July 30, 2006

Retreat recap

I just spent seven days in a remote rural area in northwestern Washington. Every waking moment was devoted to mindfulness practice. The wake-up bell would ring at 5:00am, and activities (mostly sitting or walking meditation) were scheduled tightly through 9:30pm every day.


At first, I had a LOT of resistance. The mosquitos were fierce, as was the heat. My thoughts were along these lines:

"What am I doing here?" (this one was repeated many times over the first three days, and occasionally through the rest of the week)

"I don't fit in at all with any of these people."

"That person has about fifteen mosquitos on the back of her jacket at once."

"Inside, it's too hot to breathe. Outside, the mosquitos will get you. I can't win."

"They could at least give us an extra five minutes before walking meditation to go apply more Deep-Woods Off"

"That's it, I'm done with this group."

At one point, right after a walking meditation through the woods, Eileen (my teacher) looked around and asked if we had lost anyone to the mosquitos.

In spite of all that, the retreat was very valuable to me, and I'm really glad I went. It's a very odd experience to look back on the same event with both fond recollection and distaste.

What makes this strange experience happen is that the intense practice has a way of opening your heart and quieting your mind. All those thoughts don't seem like they're the only way of looking at the world anymore. And, especially in a place filled with so much natural beauty, it becomes very easy to fall in love with the world again.

But I think the most important thing I learned this week is not "how to fall in love with the world". I learned how easy it is to fall out of love with the world, at least for me, and how important it is for me to make sure I take some time every day to appreciate all the great things in my life.

Over the course of a few days, I went from being deeply in love with the vast beauty of the universe, to being consumed by cynical thoughts, to being in love with the vast beauty of the universe, and back again several times.

When my mind was quiet, my heart open, and I had swallows playing in the sky overhead, I looked back at the previous day and marvelled at how easy it was for me to fall back into cynicism and close my eyes to all the beauty that surrounded me. Funny how I put that in the past tense. Now I'm back at home, and habitual ways of looking at the things in my home have come to the forefront. I'm still surrounded by beauty, even as I type this, every moment.

A famous Zen master, Sogaku Harada, had this printed on his headstone:
For forty years
I've been selling water
By the bank of a river.
Ho, ho!
My labors have been wholly without merit.


Some of my memories of the retreat remind me of memories from my childhood. Playing in the grass, walking through the woods, canoeing on a lake. As an adult, when I go for a hike, I'm still spending a lot of time habitually chasing random thoughts. This week, I was able to spend a lot more time in the simplicity and wonder of childhood. What a wonderful gift.

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