To paraphrase Walt Whitman: Do I repeat myself? Very well, I repeat myself. I am large. I contain multitudes…or at least second thoughts and elaborations. We at Parabola are hard at work, pulling together an issue called Alone and Together (formerly Solitude and Community, but we have already done that in our long life). To that end, I’m expanding on some insights I had at a recent meditation retreat.
I go on retreat braced for solitude. At first, in my solitary cell of a room, I felt like The Count of Monte Cristo, ripped from what I take to be my rightful life, my work, my talk, all means of communication and entertainment. I was bereft. Yet, as the days pass, I find connection and community. The vow of silence and the solitude of the form frees up all the energy that usually goes to a false self. My experience and what I took to be myself thawed and warmed as the days passed. I became more fluid, more like a child. Never have I been more aware that the simple forms of a meditation retreat can be a means of play, a means of playful, genuine discovery.
On retreat we are not as we are in life, doctors, students, professors, writers, men and women, young and not young. Here we are fellow beings, seeking peace and freedom. The teachers tell us the Buddha compared enlightenment to the experience of being forgiven our debts, to having a fever break, to emerging from the wilderness of loneliness and longing. In the darkness before dawn, we gather together and bow out a new version of the Lord’s Prayer, putting down our separate burdens, seeking forgiveness of debts, asking to receive our daily bread of life, of impressions, without trespassing into future, without turning away or trampling past what is offered here and now.
After bowing, we meditated. At times, t felt like communion, as if I was receiving the new life that is offered when we engage in the small act of renunciation that is returning to the present moment. “Heaven and Earth give themselves,” taught the 20th century Japanese Zen master Kodo Sawaki. “Air, water, plants, animals, and humans give themselves to each other. It is in this giving-themselves-to-each-other that we actually live.”
The Sanskrit and Pali word for enlightenment, “bodhi,” means “awaken.” Over the course of the week, I realized that awakening is a gradual process and a perpetual practice, not a fixed and final attainment. It is the slow process of opening like a lens to the radiance at the heart of our real lives, here and now. It is also the practice of being with life, breathing with it, letting go and receiving. We are enlightened as we learn to let light in, as we learn to go of longing and receive what is always being offered, always waiting to be received.
“ Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it,” taught Rumi. In life, I come home to this truth as a last resort, in the midst of the surrender that comes a mishap or failure. J.K. Rowling once told a Harvard graduating class that failure was the bedrock she built her creative life on, that failure granted her freedom from living up to other peoples’ expectations. The Buddha’s awakening began with a memory from childhood. Near death from his efforts and austerities, accepting his failure to attain liberation, he remembered being very young and sitting under a tree watching his father and the men of the village plowing the fields. He remembered how sweet it was to see and receive life without reaching beyond what was offered.
He realized that enlightenment had to be a kind of child’s play. He sat down under the bodhi tree and recovered the solitude of childhood. Confronted by Mara to leave his place, to reach for more, more, more, the Buddha touched the earth, his mother. Like any good mother, she gave her child the feeling that he was magically powerful, that nothing bad would happen to him if he sat right there, exploring his true nature. The retreat teachers encouraged us to see and include all the orphans of our consciousness. I pictured the Buddha confident, calm, and inquiring, fearlessly going on being his undefended self, going on seeing until he was enlightened.
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. Enlightenment is a process. 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.
The Buddha called this state “dukkha,” which is usually translated as “suffering” but which is closer to “unreliable” or “stressful.” The root of the word means something akin to “dirty wheel,” referring to the gunky oil that builds up in the hub of a wheel making the turning wobbly. Dukkha has also been compared to the pain that comes from rubbing naked skin on a brick wall. It may not hurt much at first, but after a time it is a torment. This is the way things it goes, taught the Buddha. Things are not stable and reliable, not really solid. Nothing goes as smoothly as it does in our thoughts and dreams. Reality is rough. “I hate this.” I think. “I love this.” But this grasping and those frozen images of life and self that I carry around is not the same as that more fluid knowing, that deeper seeing that appears in the solitude of retreat