Channing Gray, Providence Journal: I arrive early that first overcast day, so I can pitch my tent before dark. Then it’s off to a quick orientation session the night before the start of a weeklong meditation retreat.
I have come to Karmê Chöling, a 700-acre Buddhist meditation center in northern Vermont, about 10 miles south of St. Johnsbury. Many of the 50 or so retreat participants (two are from Amsterdam, one is from Italy) are here for a month, but time and money have held me to seven days, just enough for some serious letting go, I hope.
There are few diversions here at Karmê Chöling. The library has DVDs, but we are discouraged from checking them out. This is a time for contemplation and study. Computers are scarce, and restricted to the dining room. My cell phone is useless in this remote spot.
Days begin at 7 a.m. with morning chants and the taking of precepts, or vows not to take life, lie, steal, engage in sex or take drugs and alcohol for that day. Long stretches of meditation fill our days, which end around 8:30 at night with more chanting.
Most of our time is spent on red-and-yellow meditation cushions in a spacious shrine room with sparkling lights dotting a deep blue ceiling. Even meals are taken sitting on cushions in the shrine room, in the highly ritualized practice known as oryoki, or “just enough,” from the Zen monastic tradition. We eat in silence, engaging in an array of elegant bows and hand gestures to indicate thanks or more food. At night, people sleep on the shrine room floor, on foam mattresses stored in a loft, although rooms are available. Tenting at Karmê Chöling is popular in the summer, but now in that first week of November I am the only one braving the elements.
I am tired that first full day of sitting. The excitement of being here and wind rustling my tent made for fitful sleep. But during a walk before breakfast, snowflakes melting on my nose wake me up to the stillness of the woods and a small river rushing in the distance.
The idea is to pay attention to what I am doing, to be mindful no matter what I’m up to. If suddenly in my head I am whisked back to the newspaper, I become aware of that and return to the shuffle of my feet on the dirt lane and the sight of clouds enveloping the hilltops.
The whole week, in fact, is an exercise in mindfulness. In formal meditation, we follow the breath and try to stay present. When thoughts arise, we notice them, say “thinking” to ourselves and return to the breath. And we don’t judge or analyze thoughts. Even the most pious insights are just “thinking.”
I make a game of this, of just trying to stay in the room, and not get swept up in fantasy. As I breathe in, I am aware of my posture, erect but relaxed. As I breathe out, I dissolve into space. I watch sunlight dance on the shrine room floor, take in the colors of the cushions, then find myself worrying about work and have to return to the room. As I continue this process, thoughts begin to lose their sense of concreteness.
I am relaxed, yet alert, and feel that I am making progress, until I meet with my meditation instructor, Allan Novick, a retired psychologist who spent his life in the New York City schools. I tell Novick that my mind seems stable, and that I am experiencing an “acceptable” amount of discursive thought, to which he replies that all thoughts are acceptable. He reminds me of a line from the morning chants: “Whatever arises is fresh, the essence of realization.”
But I want to do a good job, I say. I want progress and I want it now, I tell Novick. “Patience,” is his advice. And drop any opinions about whether my meditation is going well or not.
Later, I see a quote from the late Chogyam Trungpa, the Tibetan meditation master who founded Karmê Chöling 40 years ago, tacked to a corkboard. It seems to sum up what Novick is saying. The trick, said Trungpa, is to “develop complete acceptance and openness to all situations and emotions and to all people, experiencing everything totally without mental reservations and blockages so that one never withdraws or centralizes into oneself.”
The goal of meditation, if there is one, is to see how the mind works and to accept that. It is not to become blissed out, but as Novick says to “see the truth.” In fact, getting high from sitting is just another addiction, just another trap. But the Karmê Chöling staff makes sure we don’t get too blissful. Just when you think you’re making headway, someone taps you on the shoulder and reminds you you’ve got kitchen duty, or that it’s time for stretching exercises or a talk, all chances to take what we’ve learned on the cushion and apply it to everyday tasks. It’s a chance to look at your mind even when you’re scrubbing pots.
Nowhere was that more evident than during the third day, when we observe total silence. We have been bound to “functional” silence so far, but now we are asked not to speak at all, leaving us only to listen to our thoughts rattling around in our heads. “Noble Silence,” as the practice is called, is like holding a mirror to yourself, watching as you react to people you don’t even know and can’t feel out with polite chitchat. I have only my empty projections and opinions to deal with, from which I learn just how judgmental, how emotionally closed-down I can be.
After a couple of days of drizzle and intermittent snow showers, the skies clear and I wake to a glistening skin of frost on the inside of my tent. I trudge down the wooded path to the main building and get ready for another day on the cushion. I realize that what is supposed to be a relaxing retreat is actually hard work.
By afternoon, my mind has slowed to a crawl. Now there are just stretches where there is nothing but the breath, no mental chatter, just naked awareness. It is at this point that adept meditators see that our interior lives are nothing more than momentary bursts of consciousness that arise uninvited and melt away just as mysteriously. They see that there is nothing behind this stream of thought, no I, no me, no mine. The notion of an inherent self is considered by Buddhists to be just an illusion that results from our strong attachment to the mind-body process.
But what about that “truth” we are all seeking? Even that must go, said retreat director John Rockwell, one of the senior teachers in the Shambhala Buddhist community. Let go of the truth, he said, or “you’ll kill it.”
On the evening of the final day, we gather in the dining room for a festive Western-style meal of salmon, rice and salad. There are toasts and songs, and bottles of wine. We are told that morning that anyone planning to drink should not take the fifth precept, which deals with abstaining from alcohol. So few people took that precept, the room was nearly silent.
After the shindig, I trudge up the hill in the rain for my final night in my tent. I am exhausted as I slip into my sleeping bag, as I prepare for reentry into the world, when I trade clarity for the path of confusion. I pray that I not forget what I’ve learned.
Karmê Chöling, which holds regular retreats and programs, is in Barnet, Vt., or visit www.karmecholing.org.
The cost for a weeklong retreat is $440 to sleep on the shrine room floor, and more for a private or semi-private room. Although many people in the retreat are Buddhists, you don’t have to be one to attend.