Monday, January 18, 2016

Awareness Itself

Sayadaw U Tejaniya came to Spirit Rock to lead a retreat last year, but I was number 102 on the waiting list and so did not attend. I didn’t want the whole year to go by without undertaking a period of intensive practice, so in December, I went on a retreat whose topic was the awareness of awareness itself. The lead teacher was Phillip Moffitt, one of my favorites.

F. spends time every week with friends who have a three-year-old daughter, which probably explains why I’ve been sick so many times over the past year, including having laryngitis for the first time ever and having mono. F. usually spends several nights a week at my place, and during his visit right before my retreat, he had a cold, and by the time I left for Spirit Rock, so did I.

I thought maybe it would clear up in a couple of days, but soon a relentless cough had set in. I never had a sore throat, and there was no chest congestion—just gallon after gallon of post-nasal drip and the resultant cough. Now, the people at Spirit Rock are extremely nice, but they are also protective of the beautiful wooden floor in the meditation hall, so no liquids are allowed in there. Sipping water would have quelled 95 percent of this cough, but that was not available, so I sat in the meditation hall coughing and coughing and coughing.

Not only was I disturbing the peace of 85 people, it was—besides me—an unusually quiet retreat. No one arrived late to the sittings. No one left early. You could hear a pin drop from the first moment of the first period of sitting—and you could also hear me, coughing and coughing and coughing (and then blowing my nose, and if you are a person of extraordinary discernment, perhaps you could even hear a wadded-up used tissue landing gently on the floor between my feet). Soon I had a ring of empty seats around me, except for one very tranquil-seeming older lady, and a young fellow who had resorted to the use of earplugs.

After a couple of days, I quit going to the meditation hall except for periods where instructions would be presented, and just lay in bed. I considered getting mad at F. or feeling sorry for myself, but decided not to bother: causes and conditions unfolded as they did. Briefly, I pretended that I was in hospice actually dying: how might I practice at that time? Then I felt very happy that I was not yet dying in hospice, and set about having as many mindful moments as possible.

As it happens, Howie frequently recommends resting in open awareness, so I found it easy to tune into a broader sense of perception less concerned with individual objects (i.e., sense experiences, including thoughts and emotions) and more attuned to the vast space of knowing in which it all comes and goes. It was a lovely, extremely peaceful feeling, which lingered for some days after I was home again. So I consider the retreat to have been entirely worthwhile even though I hardly did more formal meditation practice than I normally do.

I had a roommate who went to find somewhere else to sleep after enduring a couple nights of my company. She offered me a ride home at the end, so I guess no hard feelings, and one of her other passengers was the young fellow with the earplugs. I apologized to him for all the racket, and he said, “It’s not like you could help it. And it wasn’t just you: it was also all the other people coughing and sneezing and making various kinds of noise.” That was rather surprising. He must be astonishingly sensitive (because I certainly can’t be going deaf).

Howie happened to be at Spirit Rock leading a daylong retreat during the time I was there and told me afterward that he knew I was there because the retreat teachers mentioned it over lunch. I asked, “Did they say, ‘Your student wrecked period after period of meditation with her horrible cough?’” and Howie said yes, they did actually mention my cough.
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