An unexpected book arrived in the mail the other day. A gift from my friend’s at Wisdom Publications. Zen Master Raven: The Teachings of a Wise Old Bird. by Zen Master human form, Robert Aitken. Here the koans are told by and to animals of the forest: raven, porcupine, owl, woodpecker, badger, black bear, and […]
Greetings everyone. I have a report from the meditation retreat I embarked upon in early December. I should have written sooner when the impressions were fresher, but daily life has a way of asserting itself.
The week in silence feels like a blur now. The interminably long days have given way back to days that just don’t have enough hours. There is a fascinating relationship between the quality of attention and the experience of time and also the agendas we attempt during the course of a given day.
On retreat, life is elemental. The principle activities of the day are sitting and walking meditation. These comprise about nine to ten hours each day. In between cycles of sitting and walking meditation are meals with some break time.
One of those break periods are for work practice where yogis do a housekeeping or kitchen job and continue to practice mindfully and silently. I also got outside walking and running. In the evening, the teachers, Narayan Liebenson Grady and Rodney Smith, gave dharma talks–lectures on Buddhist psychology, ethics, and practice.
The day is long when you do nothing other than sit and walk and eat and all the other little things that happen during the course of a day deveoted to presence.
It’s easy to have expectations for a week like this. It takes a lot to make the arrangements, to say good-bye to loved ones to enter into silence, and letting go off all your daily responsibilities, goals, and commitments. When you show up, you naturally want to make the most of this time. However, if that desire takes the form of striving that effort will get in the way of getting the desired results. It is only by not trying that you can get what you want.
It’s easy to get caught up on marking time on retreat. I certainly did this. After the first day on Saturday, a day that seemed to stretch on forever, we had completed one of the six full days of the retreat. Only five more to go! The more I did these tabulations, the slower time moved. The paradox of time reveals that it is only by not counting time that it starts to flow. A solid week of silence is interminably long yet the week is really comprised of this moment followed by the next moment on and on until the final bell has rung.
Retreat time is an opportunity to train the mind. It’s like boot camp–dedicated, intensive, out of the bounds of the usual. Patience is one of the primary trainings. Just trying to dwell in presence reveals how impatient the mind usually is, at least my mind. It took three solid days of leaning into the future to finally arrive, fully, in the present moment. This occurred on Tuesday morning, the fourth day of the retreat. I was over the mid-way mark, and perhaps this helped my mind to let go. I woke up as I did each morning at 5 AM and that morning I had energy. Sitting was effortless and time lost its shoes (as Pablo Neruda might have said).
I became presence. Just dwelling in the moment with very little talking in my mind. I was alive and without stories to confirm, doubt, and worry, a great peacefulness accompanied the sitting. At the end of the retreat, my perceptions of the world had changed. The sky, snow, and trees had a dimensionality that I had heretofore missed. I could feel how the trees were alive and how we were all, in some way, connected. The only thing that separated us were the obstacles created by thinking.
I encourage everyone to have a retreat experience of their own. The Insight Meditation Society (IMS) is a wonderful place to go on retreat. People have been dwelling in silence there since the late 1970s and I can think of no better place to do this work. The facilities have been recently updated and every retreatent gets a private room. The food is nourishing and wholesome and the teachers wise, warm, and available. You can find out more by visiting dharma.org.