Recently I grasped the concept: “It is later than you think.” I decided to no longer put off things I really wanted to do. I set a vacation plan to visit friends in California I had not seen in 10 years and attend a Buddhist retreat. I knew I wanted to be in the Redwoods for the retreat, thus began the Googling. There were options, but the language of Vajrapani Institute’s website resonated, so I reserved a space at a 10-day partial silence retreat on the nature of true happiness and Lam Rim (a school of Buddhism). It was such an incredible experience that I decided to share some of the insights, learning process and laughter.
Day Two – Duhkha
The haphazard progress of almost 30 silent people trying to serve, balance, pour, drink and eat breakfast in a small dining room brought to mind a stage play stumble through. It was clear that some were not attending their first mute rodeo. Yet elbows, sides and backsides bumped. Eyes often unintentionally met, then disengaged in a coy peak-a-boo. One attendee seemed to have moved to a separate area code while others stared off, read or studied their plates. The scene had the feeling of kindergarten…busy with learning. Learning how to noiselessly move in synch with others. Where eyes should rest. How to sit so close to a stranger you often touched while not exchanging a word. How to handle silence.
Observing silence is an unexpected boon. Though roughly a galaxy from shy, I am a natural introvert. I had forgotten that. Removing chitchat from the daily regimen has freed up a significant amount time to recharge in thought. I never before realized the energy it takes to observe the niceties. Getting this break is like hearing your school called in the list of snow-closures. A holiday you dreamt of receiving but had no power to bring into being.
Silence also allows you to draw your own conclusions in your own time, avoid distraction of your voice or the voices of others, hear your heart beating, avoid being caught up in drama or spreading discontent, get a break from phone calls and nagging devices, listen to the world around you, enjoy your senses, focus better, etc.
Our retreat is only partially silent. Daily, we spent about four and one-half hours in class where we were free to ask questions, one hour in discussion groups, and about 30 minutes of functional silence during working meditation. Functional silence means that you may ask questions, but they must be associated with your task.
But silence wasn’t all ease. I learned I have a strong instinct to meet eyes. I assume this is a residual from the primal brain, a tool to help assess intent or develop bonds. Classmates who didn’t welcome such visual intrusion made it obvious with body language. But the observation made me wonder if my ebullient nature had ever forced intimacy on people when the option of non-engagement would have seemed rude. I think the possibility highly likely. I will be more cognizant of this in the future.
I learned about a thousand things today – including the intense wonderfulness of the Vajrapani Institute’s hollyhock salad dressing and that my teacher may be David Bowie in disguise and Australian accent.
I am not exaggerating about the thousand new bits of knowledge…the estimate is likely conservative. Information flows fast and substantial in our classroom thanks to our teacher, Glen Svensson.
One of the myriad things covered today was duhkha. (The five-year-old in me laughs whenever I hear that word.)
Despite my giggling, potty-humored child mind, I want to talk about duhkha because not knowing this word made me set aside a book on Tibetan Buddhism 30 years ago. The discarded book began with the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths. The first of these four being, “All life is suffering.”
“Say what, Buddha? Sure life can be tough, but it isn’t ALL suffering. Take a chill pill, dude.” (Don’t blame me, that is how we spoke back in the day.)
Fast-forward 30 years. Today, I learned that duhkha means unsatisfactory, not the oft-translated “suffering” I had encountered.
Oh, my kingdom for understanding duhkha back then! “All life is unsatisfactory.” Okay, still a big pill, but much easier to swallow.
Why did Prince Siddhartha come Buddha say life was unsatisfactory? Actually there are three aspects, or levels of duhkha to be considered. (I have also learned that Buddhists are extremely fond of enumeration.)
- Suffering (physical and mental)
- Change (all pleasure is temporal)
- Pleasure is based on external stimulus, so it is unreliable
- Pleasure is relative
- Pleasure – if pursued – turns into suffering
- All-pervasive (always the potential for suffering to arise)
Okay, Buddha. When you put it that way, I agree…all life IS duhkha. (Giggle) Please tell me about this second truth.
Thirty years have passed to get here. But, you can’t reclaim what is lost. Just use what is left to escape duhkha for yourself and others.
Day Three – Self and Consciousness
One part of Buddhism’s concept of consciousness (please forgive any upcoming mistakes by the student) is that it is a continuum of mental events rather than a thing moving through time.
Previously I saw my consciousness and I as indistinguishable. We were a bullet train plowing through the countryside night and day from my arrival point at birth (when my consciousness appeared in this world) to my destination of death (where my consciousness will cease). Or, if one believes in an afterlife, my consciousness would then continue into eternity.
In this new-to-me Buddhist construct, consciousness is more ethereal and impervious. A timeline still exists, but supple quick changes in the path seem more likely. Not being a hardened object, the consciousness would be more reactive (which could have both advantages and disadvantages). It also suggests that the path may be changed by even the slightest of internal and/or external forces. A tree could fall upon the tracks of my previous metaphor, however, that train would not be as responsive or subtle in its course alterations. In the Buddhist view, consciousness does not just materialize at birth then dematerialize at death, but continues its existence. In this way, consciousness is neither created nor destroyed…kind of a conservation of consciousness (for those of a scientific orientation).
Climbed the beautiful, winding path to Lama’s Ridge today where there are retreat cabins, a yoga deck, a commemorative stupa for Vajrapani founder Lama Yeshe, the peace trail and outdoor showers. One shower on Lama’s Ridge made the dorm showers superfluous. Neither rain, nor sleet, nor gloom of night stays this girl from the swift climb to her appointed shower.
View from an outdoor shower
Day Four – Is there a schadenfreude of the self?
“An effect of immense happiness may arise from even a small virtuous karma. An effect of immense suffering may arise from even a tiny non-virtuous karma…(wait for it) Therefore, solidify the certainty that even the subtlest of virtuous and non-virtuous actions follow you like shadows and produce both great happiness and great suffering.” (There it is)
– The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment
Je Tsongkhapa (1357-1419)
I must admit that this thought has ruined a few perfectly good daydreams this week. Not only has it roused me to the reality that my time could be better spent, but that the subjects of these daydreams were manifestations of attachment that would not further, and may derail, virtuous growth. Yes, our actions have consequences. Whether you believe in one life or infinite lifetimes, our thoughts, words and actions follow us. For myself, I do not see those deeds following us as a boogieman or a fairy godmother waiting to attack or reward us. I see them as a sculptor working clay. The more faithful and earnest our efforts, the more the resultant image will resemble our best aspirations.
A great boost of creativity has accompanied my efforts this week. With it has come a spontaneous flow of cartoons around the subject of my experiences and misapprehensions here at Vajrapani.
-Chuck’s random thoughts
-Chuck’s random thoughts
Day Six: Me, Myself and I
My senses have grown keener…or I am now better able to notice and heed the reports they send. I believe this to be an outcropping of the silence. Since dialing it down from 11, my eyes, ears, nose, tongue and touch have kicked it up a notch. I am now a shark using its lateral line system to avoid collisions and locate possible nosh. Seems that most of us are growing in this way, as mealtime now resembles modern dance.
I completely filled a 70-page notebook today. That has been a rarity in my educational training. Even more astounding is that I finished a complete notebook in only six days of study. I came here thinking that I lacked concentration skills. I have learned that I am quite good at concentration. It is that I need to narrow my focus.
Cognitive fusion was the break-through thought of the day. Previously, I had only bothered to imagine its manifestations in the world as worst-case scenarios. But today’s explication of the Four Opponent Powers brought into focus the insidious ill effects of cognitive fusion and how the guilt that accompanies it may quickly lead us into feelings of hopeless and depression.
Cognitive fusion essentially is fusing the act with the person. Such as: “Good boy!”, “I am depressed.”, She is an addict.”, “I’m tired.” Both positive and negative assertions of cognitive fusion are detrimental. One may be a steppingstone to hubris and believing ourselves above ethics and the other ultimately makes us a victim who is incapable of change. Either way, we identify the self with a transient action. In so doing, we welcome in a concept of ourselves as limited, less than others, worthless, or better than others, perfect, above the law.
By simply recognizing that the thought or behavior was momentary and not an expression of who we are, we keep identification with that behavior at arm’s length. Though it may be instructive in ways to change, it doesn’t penetrate our perception of our selves. This gives us the space and hope we need to make course adjustments.
As it was explained to us, consider regret versus guilt.
In regret we conceive that:
I — have done —–> a bad action or harmful behavior
In guilt we conceive that:
I —-> am a bad person
In the regret model, we understand that – though we are responsible for the bad action or harmful behavior and must seek a way to remedy it – we are not bad people, merely people who have done something harmful.
In the guilt model, we see the action as an expression of ourselves rather than the moment. We say, “I am a bad person.” And we believe it. Tell yourself you are a bad person long enough and you will only expect that what you imagine or do will be bad. Be told you are bad long enough and – if you are too young or unable to protect your psyche from the condemnation – and you will most likely choose thoughts and actions that live up to those judgments.
Once my eyes were opened to this trap, it seemed everywhere. We judge ourselves and others with barbed quips that equate person and action. We praise others and ourselves in the same way. I don’t know about you, but I want to be a person responsible for my thoughts and deeds rather than a person ruled by a false amalgamation of persona to deeds.
Day Seven – A Different Kind of Thanksgiving
“Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile.”
– Albert Einstein
My first reminder of Thanksgiving was classmate Sam (in fancy dress) drawing my eyes to a note he had situated atop an upturned book. It read “Happy Thanksgiving!” Even in silence, we find ways to celebrate…especially Sam.
(BTW, one quick insight into silence. Since we entered silence the night we arrived, many of us did not know one another’s names. In this case, I didn’t think “especially Sam.” I thought “especially fun guy who is really present.”)
The lesson for Thanksgiving day serendipitously began with the concept of exchanging self with others, or – more familiar to our ears – dismantling our selfish attitudes and replacing them with cherishing others first. Not cherish as in soft words and sympathetic smiles disconnected from action. But cherish in ways that are best for the other person’s short- and long-term needs and happiness.
We practiced “tong len”, or giving and taking. Tong len is a meditative practice of mentally taking suffering from another, purifying it, and giving them our happiness.
I am not good at being in two places at once. Absorbed wherever I am, it often takes a pause to think deeply of those elsewhere whom I love. A failing? Perhaps. I always assume the best possible things are happening to those I love and they are as engaged where they are as I am where I am. Today, I took a pause to think of my family and friends. I pictured them laughing and hugging and telling stories. I wished them all the greatest happiness and the least of the reverse.
The only thing left to make this Thanksgiving perfect – after a decadently incredible lunch – is a bit more tong len and a short snooze in the Redwoods.
There was one cloud this Thanksgiving, quickly cleared by work meditation buddy Leslie while we cleaned the dinner dishes. (Hey, they said working silence and we were working.) I confided that as a new meditator I was struggling to hold onto joy while trying to meditate for the 45- and 60-minute sessions we were undertaking. I could not preserve focus that long. With Leslie’s assurances, I decided to invite in steadfastness…a favorable condition for joyous effort. In non-retreat vernacular, I was applying the wonder twin powers of: finish what you start and don’t bite off more than you can chew. I would set a goal of a shorter focus time in my pre-mediation intention. It worked. The goal was exceeded and – for the first time this week – my back stayed straight for the full hour.
Day Eight – On the Road to Shamatha
Today, the weather is no warmer, but I am. There is a pleasant chill at the level of my skin, but internally I remain cozy. Shocking as my circulation tends more toward the reptilian. Systems working better?
In silence, notes are passed. Loved ones leave messages. You have a question. You want to show support. In silence – without computers – all this message transfer is accomplished old school with writing implements and scraps of paper. I was pondering this when I walked to the Gompa (main hall) and to my study desk. Perched there, was a tiny origami book gifted to each of us by a classmate. Paper, again.
I rather enjoy seeing notes circulate. I know my thoughts flow more articulately at the computer. (I think it has to do with the percentage of the mind required to form symbols long hand versus tapping the symbol at a keyboard.) Still, there is something significant and weighty about people committing words to paper by hand. (Crazy, the world in which we live.)
I saw a classmate bending over pages of paper, slightly swaying as she read. Her hands caressed then refolded the pages before carefully placing them away. The reverence articulated in her movements was epic. Instantly, my mind clothed her in gothic hat and copious robes trimmed with fur, an academic master of antiquity, cradling sheaves of important and (often scarce) paper while she sat for her portrait.
I cannot remember ever touching my computer with that level of reverence. However, since I am an Apple user, a certain level of reverence is required.
NOTE: This evening we learned the source of our little books. Classmate and placid joy and fixer, Glendon, had folded them. Each book has 26 unique folds and a healing mantra was said over each fold. Thank you Glendon for turning paper into healing wishes.
Thinking deeply while on retreat has re-awakened a delight, an energy that has been hibernating. I had allowed constant work-work-work to transform me into a somnambulist. We need balance. Thought without action lacks worldly good. Action without thought accomplishes nothing remarkable.
Day Nine – The Artist Formerly Known as “Me”
I folded the blankets with which I had been shrouding myself during class and meditation. There was no need of them. I have somehow become warm from the inside.
Today, I am grateful for the Literary Criticism class that twisted my brain years ago. One such twist was the work of philosopher Michel Foucault, specifically his theories of distinction between linguistic signs and plastic elements as well as the equivalence of resemblance and affirmation. In literary terms this implies that there is no tether connecting an object to a visual or verbal representation. There is no intrinsic meaning in any word, syllable, or character. There is no ur-symbol or ur-utterance with the ability to convey meaning directly or be interchangeable with a visual or oral phenomenon.
Foucault’s theory made sense intellectually. However, my blinding love of language fought the knowledge. I was caught in thrall of the seeming control that language granted…to describe with finesse subtle shades of thought. The concept that words – objects in which I had placed so much love and effort – had neither intrinsic meaning nor physical grounding pulled at the structural load block of my psychic Jenga tower.
Sensing my crisis, friend Fred (knowing I am a visual as well as a verbal) asked me to close my eyes. He started to describe a painting titled The treachery of images (This is not a pipe) by René Magritte.
(Text translation: “This is not a pipe.)
Funny, the necessity of including this translation proves a portion of Foucault’s argument.
As I visualized the artwork, it was all too clear. The word “pipe” (and any other word) is an arbitrary label assigned from of a need to communicate within a system of symbols and sounds.
Perhaps the effect induced by Magritte’s juxtaposition of the representation of a physical object with language negating that object would be better felt by English speakers this way.
When I was able to grasp a smidgeon of Foucault’s message in this way, my previous theory of language and meaning was eviscerated. What was left was a purple neon sign pointing down a rabbit hole. It wasn’t just that the word pipe that had no meaning. There literally was NO pipe. Break the “pipe” down to its component pieces, leave it whole, draw an image of it, search wherever you please, you will find no “pipe” anywhere. Indeed, all that exists is the “pipeness” we project upon an image, a word or an object.
This is where Tibetan Buddhism turns it up a notch and makes me happy for all that struggle to understand Foucault. The Buddhism schools we are studying seem to share a similar “no intrinsic meaning” concept, but they target an object much more dear…the “me.” BAM!
“Okay now, it is all well and good for a pipe not to be a pipe, but I am sentient being. I have cognitive function. I may clearly see myself. I can see others. Therefore, I AM ME! I am not a pipe, a house, a deer, the stars. The concept that ‘me’ is not an independent entity, separate from others directly contradicts my sight, touch, reason and folkloric independent American sensibilities.”
Wait a tick. Buddhism is not metaphysical nihilism, claiming that there is no me. Just that there is no “independent arising” me. That my existence is dependent upon everything else and that my construct of an independent me exists nowhere except my own egotistical mind. I believe that Buddhism would assert that the “me” we each perceive is an illusion…a result of the subject-object view of existence. That all knowledge of reality based on the eyes, ears, nose, even our sophisticated scientific instruments cannot give a realistic report of reality because they ONLY see what they see, hear what they hear, smell what they smell, measure what they measure. They cannot conceive of what exists beyond their limits to observe.
Another trick of the object-observer model, which Buddhism seems to have figured out way ahead of the curve, is that viewing the world objectively leads us to believe that objects and individuals are unchanging because we may see them as unchanged over time. I am sitting here today, looking the same as I looked last week. Thus, we deduce that I (and all other bits of data we divide and categorize) move through time independent of everything around us. The trouble with that deduction – as particle physics will vouch – is that everything is in a constant state of change. Nothing is ever the same moment to moment, though we may perceive it as the same since we cannot readily observe motion at the subatomic level. Buddhism and science seem to agree that we (and all objects) are not moving through time, but existing on a continuum of change.
Before I make this next statement, I must stipulate that my understanding of Buddhism is nascent, so a correction of any misstep already stated or about to be stated would be appreciated.
I think it could be said that Tibetan Buddhism asserts that there is a distinction between perception and the nature of reality. A distinction that limits our ability to see the world and ourselves in that world as it and we truly exist.
This is a new twist to ponder. If true, not even the skills of Magritte could make that one self-evident.
Day Ten – Brood X
An algebra teacher once called me a combative learner (cognitive fusion) because I asked questions about why the formulas we were given worked. It seemed I couldn’t find the switch in my brain that would allow me to remember things without context or an understanding of how they worked.
Buddhism asks us to question and to consider. It is open source code. Not pushing us to blindly accept, but merely to ponder and – if anything we find helps – use it to make our lives better.
Buddhism’s encouragement of inquiry appeals to me. I love questions and their answers. I love my questions, the questions of others, answers by still more voices. They all enter my ears and fill my mind with imaginings. Some of these ideas change my mental model of the world and result in growth.
For example, would spaceflight ever been possible without people who questioned and put their reputations (and sometimes even lives) on the line to refute that the earth was the center of the universe? That all life comes from life rather than spontaneous generation? That beings have a right to be free?
Without questions why bother with thought?
I believe it is suppleness, not rigidity that aids our conviction. We must retain the willingness to share our ideas and to really listen to those of others. We must allow that our mental models may be improved by considering the thoughts of others. Even those ideas that are not ultimately accepted in the affirmative add depth to our understanding. Every new concept tests our core beliefs and either alters them or makes them rise in validity.
I know there are plenty of minds out there that can amass and apply information without quibbling about why it is so. But I need the superstructure, the reason behind, the evolution of the concept, the questions.
Thirty-four years ago a geometry teacher explained how and why the formulas he shared worked. To this day I use geometry with relative ease. As for the algebra that the teacher couldn’t or wouldn’t explain the year previous? Regrettably – and to my deficit – algebra is merely a jumble of X’s and Y’s.
In 2004, I lived in Baltimore during the Brood X hatch of cicadas. The sky and trees were full of cicadas. The ground and squirrels’ bellies were full of cicada remains. I was dreaming of those cicadas when I woke this morning.
I think the cicadas appeared because I was feeling averse to leaving my warm bed, my new family of friends, the intensive learning, the yummy food, and the open air showers. This has been as restful and fulfilling a time as I can remember, and my mind knew there were struggles to come. Struggles to hold onto mindfulness, continue practice on the cushion, reinforce lessons, remove the habituation of stress rather than add to it. You know the score.
Those cicadas were in my mind because they too have to struggle. Brood X cicada nymphs live underground for 17 years before they crawl out, inch their way up vertical surfaces, attach themselves there and prepare to emerge from their larval skin, to molt.
I was drawn to these creatures and spent hours photographing, recording and reading about them. One thing I learned is that there are many obstacles to their survival. Fungi that mutate their development, birds and squirrels that snatch their bodies for snacks, some fail to escape their former skin, others have wings damaged by rain before they have a chance to expand and dry. Cicadas have to struggle to emerge. Cut open the outer skin to help a cicada break free and it will most surely die. It is the struggle that is necessary. The struggle that forges their strength and resolve to escape their nymph existence, expand their wings, harden and fly.
“The way is not easy,” the dream cicadas were telling me in their shrill, pulsing songs.
They made me realize how fortunate I have been in burrowing up from the ground, finding a good tree on which to attach and beginning the process of change.
I set my intent to really be here each moment of all ten days of this retreat. To do the work, know the people, walk the hills, and learn. I was steadfast and earned my own respect. So now, I would like to dedicate my effort to:
– Our teacher, Glen Svensson. You are not David Bowie in disguise, but you are a rock star. Your humor, kindness, patience and clarity are deeply appreciated. Straddling the cultures, languages and years for the sake of shared learning, your supple, encyclopedic mind shone a light on dark places and helped us achieve that which could not have been done alone.
– The help of so many.
– Venerable Drolma, Heidi and Glendon for having my back (and my dish duty) when I was overcome by duhkha.
– My discussion group. What a fortunate and lively mix of joyous, searching minds. So glad we were able to spend our daily hour in speech together.
– Leslie, my dish duty partner, joyous worker, confidant and beautiful soul.
– The kitchen staff of Vajrapani Institute. We said little, but your dedication taught me much.
– Vajrapani Director Fabienne. Though the time together was brief, your spirit is a tangible joy.
– 2013 sponsors of our 2014 retreat session. Your generosity filled our hearts and our minds with virtuous desire to continue to learn and practice. Many of us could not have made it here without your generosity.
– Two notebooks one and half pens
Thanks to all, I arrived at Vajrapani one small droplet of Buddhist academic knowledge and one small droplet practice. I leave a gallon jug of theory and one small droplet of practice…but now with aspiration and a straighter back.
Since leaving Vajrapani Institute and my new friends forged in silence (and a some whispers) a few things have changed.
- I have unsubscribed from every email subscription previously flooding my inbox, tightly restricted my Facebook alerts, and discontinued Active.com alerts about friends completing exercise. Though hearing the whistle blow when a friend completes a workout still feels like witnessing an angel earning its wings, the alert invades my thoughts. These changes have freed me from a great number of distractions and the loss of precious moments of life.
- I have continued to eat like a vegetarian. In fact, a strange thing happened on one of the planes coming home. By the time the steward came to my row, the non-meat meals had been claimed. I found myself asking if there might be anything that I could receive that didn’t contain meat because I was a vegetarian. It wasn’t a lie. As physically impossible as it may be, I think that my body managed to speak before my mind. I just feel so much better physically since leaving meat behind that my internal processing systems want to keep it that way.
- Ditto the vegetarian change with soda pop. I don’t want to get too excited yet regarding abstaining from soda as this has been a lifelong battle. But I am optimistic and filled with the desire to make this the last time I give up soda.