Words about a Silent Retreat

Tonight you are hearing some of the first words as I emerge from a month of silence on retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center.

Six inspirational teachers guided the retreat: Jack Kornfield (my spiritual guide for 25 years), Trudy Goodman (leader of L.A. Insight sangha), John Travis (recently returned from a pilgrimage to sacred mountain sites in Nepal), Lila Wheeler (a scholar of Buddhist texts and fluent in Spanish), Winnie Nazarko (a teacher at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA) and Pascal Auclair, (a fiery young dharma instructor from Montreal, where French is his primary language).  Martial artist Teja Bell led 5:45 am Qigong classes, which complemented 45-minute sessions of sitting and walking meditation throughout the day.   Every afternoon, one of the teachers led Brahma Vihara practice, starting with Metta, moving to Compassion, then Equanimity, and finally Sympathetic Joy.  Each evening the sangha listened to a dharma talk.

Some of the 80 retreatants (yogis) had been sitting on retreat since the beginning of February, so I swam on the wake of their practice.  My companions ranged in age from early twenties to late eighties and came from as close by as Woodacre, California and as far away as Europe.  I was delighted that my Mexican dharma student Marina Rojo, a coordinator of the Cholula Vipassana Sangha, received a scholarship to join the March retreat.

The March retreatants began by remembering the support of the three refuges: the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha and by vowing to follow the first five Buddhist precepts: non-harming, not taking what is not freely given, abstaining from sexual relations, abstaining from taking substances that cloud the mind, and abstaining from talking—except for 15-minute meetings with assigned teachers every other day and essential communications while performing daily yogi work meditation practice.

The theme of the retreat was “Identity” and the countless ways that we cause ourselves suffering by defining rigidly who we think we are.   The teachers reminded us of the Buddha’s Three Characteristics of human life: the inevitability of suffering, the impermanence of all things, and the absence of a solid self.

The first week for most of us newcomers was full of noting physical pain and restless or sleepy minds.  As we settled down, a purification process began of facing an internal life review–all the unfinished business from the past surfaced with attending emotions.  The meditation hall was filled with the sounds of tears and nose-blowing.  This process is not for sissies.

I faced grieving about leaving Mexico and revisited dear friends and places I’d loved over the fifteen years I lived there.  As I released strong emotions, I saw how such a deep love merits mourning.  I felt compassion for myself, and I let go of the past in a dignified way.  That process led to gratitude for our sangha here in Houston and for all the warm and friendly overtures Mark and I have received in this city since we moved here a year and a half ago.

I learned once again how confronting the truth—the dharma—liberates us to live more fully in the present moment.

The teachers were forthcoming about challenges in their own lives.  Jack spoke about the pain of divorcing his wife of 30 years, Trudy talked about leaving a marriage to a man who was addicted to alcohol, Lila recalled a traumatic experience from her past, Pascal admitted his diagnosis as HIV-positive and his struggles as a young gay man, John remembered the fear and pain he had undergoing successful surgery for prostate cancer, and Winnie shared stories about her mother learning to accept Winnie’s lesbian partner.   The message was that we are all human beings following the dharma path to alleviate the inevitable suffering in our lives.  Jack stated, “The Dharma has never let me down.”

Once I let go of grieving, I could enjoy turning 65 years old in silence.  I’ll read you a poem in wrote on March 28th.

Silent Sixty-Fifth Birthday

Noble Silence on retreat
Is the most precious gift
For my birthday.
Before dawn breaks,
I’m engaged in
Loving kindness practice
For myself, loved ones, and
All beings everywhere.

Still sitting in bed,
Wrapped in a warm blue shawl,
I untie a small, silky red pouch,
A friend’s present,
Saved for today.
Inside I find delicate
Amber pendant earrings,
My first adornment
During this month of
Voluntary simplicity.

Showering at 5:00 am,
I thank each body part
For serving me well.
Qigong with fellow yogis
Aligns and balances our energy
Before a hearty breakfast.
I savor steaming oatmeal,
Topped with thinly sliced
Bananas and almonds
Swimming in rice milk.
Yoga stretches prepare me for
Concentrated rounds of
Sitting and walking meditation.

And then it’s party time.
Via notes to retreat managers,
I’ve arranged a silent celebration
To surprise my dharma friends.
Today at lunch in the dining hall,
Posted on the entry wall,
An anonymous placard reads:
“May ice cream bring joy to our sangha
On my sixty-fifth birthday.”

Strategically, I choose a seat
Where I can observe
Expressions of delight
At the tantalizing display:
On large, ice-filled trays
Lie open cartons of
Mango and raspberry sorbet.
For those who tolerate lactose,
Containers of luscious strawberry and
Mint chocolate chip ice cream
Beckon meditators who’ve endured
Weeks of ingesting only
Nutritious, vegetarian fare.

My companions are ripe for
Taste bud temptation.
Some smile; others point or gasp.
One woman jumps up and down,
Radiating pure pleasure.
As the cartons are emptied
And the sweet, cold desserts are
Consumed with contented
Licks and slurps,
I wear a Cheshire cat grin,
Embodying sympathetic joy.

Silent and quickly impermanent,
No other party has given me
So much enjoyment.
Out in society, I’ve become
A senior citizen.
But within my heart,
I’m a happy birthday girl.

We couldn’t have been in a more beautiful setting at Spirit Rock—40 acres of wildlife refuge surround the four dormitories, which are named for the Brahma Viaharas.  I did walking meditation next to grazing deer, mating turkeys and sunbathing lizards.  My heart opened to the oneness of all life, and I took care not to step on ants and other insects.

I returned home on Easter—feeling reborn in body, mind, and spirit—with a passion for the dharma that I am eager to share with you.