In my meditation retreat a couple of weeks ago, one of my teachers said, “sometimes we figure out what our retreat is about after a few days of it, but often we don’t know what a retreat is about for us was about until afterwards”. After five residential retreats (not many, but enough for a sample), I know that this process of discovery happens in layers – a bit of understanding in the retreat, quite a lot more in the week that follows, and then more later, perhaps on the next retreat when something comes round full circle again.
I cried a lot during my sesshin at Loon Lake this year. I wasn’t expecting that at all, but I discovered in my first two days of sitting that all of my body was noise and it wouldn’t simply dial down. Noise about the US election, climate change, the turn towards hatred, the outrage and rawness and exhaustion I was feeling from all the months of yelling yelling yelling. It was all in there, and when I started to get silent, it came up and danced in front of me. And so I went to my meetings with teachers and cried, I cried on my cushion during the Dharma talks, I cried in my bed when a particularly crushing childhood memory came back to me in a jolt. It was in no way continual, but it was the punctuation to each day of the retreat. It was confusing, because I am not a crier, but I became curious about what would make me cry next.
On the last day of sitting, I heard someone across the room sniffle. At first I thought “damn, someone’s got a cold” because if one person has a cold at retreat then it means there’s a good chance other people will get it and take it home with them. It’s not the most compassionate response, but I have become an ardent hand washer at communal gatherings because I *always* get sick otherwise. Anyhow – my ears were perked up to just such a sign in the zendo….. At first one sniffle, then two…. and after a few more seconds I realized that I was listening to someone cry, not have a cold…. and even more, in that room of 70 people, I could identify who it was. The moment I made that identification, it was like a channel opened up, and I began to cry also, but not for any specific reason of my own but because I could feel the clear suffering of my fellow sitter pouring right inside of me as though it were my very own.
After leaving retreat, I went to visit my family and then drove home to Gabriola. Over the week following (much of which I was separate from Brian due to differing work commitments – and so had lots of self reflection time) I noted that I was feeling a lot of my interactions with people holistically, through my whole body and touching my deeply in the way they normally don’t. I’ve been writing more since that time, I’ve been reading more zen, I’ve been more open generally with my time, and feeling more honest and generous overall, even as the implications of being open are also to feel more pain – to feel the injury of others continuously. This opening was authentic, not the result of thinking I should do one thing or behave some way, just a natural transition from the cushion to everyday life. It’s been remarkable to note it, even as I also feel that flow begin to ebb.
I have had such experiences before – following retreats or periods of intensive daily meditation. I have had great washes of universal love, or radical truth-telling, or changes of my relationship to time – as a result of this practice. Thus far these have been momentary, a few hours, a day at most. This time was a bit different – an opening in full form for at least a week, and still somewhat with me as I write this entry. But I know it won’t last – this state, like all things, is impermanent.
When we meditate, we watch our feelings rise and fall, pass before us and slip out the door. We learn that our emotional states are literally seconds or nano-seconds long, that even if we are having a really deep meditation in one moment, the monkey mind can start throwing bananas in the next, and that the breath is a tenuous anchor at the best of times. In our work towards living in the world more fully, there is no linear path, and no constancy in our responses to the stimulus around us. But what keeps us, or at least me, coming back to sit over and over no matter how tedious it seems at times – is these glimpses of equanimity, these cracks in which the shining self waiting to be revealed leaks through.
I do not have a cosmic relationship with the notion of awakening or enlightenment. As I’ve written before, I believe these are purely psychological states that come with deepening our relationship and understanding – and so I ascribe nothing mystical to these openings of feeling or awareness that come following a retreat. I do believe, however, that they are the guideposts to where we seek to go in the fullness of ourselves, and in the right time.
I will note that after a week and a half of this window open to compassion and connection, I have spent the last 24 hours in an outrageously angry state. I had a political argument today on Facebook (about Castro, of all things), I yelled at Brian last night because he wasn’t *as* pissed off at the government as I am about electoral reform. Basically, I am picking fights for no reason.
I believe this anger is intrisically connected to the channel that was opened in me following retreat. And so I continue to discover what fruit that period of silent meditation will bring to bear.
I came across this quote yesterday and it resonates – so rather than coming up with a pithy ending to this post, I will leave it here for your consideration. It’s a deep commitment required of each of us.
Many of us have set out on the path of enlightenment. We long for a release of selfhood in some kind of mystical union with all things. But that moment of epiphany–when we finally see the whole pattern and sense our place in the cosmic web–can be a crushing experience from which we never fully recover.
Compassion hurts. When you feel connected to everything, you also feel responsible for everything. You can not turn away. Your destiny is bound to the destinies of others. You must either learn to carry the Universe or be crushed by it. You must grow strong enough to love the world, yet empty enough to sit down at the same table with its worst horrors.
To seek enlightenment is to seek annihilation, rebirth, and the taking up of burdens. You must come prepared to touch and be touched by each and every thing in heaven and hell.
I read reflections on the subject of meditation frequently and your written insights are among those that speak most clearly to me, and with such elegant honesty. Thank you for opening the windows on your process and sharing this here.