New Years Eve Monastic Retreat: Gem Moments, Haiku and Sharon Salzberg

Note: Like a good non-linear storyteller I have written this blog about my New Years Eve meditation retreat and reference an earlier Spirit Rock retreat…Spirit Rock blog to be written, as well an animation from pictures I took on the New Years Retreat. I’ll include some teasers in this post, but keep your eyes alert and rss/fb feeds on active watch for the new posts. (You can also subscribe to these posts by email feed so all you have to do is note when you get an email!)

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Fade In: Dec 12, 2010, afternoon, Spirit Rock…I was just getting into the groove and then suddenly the retreat led by Howard Cohn and Mary Grace Orr was over. Instead of going down the rabbit hole of I did not go deep enough which is really the I’m not good enough story, I focused on integrating smoothly back into daily life and soon after found my way to a 7-day retreat over the New Years holiday.  Before we get there, I have a snapshot moment to share with you. Consider it a foreshadowing event, or an expression of how the universe paints beautiful songs in the skies and if we are present to witness and take in a particular note, when combined with another that comes later in time, we experience the melody of synchronicity.

I don’t have a car and most times I have gone to Spirit Rock, I have ended up carpooling with people in the sangha I did not actually know by name or conversation. This time a lovely woman Andrea gave me a ride, and on the ride there and back vibrant conversation ensued. As we were leaving the retreat grounds she asked, “have you stopped in the yurt with pictures of the various teachers who have passed through Spirit Rock—there is a picture of Howie (our home sangha teacher) from back in the day!” Upon entering the yurt we noticed that there was an entire wall dedicated to women teachers. My eyes took a beeline to the right side middle pane …there was a small Indian woman smiling. Andrea told me her name was Dipa Ma and she was known to beam with loving kindness and compassion. I said, “Wait, like Amma?” Andrea said, “Yes, like Amma.” Note to self: look up Dipa Ma when you get home.

Several years ago I saw a vision: I was at the edge of a green hill (ala my emotional imagination of a setting from Virgina Woolf’s Moments of Being). There was a younger middle-aged Indian woman in a white sari with long black flowing hair and me. The Indian woman was graceful, beautiful, tender, loving, compassionate, and confident; basically she was glowing in the wind. Perhaps this was my then elder self, perhaps it was someone else, perhaps she was a goddess spirit, perhaps all three (years earlier I explored a similar triangle/ambiguous relationship in my film The To Do List Confessions).  I will never know, to know does not really matter, she is my secret guide.  Dipa Ma did not look like the women in my vision, but something was drawing me to her nonetheless.  Appearances are deceiving when you only see the surface.

When I came back from the December retreat, I heard about a NYE meditation retreat. I thought it was 1 day, maybe 3 days, it turns out it was 7 days. I did wish to go deeper…but should I go on another retreat, I just went on one and had lots of creative energy…Andrea suggestively asked me, Can you see this upcoming retreat taking off where you left off in the last retreat? We both know retreats are never the same and not linear, but it was an interesting consideration. Maybe in this next retreat I could explore how not to fall asleep during all the sits! Maybe I could actually follow my breath or watch where I go when not with the breath. And why the breath again? Why do we do this again? After 8 years, I am only now discovering I don’t really follow my breath as instructed, but rules do and don’t work for me and the dharma has touched my life. I feel at home. Should I work on my film instead?

For New Years I did go on the retreat. It was a 7-day monastic retreat with Ajahns Anandabodhi and Santacitta, 2 Thai Forest Tradition nuns who are part of Aloka Vihara. I’m still taking it all in. So much came to the surface, some staying, some sinking. A few gems, grumpier rumblings and many insights. Lots of dancing with metta (loving kindness), compassion and forgiveness. I was able to do daily yoga- my practice included yoga journal podcasts and a Sivananda breath and asana sequence…the latter which is what I was doing New Years time 5 years ago at the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Dhanwantari Ashram!

My yogi job was to help in the kitchen, which inspired my first haiku:

Is this for compost?
No, the goats can eat citrus
Oh, did not know that!

The nuns who led the retreat were very generous, informative and extremely funny. And it was interesting to learn a little more about the gender politics and power struggles in the monastic community and their radical actions to move towards a Bhikkhuni ordination and why (this discussed informally after the retreat).

I’d never been on a monastic retreat before- and only once before had all women teachers. It is different. Also, I was rather used to the dharma talks at night format, so much that it took me a couple days to register that in this retreat the dharma talks were mid morning.  Yes, I was slow on the uptake, like an electric light bulb. On these retreats the days have patterns: wake up early, sit, walk, sit, sit, walk, sit walk…eating, showering, work meditation, movement, and free time are scattered in, usually at the same time each day. This pattern is almost like a container and you don’t have to worry or plan what you are going to do with your day and you can get up close and personal with each moment, because really, all your doing is breathing. Or that is the practice of the practice. During the dharma talks, the nun’s voices were so melodic and combined with my recent penchant for “falling close to sleep” when sitting on a chair…well, a lot of the talks reached me by a kind of whispered osmosis. I finally explored sitting on the cushion, which kept me more alert and I discovered that my back pain was not necessarily connected with sitting on the floor. The several sessions of personal yoga did wonders, even if it took me out of a kind of stillness (each to their own). I also explored how not to spend the whole next session beating myself up over how I did not practice the last session as I wanted to. It gets quite ridiculous, but these too are patterns being played out on another level. Same story, different content, the opportunity to watch it all from prime seats. And note, the view at points shone on amazing galleries of delight and amazing.

One day while doing walking meditation I noticed that the library had several meditation and Buddhism books. I flirted with a few books and then found Sharon Salzberg’s A Heart as Wide as the World- Living with Mindfulness, Wisdom, and Compassion. It is suggested that during a retreat you don’t distract yourself by reading or writing…stay in the stillness, in the silence. I had kind of forgotten this and by the time it came up as a gentle reminder during one of the talks, well, I was hooked on the book. Actually every break was another moment to read the book (which then I had to ease off of so I could do yoga, take a shower and sleep!). Here is how I justified it: since I was not alert during all the dharma talks, this was my personal dharma talk. I did want to explore deeper and here I was, with my heart wide open with Sharon Salzberg as my guide. Justification aside, something was calling me to this experience so I was willing to be with it. It was like a wonderful dance, the way reading the book was interweaving with my own experiences and explorations on and off the cushion.  I would have a question and then I would find myself reading a chapter that talked about the very thing. How did the Sharon know? Were she and the book talking to me, or was I listening? Quietly, this dance was leading me to my inner guide and self acceptance of I am enough and wonderful just the way I am.

On New Years Eve, the mid morning meal was Indian food. I was very excited and in the kitchen during my work shift I had to resist giving my opinion of how to alter the recipes (I love playing with savory recipes and make Indian food often). I was assigned making raita (yeah, I heart yogurt). The cook was worried the main dish would be spicy and we joked, that is why there is raita! (There was occasional talking in the kitchen during the silent retreat, sssh). I was trying to be very diligent with the exact measurements because usually I am not…there was a guide to the right on how to double the recipe…1 TBS cumin, ditto mark for other spices, including chili powder. That is a lot, but ok…I never measure and instead just add in, what do I know about exact measurements. You can imagine the rest…when the food was presented, the label card next to the raita read: caution *spicy* (turns out the chili powder was supposed to be add to taste). After filling my plate I sat down and immediately tasted the raita. Oops, ouch, this is s-p-i-c-y! Then I started to worry: oh no, it is new years eve, most of the people on the retreat are elder white western woman, what if they don’t eat spicy, what if I cause stomach situations today, what if I ruin new years eve, oh vey. I looked around my table, ok that woman is eating her raita. A moment later, interesting she ate all of it. I look around to visually monitor raita consumption at other tables. And then, I’m thinking, the cook trusted me, we had rapport, and maybe this stressed her out because she thinks people think she made it spicy on purpose and she is upset with me, should I say something, we are in silence though. I could just go into the kitchen and say, “mmm, I wonder if I misread the recipe, I did not intend to make the raita spicy”, how could I say something and still be confident, but express my intention was to follow the recipe, should I remain in silence and practice faith and trust? Yes, I am a sensitive person, and yes, this is dramatic and where is this worry coming from and what is my intention if I were to say something, or why am I having this reaction?

I went outside. It was a sunny chilly. I walked into the garden, sat down, took a deep breathe and laughed. I could fester or let it go, or both. I had good intentions. If I am going to say something to the cook, think about what to say and why. The next chapter in Sharon’s book told an anecdote about chili peppers and how we all have our own perspective on things. Something to mull over and then I moved on to the next chapter. Later I would find out that many people loved the raita. One woman came up to me after retreat and said, did you make that raita, I loved it. Another guy said, it was spicy?

In the book Sharon shares many anecdotes and explorations of the dharma and practice, but my heart sparkled every time she wrote about Dipa Ma. Yes, Dipa Ma was in this book also! Dipa Ma was a teacher of Sharon’s and someone you can tell had a huge impact on her life. Reading about Dipa Ma, her love, compassion, her being really…I was giddy and exhilarated. And all this was coated by Sharon’s love and respect for this woman.

I love these crazy moments, when you experience ecstatic energy and vibrations ripple in the world. My heart was deeply brightened reading A Heart as Wide as the World.  What if I did not go to this retreat (I wanted to go on a play “vacation”), what if I was not doing walking meditation (sometimes I do yoga instead), what if I did not discover the book (I started with another book), what if can go back a very long way (what if I was not born), so from another angle, what if turns to what is and then dissolves into less wondering and more exploring and a blanket of gratitude. I value intuition and synchronicity and welcome when this enters my life. Upon coming home I proceeded to check out all the Sharon Salzberg books I could find. She has a new book that just came out, Real Happiness and is currently doing a book speaking tour.

Funny how in silent retreats you are in silence, but at the end when you finally do talk to people, some amazing kinship may be discovered. Whether they are in passing or continue on. Before the last day, to introduce us to speaking, we were allowed to speak during evening tea. I did not want to participate in this and considered sneaking off into my room, but instead, I stayed and met an elder woman named Rose. We did not talk much, a simple hello and exchange of names, acknowledgment that we were both sitting in the same corner of the room each day. The next day, towards the close of the retreat I went up to Rose again.

I said: Rose, your shirt is lovely, you are lovely in it, and may I say, you look very cute! Rose said: The shirt has a story. When my husband died a few years ago, I was very very sad. This woman who I barely knew said to me, Rose, you are so sad. I made this shirt for you so you can be happy again.

The shirt made Rose look absolutely radiant and who knew if she was happy or sad, yet her face was enlivened like a young child. Being in her presence was like receiving a gift. Later in the hallway we talked more and she told me that she is quite anxious and has a hard time expressing how she feels about someone in their presence. Sometimes she wants to speak so badly and say something really simple, like, I like what you said…but it is so hard to say that and before she knows it she is in the middle of anxiety and just like that a mountain has grown out of a mole hole.  Rose continued and told me about that feeling she has had most of her life, like something is missing, but perhaps the loss is starting to melt. I was trying to listen to her words, but I was also listening to her, so I suggested that perhaps the story she circles around is an old unhelpful story and that what she is seeking is already there. I gave her a hug. At this point the retreat was over and people were in gathering luggage and heading out mode. Rose saw me in the hallway before I left. She came to me and whispered, you sparkle. She had put a hot pink jacket over her blue shirt. I pointed to my hot pink undershirt and my blue hoodie and responded, we match!

On the retreat, there was another woman who like me had a little mediation rule rebel and during the walking meditation sometimes took pictures. During the non-silence teatime, we began talking about exchanging photos and then discovered we are neighbors and both do art. She also sometimes helps people organize and this sounded really fascinating. Very excited, we exchanged phone numbers and emails and expressed heartfelt intentions to follow up with tea soon and not let this be one of those things left in the ether. A new art-dharma friend, yeah! Ive been on retreats before, but this time, twice in one month, I met new friends in the crevices of the silence.

Anecdotes about interactions aside, on this retreat, I feel I got to swim deeper into the dhamma (dharma) and for now my favorite word/action is skillful.

Oh this life is such a gift!