Sometimes I retreat out of curiosity – to see what can be seen from silence and intensive meditation practice.
Sometimes I retreat for community – to be with people who sit quietly, companionably, as another messily pounds away at an emotional barrier.
This time, though, I went out of need.
In recent months (and months) my meditation practice has led me to deep and wide pools of fear. Fear of loss. Fear of mistakes. Fear of inadequacy. Fear of failing my loved ones. Fear of not becoming what I most desire.
It’s hard to hold a fearful heart open. It’s hard to see clearly through filters of fear. It’s hard to love in the face of fear.
* * *
Snorkeling in shallow water over a tiny section of the Great Barrier Reef, I’m floating over a mosaic of colors and textures – whites, yellows, oranges, reds, purples, blues, greens. Anemones. Hard corals. Soft corals. Seaweeds. Fish. And giant clams (some of them not-so-big). The giant clams anchor the hinge of their shell deep in the reef, the sides of the shell extending upward, concealing all but the mantle’s edge.
Set like sparkling decorations, all along the fringed edges of the mantle are iridescent blue dots – light-sensitive patches that serve the clam as eyes. As I drift above a clam, my body obstructs the sun, my shadow darkening the clam’s day. Though it has grown far too large for the shell halves to close entirely, the two shells draw toward one another nonetheless, insufficient shielding contracting away from the threat of dark shadows in daylight.
* * *
So for the past months (and months), I’ve felt contracted. Agitated. Unable to open fully. Each time meditation takes me deep enough, I find the same fear pools. I practice. I work. I try to open to it, allow it. I find neither key nor door.
* * *
As I have come to expect, the first day is very hard. The mind jumps from one fragment of conversation, one shard of thought, to self-evaluation, back to the breath. From memory to analysis to reawareness and the breath. From physical pain to fear that it will worsen to despair to reawareness and the breath. From cramping muscles to planning ways to shift to alleviate the cramps to dismay at not holding still to how motion might affect those sitting on either side of me to reawareness and the breath. And so on.
As the first day moves into the second, I get up early. Very early. I make my way through the coastal mist and darkness of still-hours-away dawn to the meditation hall. I light the candles on the altar, and I sit. The body refreshed from sleep, the cramps and aches and pains are manageable. The mind is quieter. There are moments when there is more to the breath in and the breath out than I’ve ever imagined. But by the end of the first hour, the aches and pains crescendo. I struggle to keep the attention on the breath, finding both conscious and subconscious mind trying to problem-solve away the back pains. I concede and go outside for walking meditation. It is raining steadily. I find a sheltered space beneath the eaves. And I walk slowly slowly, sharing the attention of motion and balance with the breath. The fears of mind and body arise. I’m aware of the mist-laden darkness of night, unabated by stars or moon, yet not entirely imperceptible. I remember reports of cougars in the hills. I feel the pressure of body on the sole of my foot as I take another step. I pause at the edge of the eaves to turn. First I breathe the darkness, the mist. One curtain of mist shifts, only to disclose another behind it. I turn and walk.
I return to sit again. Same pains return, faster, sharper. I continue to struggle to find a solution to them, trying to dispel the pain. I change position. Wiggle. Make imperceptible shifts of breath and muscle engagement. The pain grows. I feel the right rhomboid muscle cramp solidly. The top of the right trapezius begins a burning sensation where it connects just below the occipital lobe of the skull. I weep. For the umpteenth time.
After a complete morning of this, unabated, I meet with Mary Grace Orr, one of the teachers leading the retreat. We talk about my current state, the continual arising of fears, home life, my current meditation practice. The frustration I feel. I tell her I’ve been stuck in this dark night for months. She asks some questions. I respond.
Mary Grace tells me she doesn’t think I’m stuck, just going through a hard transition. She recommends I moderate my vipassana practice by starting or ending with several minutes of metta – of lovingkindness meditation – directed exclusively toward myself. I groan, audibly, and remark that I’d rather do anything else. But the truth is, I’m willing to try anything. Even that.
So that evening, I start with metta, then sit in vipassana misery during the evening. But I notice an unexpected resistance inside myself to practicing metta. Resistance is interesting whenever it arises, because it signals that there’s something already trying to occupy that mind-space.
I return to the meditation hall. I practice metta, then vipassana, sitting for most of an hour. When the pains begin to arise, I practice metta. Then in the spirit of metta, I give myself a break and walk slowly through the darkness down the hill to the dining hall, where I fix some herbal tea. Then I walk back to the meditation hall and resume practice. By mid-morning, my mind is a curious blend of quiet and muscle-pain-shouting. I repeat metta phrases. The pain continues.
I go to lunch, then return. The pain resumes, amplified.
So after metta, I allow the pain to become the center of the vipassana practice. I evaluate for a moment whether the neck or the back hurts more. I decide that it’s the neck. So I allow the sensations of the neck to become the focus of my attention. I watch them. Surprisingly, they are not constant, but rather pulse with my heart, with my breath. Sometimes they feel like burning, sometimes like aching, sometimes like tightness, sometimes like cramps. For a few moments, they dull, then brighten.
And after most of an hour, something happens. My conscious mind is aware of a kind of subconscious shift. I can’t tell you exactly what occurred subconsciously, but consciously I realize that I’ve stopped resisting the pain, and that something deep that had been anchored to there being a way to become free of the pain has released, and now accepts that the pain is a part of the constellation of experiences of this meditation practice. "Shit and alligators," my mind says. The pain is just shit and alligators. It is most surely is not gone. Still there, just as bright as ever. But suddenly I’m aware of all the other stars in the sky of awareness, as well. And I’m ok with that.
I’m not free from pain. I’m free in pain.
Never expected that.
More tears. This time, of relief from the excruciation of resisting what is.