On April 25, I left for a nine-day concentration retreat at Spirit Rock. It was splendid. From the moment I arrived, I found myself very aware moment to moment of what my mind was up to—I realize that is increasingly the case all the time—and thus not lost in stories.
On a vipassana retreat, if someone is making annoying noises in the meditation hall (or doing anything annoying anywhere), a teacher might typically ask you to notice what exactly happens when the annoyance occurs, what thoughts and sensations arise, etc., so you can see your own contribution to the situation. But once on a concentration retreat, when I reported some frustration in the hall, a teacher suggested I move, so on this most recent retreat, when someone who reeked of patchouli or some such and who was already breathing at top volume sat down behind me—because we’re focusing on our breathing doesn’t mean it's a breathing contest—I moved immediately to the other side of the room. That was a good call. I ended up in this little zone of dead quiet meditators, and it was lovely. (One of my neighbors turned out to be a Bahamian filmmaker. She was delightful.)
Another great thing that happened was avoiding the second arrow. To paraphrase greatly, if I have, for instance, an angry feeling, it is as if I have been wounded by an arrow, and if I then beat myself for having been angry, I have directed a second arrow at myself. I am an aversive type (per the three basic personality types in Buddhism, which correspond to the three causes of suffering: aversion, craving, and delusion) and I am always going to have judgments and criticisms of those around me.
But when I noticed that arising on this retreat, something teacher Richard Shankman had said popped into my mind and I thought, “May I find ease in my judgments,” and voila! That was brilliant on my part, if I may say so myself. I used it throughout the retreat and was struck by the difference between that and the reverse: beating myself for being angry, wondering what’s wrong with me, reviewing and re-reviewing the faults of the other party to justify my irritation, questioning why the therapist(s) to whom I’ve given X number of dollars haven’t succeeded in completely altering my personality, etc. This process can take hours, whereas when I noticed whatever was going on and immediately wished myself ease in being with whatever it was, it was done. Already. Five seconds later, if I wanted to investigate the feeling in question, it wasn’t there to be investigated, and it was a lovely, extremely calm and tranquil retreat.
I had one brief lucid dream during the retreat. A teacher once told me that on long concentration retreats, he passes in and out of every dream knowing he’s dreaming and knowing in between dreams that he’s in between. He said he doesn’t actually like it that much because he’d prefer just to go to sleep and rest in the customary fashion.
Something I enjoy a lot at Spirit Rock are the little lizards along the pathway that leads to the meditation hall. On this retreat, I saw as many as nine on one pass. One late afternoon, I was walking by, counting the lizards, wondering if I’d break my record, when I saw a rather large lizard—no, a really large lizard—no, a snake rising up from just beside the path. I’ve never seen one there before, and compared to the little spring lizards, it was like seeing Leviathan emerging from the deep, particularly when it proved to be a rattlesnake, the first I’ve ever seen in the flesh.
Another day, I saw the largest snake I’ve ever seen outside a zoo, crossing the warm asphalt road, and one night, heading back to my dorm, I saw another retreatant looking at something on the ground. It was so dark, I couldn’t make out if it was a snake or the world’s largest worm or what. Thank goodness that person drew my attention to the creature; otherwise, I might have stepped on it, which would have been extremely dreadful for both parties, more so the one underfoot.
I realized someone else might tread on it, so I stood in front of it and after some minutes, saw its position had changed slightly. It was evidently crossing the path at the rate of about an inch per minute. So I kept pace with it (not too difficult) and hoped it wasn’t going to change its mind and turn around halfway across! Finally, it was nearly on the other side, near the grass. A number of people had passed in both directions, so this was time well spent. Then someone managed to nearly bump into me, and also startled the creature, which frantically S curved off into the grass, thus revealing itself to be probably a garter snake.