This is the final bit of my report on my retreat at Spirit Rock last month in the style of Sayadaw U Tejaniya.
In a dharma talk, one teacher told us that grasping and aversion (the “defilements,” to use the classical term) are products of restlessness—the mind that is not calmly abiding, the proliferation of thoughts—and that either grasping or aversion is always accompanied by delusion (wrong understanding) or ignorance (simply not knowing). Our work largely consists of working with defilements: seeing what happens more and more clearly so that wisdom can naturally uproot them, and not getting lost in justifying stories (e.g., why I have a right to be angry), and not taking what this teacher called “evasive action,” such as acting out the feeling. It might be odd to think of taking action as being evasive, but as a teacher at the Zen Center said, “Reaction is a way of not fully experiencing.”
Other evasive actions are repressing the feeling, or applying a technique such as metta, though of course at other times we consciously practice metta to great benefit. Instead of avoiding the uncomfortable sensations and feelings, we can drop the story and have a direct encounter with what is happening, including noticing the attitude of mind. Our thoughts can often provide a clue to the latter.
Besides having almost no emotional disarray on this retreat, which I attribute at least in part to the group interviews, I also had very little physical pain. Physical pain is very common on retreat, largely due to accumulated tension from daily life, as well as to injuries or chronic conditions, or even the attempt to sit in a certain pose due to a mental picture of the perfect meditator. Regarding the first, a teacher gave the analogy of a fist that you clench for ten years. By then, you don’t perceive it as painful any more, but when you finally open your fist, it will hurt. I have often had excruciating shoulder pain on retreat, and am heartened at the idea that maybe I’m getting the hang of being more relaxed the rest of the year. I’m sure the Alexander Technique is helping with that.
One bright afternoon, I saw a rather unhandsome medium-sized lizard near the meditation hall, ensconced in the trough-like crack between two squares of sidewalk. It must have been an agreeably toasty spot, allowing his belly and sides and tail to rest against the sun-warmed concrete, and his head to loll casually on the sidewalk itself. The next time I passed by, alas, its little head was flattened. It had almost certainly been stepped on by a dreamy yogi (wearing shoes, one hopes). It wasn’t all squished, because most of it was in the gully between the paved squares, so I hope its death wasn’t lingering, though I guess a collapsed head has pretty decisive health consequences. I had a good cry during the few minutes spent walking down to dinner: why didn’t it get out of the way? Every time I passed by thereafter, I noticed the little red splotch where its head had been, and a patch of striated skin.
A much nicer thing was Franz Moeckl teaching qi gong, the first couple of days in the meditation hall, and thereafter in the sunny courtyard. Franz was at the very first retreat I ever went on, at Yucca Valley in 1996, serving as the retreat manager, I believe. At that retreat, I interviewed with Howie (Howard Cohn) and with Carol Wilson, so being with Carol again is always wonderful, and of course Howie is seen most Tuesday nights in the Mission. Franz now travels the world leading retreats and teaching qi gong, and he is beloved by yogis for just being his charming unique self, the effect enhanced by English not being his first language. The hour you spend with him is likely to be very agreeable. In giving an instruction related to the head, he mentioned “the little people in there doing their work.” He also sat in on some of the group interviews.
In the closing session at the end of the retreat, one woman offered such a lovely tribute to Franz that Carol joked that she and Steve should thank Franz for letting them teach with him. It was clear this sentiment was widely shared. After the retreat closed, I was at the dining hall, waiting for my ride to come along when he appeared. He went into the dining hall and emerged a bit later with Carol, and they walked off toward the parking lot. I watched them go and then noticed, nearby, the woman who had said all the nice things about Franz. She, like me, was looking somewhat forlornly after him: there he goes.
Then I had the conscious thought, well, he’s gone, but she’s here—I guess I’ll talk to her. She proved to be utterly delightful, with a joyful laugh, freely deployed. She told me she chose this retreat specifically because Franz was going to be there. I myself chose it because Carol Wilson and Steve Armstrong were going to be the teachers; that it was in this different style was a lovely and very lucky surprise. It was also a pleasure to meet new teacher Alexis Santos, who has studied with Sayadaw U Tejaniya in Burma.
My pet topic, lucid dreaming, even arose, as one teacher mentioned more than once that when mindfulness becomes sufficiently continuous, you can even find yourself mindful in your dreams.
Herewith, possibly the last thing I’ll say about the retreat itself. I suspect that a lot of yogis, especially on their first retreat, think, “Wow! When I get home, I’m quitting my job, getting a divorce and going to Burma! I’m going to shave my head and get a tattoo of the Buddha, and from now on, I’m only going to wear saris!” And the like, and at nearly every retreat I’ve been on, a teacher has made a point of saying not to make any big decisions right after returning from retreat: do not quit your job and do not get a divorce. (But if you are going to get a tattoo, maybe follow the example of the Zen Center teacher who has a pair of eyes on the back of his head.)
In marked contrast, on this retreat, one teacher gave an entire talk about following one’s heart—how he had a successful business but realized the main place it would lead was to even more material success. So he closed his business and went to Burma, which by all accounts is wonderfully drenched in the dharma. The same teacher recommended frequent life inventories: Does this relationship still serve me? This way of doing things? This job? After hearing his talk plus several other remarks in this vein over the days, I almost started to think he was trying to say to me personally, “Quit your job and go to Burma!”
I am not going to quit my job or go to Burma (I don’t think), but ever since I’ve been home, I’ve found myself asking a lot of questions: Why do I have this item? Why am I doing this activity? Do I genuinely want to make plans with this person? Why am I going here or there? This retreat really encouraged this kind of observation and questioning, both in what was said about life inventory, but also in the instructions to notice in detail what we do when sitting and walking: macro and micro.