Sunday, September 25, 2011
2011 Three Day Retreat - Yokoji
Trekking Up Spirit Mountain
I have been on a spiritual path now for close to 4 years, and this was my 3rd multi-day retreat. I felt the least prepared for this one, as I haven’t been sitting very regularly lately. The athlete in me was thinking, this is like running a marathon on a base of 5 miles a week. Usually not a good idea, but having tackled some athletic endeavors with not much more than muscle memory, I was optimistic that I could pull this off as well. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that my ability to concentrate during the retreat was very good, and I was able to spend a lot of meditation time looking at my thoughts. This was a great retreat for me, and I’ll give an example of that in a bit, but first I’d like to outline the factors that contributed to greatness, with the hope that some of these things will be useful to others.
First, a disclaimer: Who really knows whether these are the things that made the retreat click for me? Also, maybe these aren’t the only conditions that work. I’m too new at this to be able to answer those questions. What I can say is that these factors, combined with my personality and “patterns” made for a good retreat:
- The beautiful and remote surroundings
- Staying in a room by myself
- Sitting with an intimate group of people that I know, and a teacher I respect
- Coming into the retreat in a low-stress state
The Yokoji Zen center is in beautiful setting just off the Pacific Crest Trail. The sights and sounds and smells are wonderful. The stars at night will take your breath away. Nature, including hiking, is not distracting to me; rather I find it to be very calming. Staying in a room by myself was a first, and I’m glad I tried that. I spend quite a lot of time by myself, so I think staying alone here removed a lot of distractions. I can sit with a larger group, but I did enjoy our smaller more experienced group. As for Victor and his dharma talks and our discussions, these things are invaluable. As my mentor at work used to say, “If you want to be an eagle you have to go fly with the other eagles”. Even though my spiritual journey is a very personal one, I get a lot out of hanging around with you eagles. The last factor that was key for me is that I’m fortunate to be in a trough of low stress right now. What can I say, life is good!
I wanted to share one particular experience I had while sitting during the retreat. One bit of background information, I have water on the brain. A lot of the symbolism in my mind involves water and boats.
I often imagine while meditating that my thoughts are boats on a river and the Watcher is sitting on the bank watching them all float by. There are boats of all sizes and shapes. By Saturday, my mind was pretty calm, and I was watching boats go by during one of the sitting meditations. There goes the husband boat, ahoy matie. There goes the favorite son boat, the evil co-worker boat, the nature boat, the just happy to be out here paddling around boat. Then I start to realize that the thoughts monster has moved out of the river and is sitting on the bank right beside the Watcher, providing a running commentary on the boats. Talk about separation, there are now two of us on the bank! Only the thoughts monster talks… “Wonder what hubby is doing now? Do you think he gets how sad you were? Sure hope favorite son does something useful with his life. Wish evil co-worker boat would take a one-way trip to Moscow. Wow, have you ever seen so many kayaks all going in different directions”? On and on it goes, and I’m lost in thoughts about thoughts!
That lasted the rest of the sit, and during the next walking meditation I sat on a rock, mulling over “frustration” and “confusion” which lead to tears. Just sitting there looking at frustration and confusion, helped to make those feelings die down. During the next sit I had the most amazing experience of watching all the thoughts drift off in a rubber dinghy. An arm even went up from the dinghy and waved good-bye! That was a when I felt this sort of spacious openness that Victor has referred to. I don’t know if it lasted 30 seconds or 5 minutes, but it was something in that timeframe. Of course when it passed, the first thing I did was to try cling to it…
Addendum. The Ride Home
First diet coke: Earl’s Bait Shop, Mountain Center (2 miles)
First phone call: also Earl’s Bait Shop. “Hi Sweetie, I’m 5500 feet above Hemet, and my phone is dying. Gotta go, love you!”
First singing along with the radio: 53 miles. I am in misery – There aint nobody who can comfort me- why won’t you answer me – the silence is slowly killing me!
First evil thoughts: 65 miles. Knucklehead teenagers should not be allowed to drive daddy’s BMW
Retreat Reflection by Alison, excerpted from her blog Meditation-cradlingthecryingchild
Friday, after the first walking meditation, Victor challenged us to break our patterns. We sit like statues, he said, hardly daring to move, trying so hard to be “good little meditators”. And then we go outside and pet the dogs, stare at the mountains, walk at our usual brisk clip. So the question is, can we take our meditation off the cushion? Can we break our patterns, so ingrained, so persistent? Victor suggested the only way he knew how to do it was to slow everything way down, walking especially.
So at the next walking meditation, I walked back and forth over the wooden bridge. Two boards’ width was exactly one foot length. Ten precise steps with each foot covered the bridge. Back and forth I trod, carefully, mindfully, placing each foot within the planks of wood, not lifting the one foot until the other was stable, synchronizing breathing and walking. After plodding back and forth many times, I noticed something sticking up between the boards: half of a butterfly wing, a beautiful wing, unusual, multi-colored, pink and blue and black. It was perfect. And I would never have noticed it if I hadn’t deliberately been walking so very slowly. I picked it up, examined it and wondered what to do with it. I carried it back to our zendo in cupped hands. We had an altar upon which people were encouraged to place treasures. I hadn’t brought a treasure, but now I had one. Later in the sit, I had to smile. Picking up the butterfly wing and putting it on the altar was such typical Ali behavior. “Look what I found!!” Even without words, sitting in silence, it is possible to get that message across. So much for breaking patterns. The atypical thing would have been to have left the wing alone for someone else to notice in wonder, when they were walking slowly and mindfully across the bridge. I considered taking the wing and stuffing it back where I had found it, but thought that would be silly. Still, the whole little incident underscored how being aware of patterns - let alone breaking them - is a moment by moment affair.
I went on the retreat without any expectations other than I wanted to help out and have some quiet time. Having been up there to visit prior, I already knew that I found the environment quite peaceful and the residents very pleasant.
All those observations are really outside of myself. What I observed within was painful: both bodily and mentally. It’s as if the emotion was stored in my body and sitting slowly worked its way to a lying down posture for much of the weekend.
What I found interesting was prior to the weekend I had been going through some very intense emotion in my mind - really suffering. The moment I arrived at the Zen center, it was if my head turned off and the emotion shifted into my body. Usually when I’m experiencing suffering in my mind, I can locate sensations in my body and try to move to a safe place in my body, which helps to calm my mind.
It was as if this type of regulation fell away and I had only sensations in my body. I found it confusing; however somewhat of a relief.
I had my interview with Victor late Saturday night just before the last sit. I had a migraine, my head was congested and it felt as if a cold was coming on. My physical symptoms had taken a turn for the worse. I spoke little about meditation, but what did come out after a few words were tears. I needed to cry. Victor told me he thought I needed to be sad. It was like I needed permission. Somehow I wasn’t letting myself experience the grief so my body was expressing it for me. I took the last meditation that night, feeling worse than I felt all weekend. I cried myself to sleep with a migraine that had me feeling as though a vise was closing in on my head. Vise made of fear, regret, shame, guilt and loathing.
I gave myself permission to sleep a little late, shower and upon the first sit back Sunday morning, found I had missed it. Everyone was walking. I took it upon myself to sit alone. And I sat. I sat in my normal sitting posture. The pain in my body gone: I could breathe now. There was some relief that I wasn’t in pain, but I felt cautious and had difficulty remaining present. I felt uncomfortable with the intense sadness that seemed to surface. I was expectant of a readiness to put my guard up where I was used to having it.
So two things happened over the weekend for me. First I felt safe. I can’t remember the last time I experienced that. That was uncomfortable because it’s never been how I functioned in my life. I knew the release in my body was because I trusted the small group of friends I found myself a part of.
And the second: the time I spent with the resident mountain dogs left me feeling as if I had a visit from my old friend Cole (R.I.P. 9-16-2009… He took his last breath in my arms). And it wasn’t just the striking resemblance and demeanor, but my connection to the breath. I felt like I was being held.
And so a nap with the breath of a dog next to my ear and a few open hearts of good friends that gave me the gift of feeling safe enough to just be: seemed to cure all that was ailing me for the moment.
And for the moment I didn’t have to feel so alone afraid. Now I know what that feels like and how I may again have access to it.
Here are my retreat reflections:
This practice, the retreats, sitting, trying to be mindful with every passing moment in our daily lifes, is the kindest act we can do for ourselves and ultimately for others. Being at the retreat helps in wiring the brain’s mapping of skillful pathways. The key is that one takes the retreat practice in our daily lives after we leave the retreat. So this practice of being mindful & being present becomes more refined and with this refinement comes a sense of well being. Being at the retreat is a gift that keeps on giving especially after we leave the retreat. This yogi is grateful for the presence of Victor & the mindful and kind yogis that do the work of sati. It is the ticket out of samsara!
Grateful for a wonderful weekend and surprising myself.
Grateful for being moved to write regularly in my journal again. My last entry was in June.
Grateful for silence. Grateful for how much love can be communicated in the silence with thoughtful action if I paid more attention. Wendy passed me a fork and napkin without me asking or expecting it, I swear I was so moved by that small gesture. But it wouldn’t do to cry over silverware, now would it? So I sucked it up.
Grateful for amazingly warm weather and no hail (we were informed that there was a deluge and huge hail the day before we got there). For clear nights of absolutely amazing stargazing and nature watching. I was just fascinated by the butterflies, birds and animals frolicking.
Grateful for tea with the perfect amount of milk. (poured by you.)
Grateful to be transported by the Welsh and Irish accents I heard this weekend. I have too many wonderful local things happening to even consider traveling internationally this year so just that helped ease the wanderlust a smidge.
Grateful for working on “division” by simply attending the Zen service. The upside? It made me even more grateful for Victor and his real humility, and that he tries to make things accessible to us but doesn’t ever talk down. He really believes in us.
Grateful for homemade curry with my family tonight after coming down the mountain. It wasn’t in my original plans but I welcomed the invite and made a detour before heading home to my wonderful Holly.
Grateful for the box of fruit waiting for me when I got home. Grateful for friends who watched Holly! She’s laying next to me purring as loudly as a farm tractor. I think she’s glad I’m home too! She’s all over the journal as if she could make an entry!
Grateful for my parents tending a wound I had. It was so funny. One of those you had to be there moments - considering how old I am. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was howling from both the pain of the wound and the pleasure of their ministrations. Aw, regression or maybe just the universe giving me a piece of my childhood back. Either way, thank you. I’m truly blessed.
Grateful for just a few bruises and scrapes. No broken bones! Hooray!
Also, grateful that I responded to my mother with extreme patience. Amazingly, something I said came out with no edge even though in the past it would have. Same words but different tone that I wasn’t even aiming for. No one even blinked, but I knew that I had meant it to come out sarcastically. What a difference tone makes! I don’t know how that came about, considering how restless and irritable I tend to feel and am feeling the night after a long meditation (ironic, isn’t it or maybe it’s just the realization that I Am The Problem). I blame the peaceful tone on three continuous days of meditation.
Grateful for being with what is.
- Categories: Retreat Reflections |