Friday, June 4, 2010

Silent Retreat

One by one the travelers gather in a big old stone house on top of hill. At first it is only me an Edit. We are greeted at the door by a tall older man, Bill, and a shorter quiet man, Steve. They have warm eyes and big smiles. Bill gives us a tour of the house and takes us upstairs to the place we will sleep. Edit and I share a triangular room above the room where we will be meditating. The room is filled with books about heath, psychology, literature and other topics. I’ve been drawn to pyramids lately. Seems appropriate that I am in the pyramid room of the house. After

I set up my bed, I lay a blanket on the grass and instantly fall asleep. I twitch a few times as bugs land on my legs, arms, and upper back. When I wake up, the bright blue sky has been turned down to a lavender color with sweeping pink streaks.

Several more people have arrived and are bringing in bags and backpacks. Some people are setting up tents in the yard. I feel as though I may be one of the youngest here.

I watch as each person with curious eyes wondering who they are, where they’ve come from, what they are here. There are two guys, Tom and Joji, about my age, from Michigan. They seem kind of out of place like they would more likely be found at a Phillies game than a silent Buddhist retreat. There is a woman in a floor length floral dress who just sort of floats from one room to the next. There are a few people I recognize from meditation classes on Sunday at the art loft in center city. Susan, a peppy older woman with white hair, who owns the loft where we meet always calls me by my name even though I’ve only told her my name once.

Everywhere I look there is a new face. I don’t even know how many people are here. The house has been divided into many rooms with post-it notes marking the doors like the plaques on hotel rooms. A walk-in closet is a bedroom. Bathrooms are number #1, #2, #3, #4. We are assigned a time of day about 45minutes when we can shower in one of the bathrooms. The area that would b ea dining room or sitting room is the “meditation hall.” Another similar type room on the other side of the house is the “yoga studio.” The house used to be an old Quaker school house. It feels very “lived in” in an eccentric kind of way. The glass cabinets in the hallway have a pair of old white roller-skates and alice in wonderland figurines among the wine glasses. The art on the walls is a seemingly random collection of black & white photography, impressionistic paintings in big gold frames and other unique pieces. There is a thangka hanging over the window in the meditation hall, hung just for this special event.

I spotted the “teacher” arriving at the house in his vibrant red robe and went outside to greet him. His piercing blue eyes are set back deep in his face and he smiles kindly as he shakes my hand and asks my name. I am so happy to meet him. He is the doctor to the Dalai Lama. Bill told me the story of what led him to the dharma. He had many experiences of death which put him on the path – a near-fatal illness when he was younger, the death of his young wife, etc. These seemingly tragic experiences created a very fortunate life of living and working with one of the most incredible spiritual leaders of our time.

The woman who owns the house, Mariann, is running around like crazy moving furniture, setting up tea and hot water, opening windows, etc. She has a “punky Brewster” kind of energy. She looks about 50 years old but you can tell her spirit is much younger. She’s wearing tye-dye green pants and a tank top. Her hair is pulled back with an oversized clip and she has an orange scarf around her neck.

We gather at 9pm for our first meeting in the meditation hall. I have de ja vu as Mariann talks about the house. There are 15 of us listening attentively to her. We’re told that 10 more people are coming.

I feel so at home. Being here reminds me of all the retreats I’ve been on over the years and all the traveling I’ve done. Gathering with these people reminds me of all the times I’ve gathered with people on the spiritual path.

Why are we here? How did we come to be together in this place at this time?

It feels like family. Some people are assigned to cooking, other cleaning, some people are assigned to make tea and coffee, other to ring bells so we know when it’s time for breakfast or dinner. My assignment is lunch. And we’re all a little strange. And we all love the spiritual side of life. We all care what we do with our mind and we have a reverence for life.

I have my phone turned off and I feel a slight craving to check text, email, facebook – I get so addicted to that shit. I love the detox from technology when I travel. It’s one of my favorite things about being far away from home.

There is hustle and bustle in the kitchen as Mariann shows everyone how to prep for breakfast. Bill is still giving tours of the house. He’s been giving tours for almost 4 hours. He seems like a really patient and calm guy. I sit on a piano bench in the hallway watching them do their preparations. There’s just a piano bench. No piano. There are grey stone columns on either side of the hallway and at the far end of the kitchen. There are hardwood floors, a yellow-bamboo colored kind. A woman spills water on the floor. She says, “Ah, my first mess” and laughs. There are big silver containers with hot water. One of the silver water heater things makes a howling sound like the whales talking underwater. Everyone who walks by says, “what’s that sound?”

There are paper plates, napkins, cups with upside-down silverware. The monk passes by barefoot like he’s one of us. I guess he is. I get butterflies in my stomach when I see him. I think all monks, nuns, priests and holy people are special. I get tingly around them, like God chose them for a special purpose to represent him to be his ambassadors.

I stand up and look out the window. It’s a gorgeous full moon. I run outside to get a closer look. I feel so connected to the moon. I always have. I catch my breath when I see a full moon – it’s just magical to me. There is a golden haze around the big white glowing light. The crickets are singing loudly. A long-haired white and orange cat creeps by. I sit on the porch swing and rock slowly forward and back. I am reminded of the groundlessness teaching that I listened to yesterday by Pema. She says we can’t cling to things that ground us or we’ll be stuck to them and they’ll cause us suffering. I am weightless on the porch swing under the full moon listening to the crickets sing.

From the swing, I can see through the window into the meditation hall. I can see the alter in the front of the room with flowers and brass bowls and a picture of the Buddha. To my left there is another window with the top-half of people being busy doing preparations. I can see their mouths move, but can’t hear what they say. The light around them is a warm yellow. It feels like family.

There are colorful Tibetan prayer flags draped between two glass porch lights on the patio. There are wind chimes, an assortment of chairs, a glass table, and potted plants. There are four acres of land surrounding the house. Rolling green hills, trees, fresh cut grass.

I remind myself of my intention. I am here for self-love. I am here to increase my capacity to love myself and others. I was listening to Pema when I was driving here and she was talking about the practice of developing a friendship with our self. She said that this unconditional friendship with self is very important. I agree.

It’s getting late. Time to get ready for sleep. I make my way back to the pyramid room. I scan the books on the bookshelves. There is a Ram Dass book on top. I love him. I am glad he is here on this retreat with me.

Idiot’s Guide to Feng Shui, Reading Lolita in Theran, The Sedona Method, How to Think like Leonardo Da Vinci, How to Cook your Life

I love books. I love books and the moon and cats and meditation and tea and monks.
I am tucked into my bed, totally present and aware and peaceful. Maybe it’s the moments when I ignore my thoughts and come fully into the present moment that I am happy. I keep still. I fall asleep.

Yoga at 6am. About 8 women. A long narrow room, windows on each end, a stone fireplace on one side. Windows cracked. Birds chirping. Smell of grass and trees. Sound of deep synchronized breath, bending and stretching, straightening and lengthening. Working so hard to be ourselves. He says, “If you want to make the pose more dynamic…” I sink in. I feel the strength of my feet and legs. Feel the energy running down my arms and up through my head. How I wish I could bring all of this to Philly. How I wish everyone would stop working, stop moving and just do yoga in the park. How I want everyone to love their lives and just be happy.

I am aware. I move too much. I run around too much. Too much talking. Too much doing. I know I need stillness. Even in stillness I am moving. Rapid thinking. Pulsing heart beat. Rising falling breath. Even in stillness I am moving.

I rest in child’s pose. I feel love. Forehead to the floor. Body soft. I am sleepy.
I relocate to the backyard to reflect in my journal. I write,

“I think that I need to give even more honesty than I’ve been giving. More more more honesty. I think I need to give the most embarrassing shameful awful thoughts. I think I need to stop thinking my thoughts are so important. Need to stop thinking they are “my” thoughts. They’re just thoughts passing through. Thoughts everyone has. Who am I to be so righteous and protective of my thoughts?

I’ve been keeping thoughts inside like dirty rats in a cage. Why? My thoughts are not me. I am not my thoughts. What if I let the rats run free in the world? What would happen? Why would probably find happy homes somewhere. They’re certainly not happy inside of me.

I never pay attention this much in real life. That’s the problem. I’m so busy doing that I never pay attention. Such a shame. Such a sadness to miss so much.

When my heart is open everything is poetry and magic and love. Then it closes and I am in darkness.

The Buddha held up a flower as a teaching. Students became enlightened. That’s all you need. One moment. One flower. One breath.”

There is a girl walking back and forth on a stone path in bare feet holding a colorful ceramic bowl. A little bug crawls on my journal. Really little. Iridescent black body. Two little antennae. Legs too small to see. Wonder what he’s thinking?
Flowers surround my blanket. They are sitting in meditation, sitting in silence, just sitting there. You can tell they never get bored, never complain. Flowers are more enlightened than me. There are more flowers on the vine behind me. Incredible fuchsia flowers wide-open and unashamed, begging for sun like little sluts, like whores for the heat.

They ring the bell and it’s time for breakfast. I entire the silent hallway adjacent to the kitchen. I fill a bowl with greek yogurt and fresh blueberries. It tastes so good that I shiver a little, like the way you do when you have the first ice cream cone of summer. I like it so much that I eat it too fast. I can’t help it. I eat half-a-piece of bread embedded with seeds and dried fruit, a bright yellow banana, ginger tea.

Six people are sitting on the patio eating their breakfast in silence. The monk is one of them. It’s so lovely to sit quietly with people, so reverent.

It’s nearly time to start our first session. The monk enters the meditation hall and fills the brass bowls on the altar with water. It’s an offering. A devotion. An act of love. It makes me cry.

A white butterfly hovers and flutters over the green bushes outside the window.
The monk disappears.

I put pen to paper again:

“It’s not that there is not enough. It’s that there is too much sometimes. Too much perfect beautiful amazing breathtaking world. I think maybe I try to hold onto it. I think maybe I try to hold the whole world inside my body and I can’t do it and it makes me shake from the pressure. I think that I worry that if I don’t hold onto it, it will disappear and be lost. In my heart of hearts, I know that’s not true. I just can’t give up the holding. I want to hold the whole world.”

We filter into the meditation hall. Blue, black, burgundy pillows. Cross-legged people sit with straight spines. The man to my right is breathing loudly. The teacher enters, takes off his red robe and wraps an orange patch-work cloak around his body. He sits. Takes off his watch. Rests his palms in his lap and says, “OM is a lovely word.”

We all chant together in low hums until the room vibrates like the inside of a drum. Amazing the way that voices can merge into one sound, one instrument, one song of devotion. We become the chant. I feel the vibration in my chest, in my head. The teacher says, “Feel the presence of the Buddha.” We invoke the Buddha but the energy I feel is more Native American – maybe it’s the land where we are chanting now. Maybe the Native Americans chanted here hundreds of years ago.

We chant faster and faster. One mantra per breath. Some people believe that we are given a limited number of breaths in a lifetime and when we run out of breaths, our life ends.

Now the energy shifts. I feel like we are in the desert of Australia with the bushmen playing their didgeridoos. Then we fade into silence, the mantra still on our lips and in our hearts. I feel like I am getting closer and closer to myself. I feel fragile and new. I want to be unafraid of who I am. I want to be me. I believe I am an expression of God that is not fully expressed yet. I want to come out of my shell.

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