Several times a year, I go on silent meditation retreats. I go to practice solitude in the company of others— withdrawing from the world of striving for a time, mindfully receiving what is given and trusting that more will be given without always leaning forward, grasping for more. “Sati,” the Pali word for mindfulness means to remember. I go on retreat to remember there is more to life than I think.
Yet for the first few days, I think, think, think, and in the most shallow and superficial way. Should I wear my purple sweater or the fleece thing? I am sick of oatmeal , etc. I am full of the heightened self-consciousness of a traveler, eager to fit in yet maintain the boundary between myself and other. Around the third day, I wake up utterly tired of maintaining my separation, tired of the stories about myself that I carry around like Marley’s chains.
It’s not a grand shift, like I penetrate to the meaning of emptiness, just that my thinking and my fearful reactivity becomes less dense, a mist I can see through rather than a thick fog that blinds. The attention becomes free to investigate life rather than being an indentured servant of the self. One morning, I tasted a local egg from a local farm that tasted so wild—I swear I could taste the chicken in the egg. This doesn’t sound like much in this super exciting world, but it was really something to notice—the life in life.
My favorite time of day came before dawn and before the first sitting. All of us gathered in the meditation hall to bow and chant to Guan Yin, the female Buddha of Compassion. Born in the West and Protestant, I found this ancient practice thrilling, a trip to distant parts of my own human being. Head to the floor, arms extended and hands up in a gesture of surrender and supplication, I offer my small self in exchange for a greater awareness, a greater compassion. I remember that we humans are made to worship, to serve, and to seek.
Over the years, I have come to know some of the people who go on retreat, and I am comforted by their presence. But when we bow together, we are not as we are in life, doctors, students, professors, writers. We are fellow beings, seeking peace and freedom. The teachers tell us the Buddha compared nirvana to the experience of being forgiven our debts, to having a fever break, to emerging from the wilderness of loneliness and longing. In the dawn light, we bow out a version of the Lord’s Prayer, seeking forgiveness of debts, seeking to receive our daily bread without trespassing into future, without taking more than is offered.
Over the course of the week I realize that enlightenment may be a practice, not a destination. It may be a slow process of opening to the radiance at the heart of life— not something “out there” but right here in the midst of things. Like a puddle after the rain, nirvana appears as we learn to attend to the life that is here and now, as we learn to let go of longing and receive. What does it mean to be present in the body? I realize I barely know.
Up wells the ego without warning, reconstituted in a heartbeat. I remember reading that it is impossible to kill the ego because it is not really alive. What we usually take to be ourselve is a force of habit, a current of thought that pulls us away from life towards a separate “self.” At other times, there are bursts of anxiety about work, sudden feelings of deep fatigue, piercing sadness, or restlessness, as if I am trapped in heavy traffic on the highway and impossibly late for a very important date, like the Mad Hatter. The gift of a retreat is the chance to accept all these unexpected visitors, all these orphaned children of our consciousness.
Several days, I served as “practice leader,” sitting up on a stage in front of the sangha during a meditation. I picked up a cold and as I drew in breath I swallowed my cough drop whole. I wondered if I would be the first practice leader ever to choke. Somehow being in this pickle, sitting up there with the big bronze bell, trying not to choke, helped me let go and open up. We practice enlightenment in the small act of renunciation that is returning to the present moment. Then we see that it doesn’t need to be called mindfulness, it may as easily be called heartfulness or bodyfulness. It means coming to a gathered state, a collected state, where mind, heart, and body touch. Then you can begin to perceive the deeper impulses under the thoughts. We begin to perceive energies, not objects.
On retreat, we have a chance to see that impressions can open up like a lens. Sitting up there with the bell, leading the meditation, I glimpsed there is something that comes through us in spite of our thoughts, our stories. Sitting up on the stage, I forgot about myself and felt the energy pouring in from my fellow seekers. I noticed our expectations make a sound and when we surrender all expectations there is a very deep silence. The question “who am I?” became “why am I here?” I was not there to be a someone but a seeker, an opening to a greater light and a stillness that was a search because it needs to be constantly renewed.
The English root of the word “suffer” means to hold. When we hold our suffering—our striving, our desires, our insecurity– consciously, it can become a liberating energy, a vibrancy that opens inward, revealing deeper truths.
When I go on these silent retreats, I realize that I usually have it upside down. It isn’t our seeming successes but our failures that are really interesting. It isn’t when we are full of being someone but when we are no one that we are really useful. I mean the times when we don’t know what to do, are the times when we are open. Our real strength, wisdom, and compassion are in the broken places. Those places and those times of not knowing are where the light of that inner radiance can shine through.
And I’m glad to be back.