Friday, May 21, 2010
Hello all - wanted to let you know I’ll be appearing in a wonderful play called Spinning Into Butter at The Long Beach Playhouse and have the lead, and what a lead it is -:-) It’s a fantastic production, with a great ensemble and director, so I know we have a great show for you. Hope you can make it!
Spinning Into Butter by Rebecca Gilman
at The Long Beach Playhouse
Opening May 21st through June 26th
Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm
Sunday matinees at 2pm
Synopsis: “Nothing is as simple as black and white. A hate crime on campus of a New England college puts the schools’s dean in a position where she has to examine her own feelings about race and prejudice, while maintaining politically correct policies.” Named one of the best plays of the year by Time Magazine (1999)
Monday, May 10, 2010
The May All Day Retreat
When I first started meditating, I thought it would be like an extended savasana (corpse pose) in yoga, deeply relaxing and centering, only lasting longer. I did it for an hour a week, 20 minute meditation, 40 minute ‘sermon’, sitting on a chair, in the gorgeous setting of the Lakeshrine Self Realization Temple in Pacific Palisades, and it was exactly that: a zoned out, mellow, calming experience. I kept that up for over a year, and then discovered LBM, so much more convenient, five minutes away versus three hours round trip. Now I could spend the saved travel time in additional meditation and get a Dharma talk as well, not that I knew anything about that. Meditation continued to be a grounding tool.
All of that changed with the three day retreat last September. The Monday after the retreat, a powerful insight came out of apparently nowhere, an understanding that had eluded me for 50-odd years, and I thought, Whoa! Stuff is Coming Up!! From yoga, I understood the importance of finding my edge, sitting with pain, and staying with it; of not giving in to my usual distractions and escapes. Now I was burning with a desire to KNOW - what else was there to discover? And how exciting at this stage of my life, to be forging out into uncharted territory. From that retreat, I vowed to sit every morning and I do. When VB left for Nepal, I added an evening sit. Stuff continues to come up, as to be expected with all that time and space and silence, and I imagine it always will.
I’ve been to five All Days now, I think, and each time the experience deepens and further layers are exposed. From this latest one on Saturday May 1st, this is what I learned:
VB had said in the Wednesday class that we are ‘relentlessly turned outwards’ - eyes, ears, etc. So, first, a retreat is a time to firmly close all the sense doors facing outwards and shine that light inside. Let go hearing the eternal barking dog, the birds, the whoosh of traffic, the wind creaking against the doors and windows; let go tasting and touching and smelling; let go studying the white gazanias with purple center and dusty dots of orange pollen; let go the mind which loves to play with words (‘dusty orange dots?’ ‘orange dots of pollen?’). In fact, close and bolt all the doors facing in OR out, and just stay with one sense, an inner feeling: what is it like inside this body today? Leave aside the aching knee, the cold feet; turn rather to the sensations of belly clenched with dread, of salty tears clogged in the throat, of the vise that squeezes the heart so tight I think I can’t breathe and maybe I’m having a heart attack. The whys of all this are less important than the sensations themselves. The whys really only matter to me. But these feelings that are their legacy are the things I share with the whole human race. They represent the whole sad litany of what it means to be alive. It is rare I allow myself the chance to simply feel. Especially such sad, physically distressing feelings. But when I thought I would die Saturday, cold tears splashing all down my front, how comforting it was to hear our teacher say, “If this is hard, know that you are not alone. Others are going through the same thing right now.” And I knew he was telling the truth because I could hear muffled sniffs somewhere behind me; I could see the wadded up balls of tissues on people’s mats. There is a feeling of communion at a retreat when we share such intense emotion, even if we never speak of it directly. A hug at the end of it all says without words, ‘Yes, I know.’ It helps.
Life is hard, life is suffering, changeable, impermanent, says the Buddha. Every happy beginning is doomed to end in tears. Death in some form will change everything. EVERY thing, says VB. The hard work is to drop the self that clings so fiercely to experience however painful, hugs it to its chest and calls it MINE. SO, I thought, perhaps we are missing the HUGE point of all this suffering: Life MUST dole out its share of hurt. It is designed in this way to make us wake up! If every day were a picnic, why would we want anything to change? (The astonishing thing is that every day is far from a picnic, and still we pretend it COULD be, if only…. and off we go, searching outside of ourselves for whatever will make us happy.) We MUST be hurt in order to grow. If Life were without suffering, and therefore without potential for growth, of what use would this gift of Life be in the first place?
Perhaps what ‘they’ thought - whoever came up with this system! - is that the human experience is like those seeds in nature that must undergo death by fire in order to be reborn - the California hillsides that must burn… Perhaps we are supposed to reach a point where it is simply too bad, too much, the impetus to do something drastically different, and we have to jump up and shout, ENOUGH! Or perhaps that’s too energetic. No jumping, no shouting. Just sit quietly, hands open, quiet mind, receptive to surrender. And die to this illusion of self who imagines it is possible to control this life, who believes in the pursuit of happiness and goes chasing after it in all the wrong places. Only, the thing is - and here’s the fatal flaw and where we have been mis-programmed - we don’t allow ourselves to die. As W.H. Auden said so eloquently (and as VB quoted during the retreat), “We would rather be ruined than changed/ We would rather die in our dread/ than climb the cross of the moment/ And let our illusions die.” We equate change with annihilation, we believe in the illusion of self and hang on to it in spite of the suffering it inevitably causes us. We assert, “THIS is who I am” - even if who we believe ‘I am’ is deeply flawed and scarred; we cast blame, it’s always someone else’s fault that ‘I am as I am’. And we replay our horrid histories in a continuous loop in the mind, and think ourselves powerless to do anything about it.
If we try to bury our stories, and either don’t remember them or sort them out, they will pop up under disguise and sabotage our lives until we do. These things must be looked at and assimilated and folded in. Once our stories have been told, they lose their power, and we can finally put them away - all that suffering transforms into compassion. I realized I can’t fix anyone, or control anyone, or save anyone. Everyone must go down this road by themselves and examine their own demons. All we can do is love each other. Of course we can meet each other half-way and support and encourage each other. The Dalai Lama says, “Our prime purpose in life is to love others. And if we can’t love them, at least don’t hurt them.” Life is going to be bad enough just by virtue of everything changing and dying: let’s not make it worse by treating each other badly. When we have embraced our own tears, our rejections, our loneliness, how can we not reach out in understanding towards another living being - animal or human - and not show it kindness when we see it suffering? Some people seem to do very well without needing other people; I’m not one of them. So it helps me to try to see, underneath the makeup, the smart suit, the tough attitude, the little kid we all once were. That whom we call ‘other’ is a facet of our own self.
The most enlightening thing I took away from this retreat was this little waking dream I had at 3:33 a.m. Sunday morning. I was half awake, looking at the clock and enjoying the symmetry of all those 3’s, when I became aware of a little story playing just below the surface. I started to pay attention, turned on the light and wrote it down as fast as I could before I forgot. This is what I wrote:
I dreamed I was in prison.
A big shadowy man, jailed for life.
Word came down that the big man was to be ‘married’.
He would be the ‘bride’.”
Really he knew he would be killed.
But who could he complain to?
He was already in jail…
As far as I know, I’ve never had a dream that didn’t figure myself as recognizably Alison. Yet of course this shadow man is my shadow self, big and male because it is frightening to me, and big males are intimidating when you are small and female. Jail is the mind. Tricia said at the Sunday sit when I shared this dream that it must have been inspired by VB’s talk of the Big Death (that Buddhists talk of two deaths, the death of the body and the death of the ego. And the hope is to experience the death of the ego (the Big D) before the body death). VB said Jung says to dream of a marriage is a sign of unification or integration. So it is good. . I thought it was interesting. Make of it what you will!
So what’s the point of an All Day Retreat? An All Day Retreat gives me a glimmer of hope, that it’s possible to put the brakes on and just STOP. And look and feel. When I shine that light inside, oh, there’s plenty to look at and listen to and feel… Very slowly, I’m learning not to get caught in the play as an actor, but to watch it dispassionately and see the patterns: Here’s me doing my thing, here’s me reacting the way I always do. That little bit of distance is the beginning of the end of acting like a robot, jerked by the nose by life.
So then what??? Trust, says our teacher. Keep going, but with awareness, mindfully. Let go of that to which we cling. Trust that there is time and we’re on the right track. A track anyway that is far better than blindly carrying on as if life were a picnic and the bad bits are temporary glitches.
This is just the beginning. I am still very much a beginner! Meditation IS the centering thing I thought it was - but it is so very much more.