As many of you know, I was away on a month-long meditation retreat during July. I have to say it was the most valuable thing I’ve done in years. It will take me a long time to digest and write about it, but here’s my first stab.
The retreat was at the Jikoji Zen Center (www.jikoji.org/) in Los Gatos California. It’s about an hour south of San Francisco in the Santa Cruz Mountains, in the middle of acres and acres of nature conservation land (www.openspace.org/). My favorite spot, pictured, was along a west-facing ridge that overlooked vast tracts of mostly uninhabited mountains. The sunsets were gorgeous. Deer, wild turkey, and all kinds of wildlife roamed in plain sight. To say I fell in love with the place doesn’t go far enough. I know my feelings were influenced by my retreat experience, but I have to say the place inspired me down into my bones.
The memory that stays with me most is of the utterly exquisite silence. I blogged about silence a few months back, but this was of an entirely different magnitude. For an entire month, I was out of contact with the world. No phone, email, radio, etc. No contact with my husband (and he hated that!). All my roles and identities — wife, friend, coach, meditation teacher, etc. — all drop away. I was there as just plain old naked me. We were even asked not to keep track of the days, or the day of the week. We lived in three-day cycles called Buddha Day, Dharma Day, and Sangha Day. So we even dropped our connection with calendar time. In every way we could, we untethered ourselves from the manmade constructs of society and mind.
And of course there was no talking. I also went with the intention to be as fully present as I could for the entire month. I voluntarily refrained from reading or bringing any “projects” to fill up my mind. I didn’t do anything other than the retreat program, daily chores, self-care, and walks in the hills. For four weeks, I was completely with myself — immersed in the moment and flowing with each experience as it arose.
What happens when we do that is all our inner busyness dies down. And when we don’t fill our heads with “rubbish thinking” (as one teacher put it), something magical emerges. Here’s a little piece I wrote somewhere around the second week:
I feel as though my body is opening up and receiving the world. And filling with quiet awareness and spaciousness. Space not in the sense of a void, but an aliveness and sensitivity that fills every one of those spaces. With a real lightness of touch. It’s almost like my body is transparent. My body/awareness seems to extend outward infinitely in all directions. I’m particularly sensitive to sounds. Birds singing, forest sounds all pass right through me, leaving only their echoes and ripples as a sign of their passing. It’s like I’m not there, but I AM still there as awareness. There’s no boundary between me and everything beyond me. And I’m steeped in a groundedness – a feeling that all is right with the world.
The retreat brought home to me – again, I felt it deep in my bones — how alive and real the truth of the dharma is. I lived it for a month. When I let go of all the ways I throw my “self” up against the world, I see that I really am inseparable from that world. And to recognize this brings tremendous relief. The only thing that stands in the way is me. My own resistance, my compulsion to close down and isolate. The more I open up to these forces, the more they take me where I need to go. It’s not always where I WANT to go. But it’s where I NEED to go. I can put my trust in that. It was a real deepening and awakening experience.
Now don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t exactly floating in bliss for the entire four weeks. Like everyone else, I hit a few brick walls, too. Like excruciating physical pain and periods of complete and utter BOREDOM! But those, too, were gifts of the dharma. Lessons in letting go. But I’m going to leave that for another time and another post.
For now, let me leave it at this. We can read about the dharma, debate the ideas, and use it for personal development. But there’s SO much more to it than that. On this retreat, I felt it as a force of the universe — and a life-giving one at that. To ignore or resist it does nothing but create my own suffering. But if I open up to it, it leads me to places that my blinkered little ego hadn’t even imagined.
This quote came into my email a couple days ago, and I thought it was apt so I’ll close with it.
Many people are doing shamata meditation. This is a kind of resting meditation, also called “calm abiding.” This is good, but in Buddhist training you must go deeper than this. It is important to go deeper into emptiness—not nothingness, but into understanding emptiness as the nature of mind. This is where wisdom and compassion come from. And when you apply the method of this kind of meditation with nonjudgment, then lovingkindness and devotion and faith arise and work together to liberate one from suffering.
– Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche