to sit like we see on the cover of the yoga magazines. We should listen to our bodies and that sometime our own anatomies won’t allow us to get there. And it won’t matter to our inner being — if we try but hit a limit, it isn’t a salvation issue. He sealed this by saying “Plenty of assholes can sit in full lotus.”
There was a Dharma talk Thursday night, led by Spring Washam. It was a distilled version of a story she’d read on her own long retreat, called “The Camel Knows the Way.” Its essence was that a devout Catholic woman was wandering the desert with some guides and, a camel. The guides left her, slapping the camel on the ass, and sending it on its way, with the heroine of our story saddled to the camel’s back. She was terrified of this, as she’d been wandering the desert for days and was lost and without supplies. Her guides did nothing but tell her “The Camel Knows The Way.”
She accepted certain death, and became blissful. In the story, all that was required was this “acceptance”, and with it came the bliss and satisfaction she was going to die happy. Of course, the camel knew the way, and she arrived, unscathed, in town.
To me, this seemed like a parable about faith, which is precisely the problem I have with religion. I have no faith, I do not trust the unknown. To say that you can just accept this camel’s path and prepare yourself for death to get over the fear of death is misguided and mystical. She went on to tell us that our only path to freedom is through the pain. Acceptance is key, and once you accept that you are in pain, you will have the tools to escape it.
I went to bed, as my own form of escape, this time with earplugs.
I woke up in a storm of anxiety and sweat. I was imagining myself on the camel. I was imagining a horizon of sand and sun, with nothing anywhere, forever. I was firmly on the back of that animal, and I was on my way to nowhere. As bad as this was, as my thoughts continued, the camel disappeared. With no faith, no camel, and no tools for dealing with this scenario, my mind was in the state I came here to avoid. I wanted a cookie and my own bed. I wanted to go home. I skipped the earliest of the sitting sessions. I stayed in bed and tried to calm myself, but I only succeeded in making myself more upset. I wandered towards breakfast at 6:45 and satisfied myself with a pile of muesli covered in yogurt and honey, and a double bagged cup of english breakfast tea.
I began my vacuuming and sweeping and window cleaning g I’d been assigned the day before. The glass cleaner was made out of vinegar and some other chemical which smelled like Salt and Vinegar potato chips. All I could think about was my own bag of Lays, but it was time for more sitting meditation.
Mark was right about that hateful vengeance.
We sat, and I began focusing on my breath, the air coming across my nostrils and the rise and fall of my core. And then I noticed the swallower. He sat to my left. His timing was impeccable. Every time I would move my attention away from him he would read my mind and make a juicy gagging swallow as if he had a goldfish in his throat.
After the third or fourth time in 10 minutes, my mind turned completely towards him. At first it was a pillow, slapping him in the face, gently. Then it was harder, enough for him to fall off his chair.
Again, with the fish-gags.
My mind’s eye turned to a brick. Straight out of a Quentin Tarantino movie, with a clenched fist around a vividly-brick-colored-brick, I swung my arm around and connected. The whole world was black and white except for the stream of gore shooting from his mouth. Teeth flew and the blood painted the walls as if he was Jackson Pollack’s personal paintbrush.
Then the bell rang and we were all back in the meditation hall.
I took a few deep breaths, remembered where I was, and wiggled my napping fingers and toes. The adrenaline running through my veins and shaky hands was telling me I’d just really actually had this experience, even though fishhgags was still sitting there with is eyes closed and mouth slightly agape. Time for a walk. Today’s group meeting time were posted. I looked over the list, and my name wasn’t on Mark’s list. It was on Spring’s. I was bothered — I really wanted to spend a few minutes with the man I came here to meet. It further drove me into wanting to leave.
A short break, and we were back in the hall with today’s Metta and Q&A session.
Spring gave a talk about acceptance again, but with no faith interleaved. I am pretty sure by this point, the board where we could leave notes for the teachers was filling up with questions about pain and people that wanted to leave, like me. She explained to us more about Metta, and gave very non-specific but good advice about how we are unbalanced — how we think about things, but do not feel them. Her words addressed what I was feeling, like she’d read my mind about wanting to go, and was pulling me back, and making me comfortable. Mark mentioned that by this time in other retreats, people had packed their bags and walked down the hill, no help from the black pickup this time. We should congratulate ourselves on making it this far. It is not supposed to be easy. My turn to see Spring was coming up at eleven — after this sitting, and before lunch. I went back to the residence hall and took a long, hot shower, going several minutes past the five minutes that the waterproof egg-timer on the wall suggested. I mindfully wasted some time in my room until it was time for the group meet.
Ten of us piled into a small room, folding chairs in a circle. Spring took a casual role call, and we began asking her questions about what to do with our discoveries so far. I told her and the group about my anxiety over placing myself in the camel story, and questioned how I was supposed to accept the untruths of my own mind.
“It isn’t the story you have to accept,” she said. “It is that your mind is making up the story.”
And just like that, I felt like someone had told me the joke that I had heard the punchline to so many times. The clarity that arrived replaced the morning’s anxiety, and was so swift and so complete, I can’t recall that pain when I try. “This is the feeling when my brain makes up a story,” is what went through my head. And with that knowledge, the stress was gone, like a layer of grease on a body of water when a drop of soap is applied. The anxiety and stress ran away.
I realized when I was on the way to lunch, which was a delicious miso soup and jasmine rice, it was the last lunch I would have to endure. I’d be halfway to Sacramento this time tomorrow. So I knew I would make it, I wouldn’t have to leave early. And with that came the acceptance I’d been looking for. It allowed me to be present.
The next hours were bliss. I went on another short hike, and started examine the stresses I was feeling, and they would immediately pop, replaced by a feeling of something new, something I hadn’t felt before. Half understanding, half love, half sheer happiness — I knew everything would be okay. My relaxed state turned me into a walking smile.
In the next sit, Señor Fishythroat was missing. He was gone, replaced by a woman in a maroon tunic. I took my seat, and as much I hated him before, I desperately missed him. I realized that even though he was accompanied by these cinematic themes of violence, he was keeping me present — if my mind wandered, he let me know I was sitting in a meditation hall, next to him. Also, another stranger sat behind me, and he made yet another noise which earned him the nickname of Moaning Pete. These feelings were fleeting, as I went through the earlier loving kindness meditations and I could feel myself becoming filled with joy and love and everything that is good in the world, I was able to spread it everywhere, and I realized that even if my worst enemy had walked into the room at that moment, he would have been greeted the same as my best friend. It was impossible to feel anything but goodness in my heart. I finally understood.
Mark’s talk was about the four noble truths, and paths to practice. He discussed suffering, how to eliminate it and techniques we can all use to get there. What resonated with me the most was an equation; suffering equals pain times resistance.
After the dharma talk, we had a brief stretch before the evening’s final sit. It was very dark at this point, and I could see the sky as one can only see it under clear mountain air. The lights of the bay area were still polluting the complete darkness, but it was still vastly better seeing than what I could get back home. In the distance to the south I saw a brief flash, and my mind made up a story of annihilation, it was a nuclear blast and we’d all be vaporized. There was, of course, no basis for this, but it’s something I’ve been fighting, just as I had in the night before, and I asked myself, how can I possibly approach something so horrible with love? How can I approach such a falsehood with joy?
And then I practiced what I had learned earlier in the day — I told myself that is what it felt like to make up a story, and I imagined myself being told that story, instead of generating it. The image of crispy fried San Franciscans was replaced by me, only as a little kid. The younger me was telling present me a story about something he’d seen on the television or heard on the radio. It’s something I knew wasn’t true, he was just making it up. I tussled his hair, gave him a hug, and approached it with love. The pain and suffering that was on the surface again went away and was instantly replaced with feeling like I got a loving hug — which I just gave myself. I understood even more.
The last sit of the retreat was perfect. I was comfortable, and it flew by without boredom, without pain, without anything but these feelings of satisfaction and understanding. I slept very, very soundly that evening, the last I would spend in the retreat.
The final morning. The bell is what wakes me up today at 5:45. I go to the 6:15 sit and we have a final Q&A session. Spring tells us the world will be yelling at us when we leave, that things will feel different, and louder. She says we will be annoyed at people who aren’t mindful, and that people get frustrated at the speed and mindlessness of people we are near. “People don’t like it when you act like a Buddhist, they like it when you act like the Buddha.” We should not go out and preach, but just take what we’ve learned, practice, be near other practitioners, and study to keep being inspired. One of the things she gets to do as a teacher is repeat the same thing over and over, which reinforces her teachings within, and that we should find our own way to reinforce our practice.
We cleaned out the meditation hall of all the pillows and chairs, gathered in a circle and participated in a ritual release of the good feelings and energies we’ve generated over the past few days. Mark rang the bell. The silence is over, and so is the retreat, but my practice is just beginning.
Dan Harris — 10% Happier — http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0062265431/ref=as_li_tl?tag=benshesstu-20&linkId=LOHH6YQCQNGQNM3I
Mark Coleman’s talk about Four Noble truths — http://dharmaseed.org/teacher/115/talk/33009/
The Headspace App — https://www.headspace.com
Steve Aoki, Boneless — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lofEOzXblYg