Monday, December 22, 2008

Ideas Welcome

Two details regarding the Spirit Rock retreat last week that I haven’t figured out at all:

First, I experienced a lot of anticipation leading up to the retreat. I probably talked too much about it with colleagues and friends, but they were patient and indulgent with my unfocused animation. As a yoga teacher persuaded me a long time ago, it’s often best to set aside expectations before embarking on a new sort of experience. But I didn’t manage that overly well this time.

To get to Spirit Rock for the start of the retreat on Wednesday, December 10, I had to catch a flight from DEN to SFO. Nothing terribly unusual about that. I get to the airport in the morning, check through security, find the gate, login, and field last-minute office work by email. The gate attendant calls the boarding sequence. I board, find my seat, and settle in.

And sitting there on the airplane, my mind shifts a bit, and I see everything from an outsider’s perspective – to borrow Oliver Sack’s phrase, like an anthropologist from Mars.

No, wait. That’s too cold. More like the first-time-appreciation of Miranda’s “…brave, new world…” phrasing, before Huxley turned it dark and na├»ve.

The people walking down the center aisle of the plane are a varied lot, each remarkable, each strange, each new. That they are embodiments of consciousness is remarkable, strange, and new. That I can see them is remarkable, strange, and new.

After a time, the sense subsides, leaving new tracings in my mind.

How? Why? Exactly what?

Couldn’t tell you.

Second, as I mentioned in a previous post, three days into the retreat, I woke, showered, walked to the meditation hall and sat the pre-dawn meditation. When the bell rang gently, I got up, left the hall, put on my shoes, and began walking down the hill to the dining hall.

As I walked on a little dirt path down the hill, my sense of self turned suddenly transparent, and I saw from the perspective of something other than Sean. Not that there wasn’t a Sean – he was there, but he wasn’t the perspective I was seeing from. He was the perspective that something was seeing through. That perspective was filled with quiet, abiding joy – joy at the cold air, joy at the diminishing cramp in Sean’s neck, joy at the emptiness before eating, joy at the peace of the retreat, joy at Sean’s sore right knee, joy at the slanting sun, joy at the cloud of exhaled air.
The sense sustained itself for a time, then subsided.

It’s hard to find the right words for the completely natural sense of seeing through the self of that experience.

* * *

Ideas or references to others’ ideas about such experiences are welcome.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Red pill

In reflecting on my few days at Spirit Rock last week, I have to allow that I spent most of the nine or so sitting sessions each day in various degrees of discomfort, generally increasing from the first day to the second, from the second to the third. And also generally increasing from early morning to late morning to afternoon to evening.

Recounting this fact to a friend elicited this question: “Why would you think positively about such an experience?”

In listening to a dharma talk recording this evening, I think I heard an approximation of an answer to that question: it’s possible to reach a point where you’re no longer afraid of being afraid. You’re not averse to feeling aversion.

* * *

During the retreat, one of the teachers, Mary Grace Orr, read the following poem, though I don’t remember who she said wrote it. Unfortunately, as you’ll see, it doesn’t lend itself to google searches:

What is is
Is what I want –
Just that,
But that.

Winter Haiku

Frog creaks at sundown,
Dry-throated; brown grass, acorns
Await winter rains.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Word-less-ness: Being Silently

Three days in to a five-day meditation retreat, this was my situation:

I’ve taken and lived a retreatant’s version of the Five Precepts: no harming any living being, no taking what is not offered, no speaking, no sex, no intoxicants.

At three days of silence, I’ve lived wordlessly for longer than I’ve ever done since I began talking at (my mother reports) six months of age.

The days are filled from before dawn to long after sundown with sitting and walking meditations, alternating. All in silence. After the first two hours on the first day, sitting meditation becomes progressively more uncomfortable – excruciating, if you listen to my ever-suffering mind. Briefly, the lotus blossom opens and transcendent clarity opens without notice, without words. It sustains and then subsides, its space and openness re-cloaked, re-filled with the muck of pain and suffering.

Late in the afternoon of the third day, I take a pen and write this note to my meditation teacher:


I’m a bit frustrated with myself. I had one of those peak experiences this morning, and I spent the rest of the day in aches and pains and aversion and samsara.

Is this really the path? Does it get easier?


I fold the note and pin it to the section of the bulletin board for notes to Howie, and I go outside for a period of walking meditation.

The simple framing of my situation in words reignites my conceptual mind enough to allow me to see a space between the seeing and the suffering. My suddenly-word-re-enabled mind crafts responses from Howie to me:


Yes, it’s the path. Easier? No.




Yup. Now go back to meditating.

I resolve to retrieve the note, as the very forming of the words has created the space I needed between the pain and the suffering. When the bell in the courtyard signals the end of the walking meditation, I return to the bulletin board and find that Howie has already collected the note. Ok. I return to silence and wordlessness.

The next morning, I find his response folded around my note, both pinned to the board. His note, of course, is much kinder than any I’d have written to myself:

Hi Sean,

Some days are dukkha days. Some days are sukkha days. Learning how to find our composure with both is the way… The by-product is more ease and consequently more pleasure. Hang in there. It is actually a sign of deepening when things get crazy.



A most kind response to a problem that had resolved itself as soon as words were reintroduced into my mind.

* * *

I’m fascinated by the wordlessness of my time there. I became acutely aware several times of how much word-ing intervenes between experience and comprehension, how much dualistic word-ing shapes experience to fit dualistic models and understandings.

The longer I lived in silence – even for just the few days I was there – the quieter the word-ing part of my mind became. That was useful as it allowed me to see a bit more clearly what words would otherwise have obscured. But when the word-ing part of my mind subsided, I lacked the usual tool set that allows me to maintain a separation between my body’s pains and my mind’s suffering.

Makes me wonder what might be built with intention and awareness in such a space.