After several years away, I returned to IMS not long ago for a midsummer retreat. As I strolled through ferns and fragrant pine trees, I felt happy to be back and wondered how my retreat would unfold. The quiet and peace of the place seemed to promise serenity, and as the retreat progressed there were definitely serene moments. But there were also plenty of moments when my mind was like a noisy theme park. At those times, I felt as if I was lost in a funhouse, wandering through a gallery of mirrors. I chose to look in those mirrors and did my best to make friends with whom I saw.
Like everyone else, l was assigned a daily “yogi job” on arrival. During previous retreats, I had washed pots or run the dishwasher. When I was asked this time to tend to the plants, I thought, “Perfect!” I pictured myself, a beacon of equanimity, a Buddhist Martha Stewart, gliding through the place with my watering can, exquisitely mindful. That might have been the case, were it not for the fact that I soon found myself caught up in some very old habits around work: a struggle with perfectionism, difficulty pacing myself and a fear of making mistakes and being criticized.
Before long this sweet and simple job had become overlaid with fear and judgement. But even as this drama was unfolding, I knew it was less about the plants than with my old conditioning. I also knew that none of these feelings was out of place; in fact, this yogi job was the perfect context for these feelings to unfold. This retreat, l reminded myself, was not about transcending the difficult but having the spaciousness to be with it fully. Here was an opportunity to bring curiosity and awareness to a new situation where I didn’t know all the rules, and where it was likely I would make mistakes. Here was an opportunity to attend to the inner grasping and confusion with compassion.
I handled meditation in much the same way I tended the plants. My efforts to stay present in the moment were often a struggle. As I tried to concentrate, the muscles of my mouth, forehead and jaw tightened. As I investigated these feelings and sensations, I realized I was using meditation as a tool to get somewhere, to become more effective, productive, smarter. Because expectation kept me leaning forward into the future rather than resting in the present, there was always the gnawing question of whether I would get what I desired. Caught between wanting and fear of not getting, struggle and anxiety were inevitable.
During group interviews, I spoke about how meditation often felt more like a demanding project than a joyful, liberating practice. One teacher replied that struggle, force, and judgement in meditation don’t lead to peace or enlightenment; they merely lead to more struggle, force, and judgement. He encouraged me to be aware of my motives for practicing, to be gentle and to relax my body when I was caught in struggle.
During their talks and interviews, the teachers emphasized that there is so much richness to receive in every moment; none of it is contingent on becoming more than who we already are right now. Constant preoccupation with the future means missing opportunities to learn, serve, love and receive.
For the rest of the retreat l explored my intention: Before most sitting and walking meditations I asked myself why was I doing this practice? There were all sorts of answers: To become “better” in some generic sense. To be happier. To prove I’m willing. To be more loving. To rediscover right livelihood. To be at peace. Rather than trying to judge these different motives as good or bad, I allowed myself to be more aware of them in a friendly way. After getting lost in “mind storms” or noticing that the muscles in my face had contracted, I returned to my intention: Was I engaged in some kind of self-improvement project in that moment? Quite often, the honest recognition of meditation-as-enterprise permitted me to relax back into the present. Sometimes I returned compulsively to new schemes for improving my life. To the extent possible, I allowed myself to be with the ache and the longing that lie under the story line, and to return to the breath, my anchor.
Early in the retreat, the teachers introduced to us the practice of mettā or lovingkindness. Mettā practice involves the repetition of certain phrases, such as “May I be safe and protected from harm,” “May I be happy and peaceful,” “May I accept my limitations with grace,” and “May my life be filled with ease and joy.” Sending mettā to myself and others transformed the retreat. Mettā created a safe container for all my experiences to unfold.
Beginning my meditations with mettā was also a way of reaffirming my intention: When l started to meditate and my mind moved towards planning for the future, the quiet repetition of “May I be happy in this moment” often brought me home to the here and now. When I was agitated and couldn’t settle down, I experimented with sending forgiveness into my mind and body. This particular practice was like placing a soothing balm on resentments I held against myself for past mistakes or for what was unresolved. Towards the end of the retreat, the teachers encouraged us to send metta to everyone present, and to all beings, everywhere. I felt part of the whole web of existence. Instead of just my peace and my progress, the practice opened up to include so much more.
In the final days my awareness started to shift. I became more sensitive to sounds. The flowers were more vividly colorful. I felt calmer.
I still got lost in thoughts about the past and future, but often those mind states and the judgements I had about them dissolved in the light of awareness. Sitting on my cushion late one afternoon, I felt the sun’s warmth flooding through the open windows of the meditation hall. Birds were singing. I noticed I was deeply happy. This happiness wasn’t accompanied by feelings of expectation or excitement that I usually associate with happiness. More predominant were feelings of ease, serenity, and gratitude.
Then came the inevitable pang of fear and dread about losing this joy, followed by thoughts about how to hold on to it. Instead of stiffening against this wave, I lightly turned my attention to the fear and attachment. I was able to welcome these feelings because they, too, were part of this moment, since I wasn’t in a mood to wrestle with them, they receded. Joy returned and then eventually left, never to bloom again so fully. But rather than futilely pursue those pleasant feelings, I relaxed into gratitude simply for having had them and for my capacity to open to such peace.
As the end of the course approached, one of the teachers said to us, “You may be wondering, ‘How can I hold on to the peace and stillness I found on this retreat?’” He answered his own question with a smile. “Don’t worry, you can’t.” There was a ripple of nervous laughter in the hall. Clearly, some of us had already begun to worry about “losing it.”
Losing it hit me hard. On the ninth and final day, the silence broke. The conversation at breakfast seemed deafeningly loud. Feeling completely overstimulated, I didn’t know who to talk to or what to talk about. When I opened my mouth to talk, I spoke too fast; I was uncontrollably friendly and sincere. I was seized by thoughts about the past and future.
This wasn’t a crisis, I finally decided. I was merely undergoing an uncomfortable adjustment back into ordinary life, and needed to let go of judging and evaluating myself. In retrospect, I think my confusion and anxiety stemmed from a secret wish: To emerge from the retreat impervious to suffering, like a soldier fresh from dharma boot camp.
During the retreat one of the teachers quoted a Tibetan sage who once said, “The issues you are struggling with right now are the issues you will be struggling with for the rest of your life.” If that is true, the practice isn’t about getting rid of bad habits or unpleasant feelings, or becoming someone “better.” It’s about relating mercifully to whatever arises; wanted or unwanted, temporary or seemingly permanent. Very slowly, I am learning to relate differently to what is difficult in and around me. That which is difficult and unmanageable actually contains within it a lot of juice and creativity; the difficult, after all, is what brought me on retreat. Within the unwanted reside the seeds of my aspiration for a deeper, happier life. When I am not denying any part of myself or my experience, when I’m not picking and choosing which parts of me to own and love, I can relax and smile in the mirror.