Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Meditation on Shambhala Mountain Center Retreat

A couple of weeks ago, I arrived at Shambhala Mountain Center for a four-day meditation and yoga retreat.

SMC is about a two hour drive from Denver – freeways to Ft. Collins, a two-to-four lane from Ft. Collins to a winding two-lane up and into the foothills to a dirt road, to an unpretentious faded maroon and yellow sign that marks a bumpy drive through a gap in the fenceline. With me for the drive up is a late-twenties college student who indicated a need for a ride from Boulder to Shambhala. When we met, she thanked me for the ride, we chatted for a bit, and she went quiet, napping in the hot sunshine of the roadtrip. At the gap in the fence, I slow and turn into the gate. There is an interesting sense of arrival, as I’ve much anticipated this, and there is a sense of quiet.

A sign points from the parking lot to a crushed stone path that leads a couple hundred yards to an old two-story cabin that looks like it was built in the 1920s as a ranch house. A sign in front says, “Registration.” We walk to it, my ride-sharer stops and greets some friends. I continue on. The front door is open. I climb the few steps to the front porch and walk in. There’s a table with printed clip-on nametags, alphabetized. I do a quick count – it looks like there will be about sixty of us in the program, maybe a few more, if others have arrived earlier than I. I don’t recognize any names, but I didn’t expect to.

A few paperwork items with a person behind a desk. Only one is unexpected – “rota.” The form I fill out says that “rota” is an essential part of the experience of Shambhala, and provides a place for me to record what “rota” I will be doing. The person behind the desk hands me a sign-up sheet with chores listed out – Sunday breakfast dishes, Friday sweeping Sacred Studies Meditation Room, things like that. Following many of them is a variety of handwriting styles and inks – names of people who’ve already taken on one thing or another. There is an open space beside “Saturday cleaning Sacred Studies Foyer” where I write my name. The person behind the desk hands me a map of the area that, from the looks of it, is a ninth or tenth generation photocopy of the original map. With a pink highlighter, she shows me the tent I’m assigned to, the registration cabin where we are now, the path to “downtown,” the road from registration to the bathhouse my tent is nearest.

I drive the rider to her bathhouse, we drop off her gear, and I then drive to my bathhouse and do the same with my gear, leaving it on the porch, and return the car to the parking lot.

Map in hand, I begin walking through Shambhala. It is a curious mixture of buildings – an old ranch-style cabin used for registration, a few trailers of the sort that construction crews use to house offices on work sites, some one- or two-room cabins that look cobbled together from spare parts from a building supply store, large tented buildings set on wooden platforms, and several nearly new buildings scattered around, the latter all bearing a similar style and design. Tents are grouped around bathhouses – two sets of tents are near the “downtown” area, an area consisting of a kitchen/food prep building (1920s cabin style), a massive dining hall tent, a 1920s cabin style gift-and-sundries shop, a smaller dining area tent, and a new Sacred Studies building. Other tent groups are scattered a quarter- to a half-mile from “downtown.” Mine’s an outlier, though not the farthest.

On the trip through downtown, I’m surrounded by people who are engaged in conversations, grouping here and there at improvised picnic tables. I wonder whether four days apart from my family, pursuing activities and interests they do not share, is going to be a good thing or not.

I find my way back to the bath house, carry my gear to my assigned tent. It’s a single, though there are two platforms, two foam rubber pads, two bookcase/shelves, and two racks. I grab my backpack, dropping the rest of the gear. Suddenly mindful of my non-mindfulness, I stop, unpack everything, and organize the tent before proceeding back to downtown and dinner.

Through the solitude of crowds, I get dinner and then make my way, as instructed by the schedule, to the Sacred Studies building. The entry has large doors defended by Tibetan-style stone lions. They try to look fierce, but their size puts them only slightly larger than the over-fed cat snoozing in the sun by the dining hall tent. The foyer to the building has benches, coat racks and cubbyholes, and a sign that requests we remove our shoes before proceeding through the next set of doors. I comply and push through the inner doors.

There is an entry area, and behind it, another set of double doors, these wide open, to a brightly lighted, bamboo-floored meditation hall. The ceiling is vaulted in the center, lower on the two open wings. On the back wall of the room is an altar, framed by large portraits of two men. I recognize the older one as Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and the younger one as his son, Sakyang Mipham Rinpoche. There is no furniture in the hall, but there are lots of yoga mats laid out with meditation cushions. About 2/3rds of them are occupied. I enter the hall. Despite the people shifting around, finding places to sit, shuffling odds and ends, it is palpably quiet and still.


The retreat is led by Cyndi Lee, an accomplished yoga teacher, and David Nichtern, a teacher of meditation, trained in Tibetan Buddhism and a student of the lineage that founded SMC. Most of their introductory remarks are not, themselves, remarkable. They outline the retreat’s intended structure and content enough to quiet the “what will happen next?” part of the participants’ monkey minds. They talk about their own experiences and background enough to quiet the “can I trust these people?” part of the participants’ monkey minds. And they talk long enough for us to settle into the physical room, wiggling on yoga mats, shifting on meditation cushions, glancing around the room at other participants, the altar, the lights, the windows.

Two things, though, stick in my mind about the leaders’ initial remarks. In her self-introduction, Cyndi Lee says something along the lines of this: “During the retreat, I will play the role of mother – when I see things that can be done better, I’m going to tell you so, and maybe adjust your poses to get you there. Don’t be offended.”

In his self-introduction David Nichtern says something along these lines: “Most of you probably don’t know anyone else here, so you’re probably a little lonely. In a meditation retreat, being a little lonely is a good thing.”


I signed up for the retreat because it combined both yoga and meditation, two practices that have become central to my life. As it turns out, I find the meditation a lot harder than the yoga.

The retreat is structured in four basic sessions, each one with a headline message which is elaborated through a meditation session (including dharma talk and practice) and a yoga practice. In normal life, I practice yoga between an hour and two hours a day (sometimes three, if you count the time in classes that I teach, too). By contrast, I sit on my meditation cushion about a half hour each day, and I always wind up opening my eyes between the 20 and 25 minute marks, because I can’t really believe that I haven’t been sitting for way more than a half hour by that point.

The first headline message worked through in meditation and a yoga practice is Making Friends With Yourself. Befitting such an innocuous-sounding message, the meditation practices were brief explorations of the mind, noting the thoughts as they arose. The meditation leader introduced us to the shamatha meditation practice of watching the breath. When we notice the mind wandering from that object of concentration, he instructed, just notice the fact of the wandering, and return the attention to the breath.

In my novice-style and inconsistent pranayama practice, I have worked a number of breath patterns, focusing on them closely, so this instruction sounds pretty easy. David says, though, not to try to control the breath – just watch it. And he instructs us to do the meditation with our eyes open, something I’ve never been able to manage very well, as I tend to find visual images endlessly distracting (don’t get me in an art gallery or sculpture garden if you want me to stay focused on anything other than paintings or sculpture).

This is the first time in years that I’ve tried to practice meditation other than alone, either in my closet (it’s a walk-in, with enough space on the floor for a pad), or my basement. Despite Cyndi and David’s efforts in the introductory session to quell monkey-mind responses to the novelty of the situation, my monkey-mind churning consumes almost all of the first session, just getting used to the idea of seeing something while meditating, being aware of other people while meditating. When I meditate alone, there is always a very clear and noticeable mind response when I hear anyone – even my dog –approaching. So meditating in the same room with sixty or seventy other people requires a bit of getting used to. Still, I’m surprised at how effective my mind is at zipping off to the usual storage shed of fantasies, tangents, visual fascination with the floor, distractions, and the like.

The second session headline is Dynamic Equilibrium, a concept I’m pretty comfortable with from yoga practices. There’s no such thing as a perfectly still pose. In every pose, opposing muscles are constantly adjusting their tension against one another. David introduces us to the idea that meditation works the same way – there is no such thing as the perfectly still mind – just stillness as a function of increasingly minute adjustments.

The third segment of the program, Obstacles as Path, gives us an opportunity to see the experience of disruptions and obstacles and interferences to the objective as the object of the meditation or yoga itself. As David and Cyndi introduce it, it sounds unpleasant. As we practice it, it is unpleasant. David remarks, “why should we think meditation is only about light and butterflies?” But the experience is worse than it sounds. David strikes the bell, and we’re into the meditation session. Because my right knee is bugging me a little after the first day, I opt for a vajrasana meditation pose.

Turns out that if obstacles to meditation are the objective, this is a good call. If comfort is the objective, I could have made a better choice. After about 15 minutes, I’m starting to hurt – both ankles, right foot, and a big knot that’s beginning to form under my right shoulder blade. I’ve opted to sit with my eyes closed, as the first day, I never really got to the meditative mind state with them open. After 20 minutes, I’m obsessed with the discomfort, with the pain the back, the pain in the ankles. After about 21 minutes, I’m mad at the teacher – really, really mad, because he didn’t tell us how long he was going to keep us in meditation. At 21:20 minutes, I’m wondering how long we’ve been sitting together. At 21:35 I’m wondering how much wiggling I can get away with. At 21:37, I’m starting to control my breath frequency and depth. At 21:40, I do circles with my neck, only realizing I must have decided to move my neck and head after I finish moving them. The circles stretch the knotted muscles a little bit, and I return to the breath. At 21:44, I’m thinking about the yoga teacher’s assistant who adjusted my downward dog pose the day before. At 21:52, I’m annoyed about how long we’re going to be sitting here. At 22:03, I’m getting really really mad.

You get the picture.

When my pissed-off-ness reaches its fourteenth or fifteenth peak of suffering – “how long is he going to keep us here!?!? He’s just being mean! Why should I sit here just because he told me to? How long—”


Suddenly, I don’t want to open my eyes. I don’t want the meditation to end with me bitching and whining inside myself, mentally yelling for it to end.

But’s that’s exactly what happens.

So instead of feeling like my demands were met, I feel like I childishly wasted the meditation period.

No bliss. No deep insights into impermanence. No sudden understanding of interdependent arising. Barely a few split seconds of even superficial awareness of my own mind.

How long was the sitting? I really haven’t any idea, there are no clocks in the hall, and David doesn’t tell us. In retrospect, I suspect it was about 40-45 minutes, but given the drama yelling match going on in my head, it could have been 15 minutes for all I know. I feel frustrated. A bit stupid. But I come away with this: I’m truly startled by how loud my mind gets and how little space is left for anything but its vociferous suffering as I do nothing more interesting than sit still for a bit.

David leads us through a walking meditation, which is both a relief, and kind of interesting. Whatever the artificial drama of the seated meditation session, the walking session allows me to settle my mind into seeing what comes up. We return to more seated meditation, more of a “normal” experience, more comfortable, more possible. And shorter.

In the yoga practice that follows, holding Warrior 3 for an extended period feels like a blessing.


That evening at dinner, one of the participants in the retreat recommends that I hike up to the top of a nearby (and not-too-tall) peak on a ridge to watch sunrise dawn.


I awaken well before dawn, glance out the tent’s east-facing window, and see only the night lights of Ft. Collins reflected against the clouds in the distance. I roll over. I awaken again a bit later. The east-facing window shows a bit more light in the eastern sky. I realize that it’s getting near time for departure. My mind pokes at memory to guess how long before sunrise. I suspect I should get going. I close my eyes again. I awaken again. After repeating the sequence yet again, I swing my feet to the floor, put on levis and lace up my hiking boots. I have a drink of water and head out of the tent. The sky is lighter than I expected. It’s probably later than I’d planned. Following the rough instructions I remember from last night, I find a trail to the Great Stupa (about which, more later). Every now and again, maybe a half dozen times before I get to the Stupa, the trail is marked by and passes between tall poles, wrapped in vertically long, but horizontally narrow, flags. Empty gates.

I pass by the Stupa itself, navigate around it, and head up a rough and steep dirt road up the mountain. I’m alone and entirely at peace. At the edge of the road, I find tufts of silver sage growing. I pick a few fringed leaves, twisting them in my fingers to release their scent and drop them into my pocket. It blends with the dew-strong scents of morning flowers and pines. The road crests beside a rocky crag. There’s a bench to rest on, but I see a thin trail leading to the rocks themselves, and several ways up from there. The three-peaked crag seems more than 50 feet high, less than a hundred. It’s the sort of crag that any respectable primate can climb. As I go up, I find in sheltered spots beneath overhanging rocks dried masses of what looks like potter’s clay, shaped to the size of a small snowball, pressed into the rock. Clearly human-brought. I haven’t any idea what they are or why they are placed there. I scramble higher. The air temperature is cool, but not overly so. The fleece shirt I’m wearing is damp from sweat, but not wet. As I scramble to the top, I look and my brain goes through the nearly instantaneous adjustment it always does when I think I’m alone and suddenly find that I’m not. I see that there are two people here already, sitting in meditation – a man I’ve seen in the dining tent, and the yoga instructor’s assistant. They smile, I nod, bow, and find a rock to sit on. I realize that I’m probably sitting between them and the bright point on the horizon where the sun will rise in a few seconds. I shift to a lower rock, off to the side, and at the edge of the crag. I sit.

The barest shred of the sun is just above the horizon, burning its edges. We’re high enough that I can see past the foothills, and the horizon is set by the long, flat plains east of Fort Collins. I settle into my seat, focus soft, eyes half-open, and gaze toward the rising sun. Even before the sun is halfway above the horizon, I’ve noticed its north-to-south motion, its summer morning path as it rises into the ecliptic plane. There is a steady breeze pressing gently against my back, sweeping past and through me. The air has a kind of clarity that seems brilliantly present and empty. I inhale, drawing in the breeze, exhale, noticing the breath rejoin the wind. My vision set on the sun rising above the horizon, my attention on my breath, my mind stills.

Arising in my mind, the impermanence of a sun rising over eroding mountains.

Then stillness.

I hear the dopplerizing of bird calls. A dozen or so small birds speed just over our heads, flying eastward and down into the valley below us, faster than the wind.

Arising in my mind, the emptiness of space and air all around the crag, my skin.

Then stillness.

I hear the two people with me at the mountaintop shift and rustle. After a few moments, they enter my line of vision, scrambling diagonally down the rocky crag. I hear their boots crunch gravel as they make their way to the dirt road, and head down mountain. The texture of my breath changes to the shaking of grief. From the inside, I watch it. My body is sobbing. I notice that I am alone again.

Then stillness.

Something clicks in my head. I straighten my spine and bow toward the rising sun. I turn and explore the rest of the top of the crag.

I’m at the highest point on the crag. It is marked with another vertically long, horizontally short flag. There are two other lower crests to the crag, each one marked the same way.

There is, in the niche formed at the base of an overhanging boulder, a Buddha statue. Around the statue are offerings – quarters, a Chapstik, a whistle, a broken clay pipe, a rolled-up dollar bill. I find in my pocket a bit of the silver sage I’d twisted on the path up to the crag. I set it before the Buddha.

Behind the boulder is a flat stone, large enough to stand on, but only barely. I pull off my boots and socks, my shirt, and I begin a sun salutation: standing, hands at heart center. Draw kneecaps up, tightening quads to femurs. Sweep arms wide, then up, alongside ears. Turn gaze straight up. In the morning-brightened sky, directly overhead, I see the last star of the night, still shining. Bend at hip joints, flat back, arms extended to either side, swan-diving forward and down. My gaze rests on the granite beneath my feet. Half lift, to a flat spine, arms still extended earthward; full forward bend, hands grasping calves, face pressed to shins. Then sweeping up to standing, hands at heart center. Then again. And again. And again.

Each motion is practiced, familiar. My mind is embedded in my flesh, in the air of the crag, in the stone at my feet, the star above me, the sun-brightening sky.


As I work my way down the dirt road from the crag, the air cools in spots, warms in others. At the back of the Stupa, I see a path that branches off and upward, more southerly than the eastward path I’m returning from. A sign indicates a Shinto shrine ahead. I follow the path. A couple of hundred yards up the hill, there is an open shelter that includes instructions. I draw the cleansing water from a covered basin, wash my hands, my mouth. I bow, passing through the gateways framing the path, empty space within them, before them, beyond them. I greet the shrine, see the offerings of rice, of salt. I bow, take a grain of salt and place it on my tongue. I clap loudly, twice; bow twice. Then work my way back down the path, through the empty gates.

At the Stupa, I remove my boots, enter. There are others here. I sit and gaze at the towering Buddha figure before me.

I stand and withdraw. Outside, I re-boot, and begin walking down the path to the Stupa. I stop at an offertory that I must have passed on my way up. I don’t remember it. It is elaborately bedraped with mala beads, packets of tea, coins, hair bands, photographs, scribbled notes, bandanas, pebbles. I add another silver sage leaf. At the front of it are half-charred incense sticks in a sand-filled bowl, blown out by the wind. I find a cigarette lighter at the base. Cupping the flame from the constant breeze, I hold it up to the tallest incense stick. It smolders. The wind blows out the lighter. I try again, holding flame to the incense, cupping the incense, the flame, the air with my hand. The incense catches fire, burns steadily. I release the lighter and un-cup my hand. The flame blows out, leaving a breeze-fresh glowing ember, smoking into the morning.