It’s Joy. On Sunday I took a break from my to-do list and joined about 400 other yogis for a day-long Insight Meditation retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, led by preeminent Buddhist teachers Jack Kornfield and Phillip Moffitt.
I hadn’t slept well the night before and had many times thought about not going – due in large part to everything on the above-mentioned list of musts. Reluctant but aware that resistance often is indicative of something bigger, I groggily made my way to the stunning hills of Woodacre, CA.
Upon being greeted by the parking lot attendants with bows of Namaste rather than pointing and shouts, my heart expanded, emotion choked me, and I thanked myself for coming. Inside, settled on my cushion, I was immediately slapped upside the head by fatigue. I had no desire to speak to anyone (luckily I didn’t have to – the day was spent largely in silence. For those who think a silent meditation retreat might kill them, I urge you to check it out. One day of silence positively transformed me – I can only imagine having that gift for a few days or a week). I could barely lift my head to watch Jack as he spoke. “You might feel tired,” he explained. “This is probably the first time in awhile many of you have stopped to just be, and your body is thank you for listening to it – for resting it.” Oh yes, agreed my body. Listen to the man. Listen to ME.
And that’s just what I did, for the rest of the day.
Following some instruction, we sat for a time, watching our breath. Then more instruction, after which we walked slowly back and forth along the grounds outside, focusing on our footfalls. We sat again and awoke to sensations in our body - pain, tingling, itching, pleasure – bowing to each and acknowledging it as it inevitably moved along. Back outside again to walk, this time noting the thoughts that were constantly vying for our attention.
This has always been the bane of my sitting practice, and one of the many reasons I came to this retreat: thoughts that won’t stop. “Monkey mind,” they call it. I’m forever joking about how during my sits I tend to get a lot of thinking done. I hate it. Hated it. Until I was reminded by Jack that it’s actually the mind’s job to think – it’s never going to stop. More than that, it’s trying to take care of us. Thoughts are well-intentioned survival mechanisms that are constantly trying to distract us from making ourselves vulnerable. The brain calls up the infinite pieces of information that are stored in its many folds, often juxtaposing them against each other in a manner that’s ironically irrational, causing battles, confusion, and angst.
By watching the mind in meditation, we start to observe how it does this, and why it can be so frustrating. One second you’re focusing on your inhales and exhales, until you begin fantasizing about a vacation in Bali. Then you realize that your current relationship/financial situation/children/job won’t allow it. You’re furious and resentful. Then the movie The Wedding Singer pops to mind and you start mentally giggling to the wannabe Boy George character singing “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me.” Then you remember where you are and pull yourself back to your breath. You become outraged at yourself for thinking about a slapstick comedy in a monastery. Then you remember that it’s a place of forgiveness and you feel a love for yourself so strong that you well up. Then you get mad at your kids/job/finances/relationship for not allowing you to spend more time here ….
“And you trust that thing??” Jack inquired after one of our sits, during which my mind was doing something very similar to the above.
Good point. No. I don’t trust it. But that doesn’t mean I can’t love it and thank it for trying so hard to help me survive. With no better tools to navigate this bizarre ocean of life than (ostensibly) input from the five senses and from those outside of us, no wonder poor old Mindie is a bit schitzo. It’s like crazy great aunt Peggy, who feeds you killer lasagna and slips a $20 bill into your hand every now and again. She’s kooky, but man, she loves you. She wants to take care of you. Same with the mind. Like the rest of our bodies, the mind, though wonderful, is another tool for carrying out our purpose on earth. It has many wonderful uses. But it is not boss. The wisdom about the truth of our being comes somewhere that is only accessible by stopping, sitting, watching.
Then there was the eating meditation. Oh yes. Eating. Meditation. We were invited to take our lunch in silence, with some instruction beforehand using raisins. First, we look at our food for 30 seconds (or, Jack said, if you’re a really hard-core yogi, a full minute), noting its form, texture, color, smell, feel. We notice the feelings in ourselves too. If we’re hungry, what part of us is hungry? Our eyes, stomachs, brains? Then, as consciously as we observed of our breath during sitting and steps during walking, we raise the food to our mouths, and bite into it with awareness. I can tell you that that was the best raisin I’d EV-ER tasted, and the salad I had for lunch a few minutes later, well. Not since my pot-smoking days in college did food taste that good. Silence. Presence. Awareness. Worlds upon worlds are available to us when we dispense with distractions. It rocked.
The entire day rocked, really, and I could go on for forty pages in all the ways it did. Suffice it to say that it was a much needed retreat for my mind, soul, and body. I learned the meaning of equanimity (the notion that we can care deeply for the world and others – and even help – but ultimately we acknowledge that everyone is on their own trip and living their own life. Too complicated to explain well, but quite freeing). I came to better understand the practice of loving kindness – both in meditation and the world. I was reassured of my purpose on the planet, which is the universal purpose of us all – to enlighten other beings through the pursuit of our own highest truths. I experienced awe and wonder through the magnificence of the landscape, as well as the flock of giant wild turkeys and herd of deer eating side-by-side on the lawn not 50 feet away as we filed en masse into the meditation hall.
Long-held questions were answered, smiles were exchanged in silence, deep breaths were taken. Spaciousness was achieved – quite literally, in fact. That evening, I noticed it was only 9:30 p.m. as I headed to bed. Nothing about the night was any different or less full than the others in my life, where I retire around 11 or later. I could only attribute it to the slow down of time I experienced on that day. It’s a state to which I plan to return often, and eventually move for good.
If you’re interested, Pinkies, day-long retreats like this are offered all the time at Spirit Rock. If you don’t live in the SF bay area, you may want to put out an inquiry on the Pink Posse page – a place rife with yogis and meditators and seekers and healers – to see if anyone has recommendations for a local ashram or meditation center. There are also books galore – wise, funny, accessible Jack Kornfield has written a litany of texts, many instructional. There are guided meditation CDs. Or you may just want to try engrossing yourself fully in an activity for a few minutes: breathing, walking, or my personal recommendation, eating. See what you notice.
What might you Pinksters do today to slow things down and be fully here, embracing your human experience, if just for a few moments?
Loving with all my heart and tasting with all my buds,
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