Sunday, April 27, 2014

Because That’s the Way My Grandfather Did It

On Sunday, April 6, I went with a friend to a daylong at Spirit Rock, an introduction to insight meditation, taught by Jack Kornfield. As always, he told wonderful stories and read marvelous poems in his extremely soothing voice. He has a droll sense of humor. We spent the day sitting and walking and listening to Jack, as well as to the never-ending sound of folding chairs creaking loudly, as the audience fidgeted ceaselessly.

My retreat was to start the very next day, and I’d thought going to Spirit Rock for a daylong just beforehand would be a nice lead-in, but by the end of the day I was sick of being at Spirit Rock. I grumpily thought about not even going on retreat, and eventually noticed the monstrous power of aversion burning my mind: It’s going to be hot. I hate living in community. I can’t bring my little electric fan. People are going to be drenched in laundry detergent. Even though the odds are that you won’t have a roommate, I always have a roommate, and I know I will again.

I undertook my nightly practice, inspired by my mother, of accepting the unacceptable: Yes to it being hot and bad smelling and inconvenient. Yes to living with a hundred people for a week or so. Yes to having a roommate.

The next day, Tom drove me back to Woodacre in a City CarShare car. Knowing I’d have a roommate, I’d added to my packing list reminders of things to discuss with her, like having the window open at night or not, and was astonished when I found I’d been granted a room to myself, and not only that, one with a stream burbling by outside the window.

This retreat proved to be marvelous, unlike any other I’ve been on. Its official name was Through Dhamma Eyes: Training in Awareness and Wisdom, and it was devoted to mindfulness of mind (the third foundation of mindfulness), in the style of Sayadaw U Tejaniya of Burma, who recommends relaxed, open, continuous awareness, as opposed to choosing a particular object (such as the breath) and focusing on it in a more or less penetrating manner. He was a businessman before he was a full-time monk and teacher, and so his style of practice is uniquely suited to laypersons.

The biggest surprise was the schedule. Normally there are defined periods for meditating while sitting, then meditating while walking, alternating all day long: sit, walk, sit, walk. You’re perfectly free to do the reverse, or hike all day, or sleep all day (though your teacher might give you a nudge if you report doing nothing but hiking and sleeping). However, one tends to fall in with the crowd and follow the posted schedule.

At this retreat, in contrast, the schedule specified three hours in the morning for self-directed practice, and the same in the afternoon. There were also a few scheduled sitting periods, such as the one before breakfast, the one in the morning where instructions are given, and the one before the dharma talk in the evening. I thought that sitting during the self-directed periods would be non-stop noisy interruptions, with people entering and exiting the meditation hall, but it wasn’t like that at all. It was quiet and tranquil, with minimal coming and going. (Unlike when there is a scheduled sitting period and 75 people arrive on time and the remaining 15 tiptoe or clomp in late, resulting in 10 or 15 minutes of near-constant noise.)

As for what to do during those three-hour periods, teachers Steve Armstrong, Carol Wilson and Alexis Santos recommended alternating sitting and walking, but left it up to us to decide on the details. Often at vipassana retreats, the recommendation is just to walk back and forth for 25 steps or so, in order to keep things very simple, but that was almost discouraged on this retreat, and we were invited to notice how we decided when to walk and when to stop. How did we choose how far to go and how fast? What made us turn around, and why to the right or to the left? How did we know when to sit, and when to get up from sitting?

This has obvious applicability to daily life and proved to be a worthwhile investigation. I quickly saw that I do a thing because I’m supposed to, because it’s what I did yesterday or what I always do, because others are doing it, because it promises to be pleasant, or per some pattern that seems orderly. Because of the unusual schedule of this retreat, much of the “supposed to” was eliminated.

I didn’t want to spend these hours fleeing walking when sitting started to seem like it might be more pleasant and vice versa—being driven by aversion from activity to activity—and so I often did one or the other until I noticed some sense of strain or goal orientation arising, and then I went to do the other. It turned out that I spent more time walking than sitting.

More on this retreat to come.
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