Monthly Archives: April 2010

Pilgrimage: Bodh Gaya

We are on a four-week imaginary pilgrimage to the places where the Buddha was born, became enlightened, embarked on teaching and ultimately died.

Last week we talked about the birthplace of Siddhartha Gautama and what a sheltered life he is said to have lived in his youth. We talked about the effects of labeling and sheltering in our own lives, and how important it is to become aware of these labels and this tendency to shelter ourselves from the truth of illness, old age and death.

The second place on our pilgrimage is Bodh Gaya, a town of about 30,000 residents in northeastern India, where stands what is said to be a descendant of the ficus religiosa or Bodhi tree under which Siddhartha meditated and awakened.

I derive inspiration from the fact that right behind me here in the room where we meditate is a ficus tree, some very distant cousin of that Bodhi tree. It is a part of our little sangha, serving to remind us that this awakening is possible for all of us.

This particular tree is about forty years old, and was given to me by a neighbor whom I helped escape from her abusive husband. She knew the tree would dry up and die if she left it with him, so she gave it to me before I drove her and her infant son to the airport.

I think of the violent atmosphere in which this tree spent its earliest years before coming into our home over thirty years ago. It didn’t have a sheltered early life, just as some of us didn’t. I tell you about this tree, because as we sit here week after week, it holds the space for our practice and in some way I think our peaceful coming together nurtures it as well. If your early years were emotionally turbulent, perhaps this little tree can be a reminder for you, that ending suffering does not depend on a peaceful past.

When we left off our story last week, Siddhartha had discovered that the world was a very different place than he imagined. It was not all youth, health, beauty and opulence. He discovered that there was also illness, old age and death. But remember that on his fourth venture outside the palace walls, he met a wandering ascetic, a person who had renounced the material world to pursue enlightenment. And Siddhartha felt called to follow this ascetic path.

He left his home and family, traded in his luxurious clothing for rags and chopped off his glorious mane of hair. He walked away from everything that had defined and supported him. He walked away from all that supported the illusion that had distracted him all those years. He yearned for the truth, however painful it might be.

We discussed last week that when he left his home he was said to be 29 years old, which is around the time that many of us make some kind of venturing forth into an unknown. For some of us this was quite literally changing of the worlds. Two of you mentioned getting married during that period of life – talk about venturing into the unknown!

But even if we didn’t physically venture forth, we may have had an internal shift, as I did with my awakening to my second-class status as a woman. I had accepted it as the way of the world, and was shocked to find that it was not necessarily so. I was upset with myself that I had been so complicit in maintaining that status quo.

Siddhartha may have felt his own complicity and anger at his acceptance of the indulgence that he experienced when it turned out the world was not all like that. He may have felt duped, as I felt duped. He may have felt lulled to sleep as I felt lulled to sleep in my acceptance of limited job opportunities. (Remember when the classifieds divided job openings into separate categories for ‘Men’ and ‘Women’?) I accepted that men defined the world I lived in and that I would not have a say except to cast my vote, a relatively recent privilege, but not to speak out and certainly not to run for office. I was complicit. I bought it. It felt normal. In so many ways I won’t go into here, I awakened to how the wool had been pulled over my eyes, and I’d woven the wool into a life for myself, accepting it as my due.

I imagine that Siddhartha too had fully enjoyed and accepted as normal the life he was given. I imagine he too was shocked, angered and awakened. And once he knew the truth of the suffering in the world, he recognized the suffering in himself for what it was, and could no longer keep his wool blinders on. So he set forth on the path that seemed the most likely to teach him how to end suffering.

It was an extreme path. Ascetics practice austerities, varying degrees of self-denial and deprivation as a way to attain states of ecstasy. They give up all the pleasures of the outer world to achieve the joys of the inner world. People still experiment with this kind of thing today, using sensory deprivation chambers or isolation tanks to remove external stimuli. Individual senses can be reduced using blindfolds, hoods or ear plugs or sound reducing earphones. We know now that the brain, lacking stimulus, will start to create its own in the form of hallucinations. This could be a part of what the ascetics were experiencing.

They were also very rigorous in a variety of concentration practices. Siddhartha was earnest in his aim, and practiced asceticism for six years, rapidly mastering incredible feats of concentration practice, learning the various disciplines that were meant to lead to enlightenment. But he still had not found the root cause of suffering and that was his true goal.

One day he was offered rice milk by a young girl, and he accepted it. Taking this simple offering was a pivotal moment in his life. For his ascetic companions it may have been seen as failure, a giving in to bodily desire. But for Siddhartha it was clearly not a loss of resolve, but a purposeful step on his own path.

That path led him to sit under a tree, vowing that he would not get up until he had a spiritual awakening. He is quoted as saying: “Here on this seat my body may shrivel up, my skin, my bones, my flesh may dissolve, but my body will not move from this seat until I have attained Enlightenment.”

Setting intention is something we practice every time we sit to meditate. Right Intention is part of the Eightfold Path. We set the intention to notice whatever arises and to hold whatever it is, in an open embrace. And this is how Siddhartha sat, as he was taunted repeatedly by the tempter Mara.

Who is this Mara? Mara is every inner demon that tempts or terrifies us, telling us we are unworthy or telling us we deserve special treatment. Mara is every craving that demands to be fed immediately, right now, and hurry it up! Mara arrives with a sense of urgency and makes demands that overwhelm us, leaving us weak and helpless to do anything but what Mara wants.

Siddhartha knew Mara well. He had spent six years noticing Mara’s ways, so sitting under the Bodhi tree, he was able to greet Mara as an old friend. We all have friends that we care about but who get up to shenanigans of trying to lure us into unskillful behavior. Siddhartha knew Mara to be not some alien being, but just such an unskillful friend. When we try to make Mara other, instead of acknowledging it as something much more close and personal, we feel helpless to deal with it. But when we go the other direction and see Mara as self, the way we see and define ourselves, then we are also helpless to deal with it.

Long before I studied Buddhist teachings, from my own personal experience, I wrote about the various aspects of self that out of fear rise up and demand my immediate and unquestioning devotion that result in unskillful behavior. I learned to recognize the different tone of voice these aspects have, how caffeinated they seem, how much their presence drains me. And I found my own way to make friends with them without giving in to their demands. I came to understand that each one wants what is best for me, but each is misguided and unskillful, rooted in fear, and thus not to be relied upon or followed.

I learned how to have a respectful dialog with them to uncover their deep-seated fears and to negotiate a compromise that would assuage these fears but still be skillful. A perennial favorite that I have shared in the past is ‘Slug’, that aspect of self that had no interest in exercise. He saw bed as a big mommy hug and he missed his mommy. When I understood that, I was able to negotiate taking a yoga class from a woman the age my mother would have been, had she lived, who, at the end of class, tucked us all in with cozy blankets. Slug got his needs met, and didn’t complain when I later started other more athletic exercise.

So with this background, of course, I was fascinated to find that what I had discovered on my own was in fact an intrinsic part of the teachings of the Buddha.

Siddhartha knew Mara well, and knew that Mara felt threatened by his intention to become enlightened. For what is enlightenment, but the freedom from the kinds of fears and desires that are Mara’s stock in trade?

Mara tried and tried to lure Siddhartha away from his intention, to unseat him from his solid foundation of mindfulness. But Mara could not seduce him because Siddhartha accepted Mara and saw his offerings for what they were – distractions that played on his fears, his longings and his restless boredom.

We all know Mara, and yet so often we act as if we don’t, as if this new offering is truly worthy of our grabbing, pushing away, reacting, entangling, battling or submerging in. Each thought that passes through our mind can be held in an open friendly way, or it can overtake us like a powerful wave that catches us unaware. In some cases it beats us down and drags us along the rough pebbled shore of oblivion before we can find our footing and drag our weary selves back onto dry land.

Siddhartha set his intention and opened his field of awareness to include Mara in all its myriad forms. Mara tried everything to lure him. Mara’s final attempt was to say to Siddhartha, “Who are you to be enlightened?” Boy, do we know that aspect of Mara! Who are you to think you can be good at (fill in the blank). Who are you to..? is the beginning of so many of our self-doubts. There’s that wonderful inspirational Marianne Williamson quote, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Maybe we should stop listening to Mara and start listening to Marianne!

So when Mara said to Siddhartha, “Who are you to be enlightened?” it was tapping into the deepest most universal fear. And what did Siddhartha answer?

He put his hand on the ground and said, “The earth is my witness.” Of course, I don’t know for sure how he meant this, but what resonates for me is how when we go into nature, when we seek solace in the truths of nature’s cycles and seasons, we recognize that even if we feel ourselves to be dirt, that dirt is a valuable part of the wholeness. We see that even the smallest insect has the right to exist, has its own place in the scheme of things. And we do too. A favorite phrase I find comforting to repeat until I ‘get it’ is “The ocean refuses no river.”
So indeed “Who are we not to be” whatever rises up within us as an authentic expression of ourselves. If we feel called to something, as for example, I felt called to teach meditation, it helps to remember that not everyone wants to be a teacher, not everyone feels this upwelling to do this particular thing. They may feel an upwelling call to paint, or to invent, or to sing, or to get involved in the intricate tasks of bookkeeping or organizing, or to march for justice or peace, or to run for office, or to help the homeless, or to do any of a myriad of things. So when Mara asks me ‘who am I to’ do what I do? I can feel the earth beneath me and be reassured that I am just like the ladybug on a leaf, doing what comes naturally.

When Siddhartha touched his hand on the earth, for me he was calling on that earthly truth. We each have an inherent right to exist, because we do exist. And we have to trust that when we stay in touch with the earth and with our own natural forms of expression, we have a right to be who we are, where we are, doing exactly what we are doing. And anyone who questions this right, is really questioning it in themselves and projecting it upon us. We are not saying that they have to believe us or even listen to us or look at our paintings or trust our addition on our accounts. We are only saying we have every right to be ourselves.

Having withstood every undermining sabotaging attack by Mara without losing his resolve, Siddhartha awakened.

So, then, what is enlightenment? An age old question with no one correct answer, but (fools walk in where angels fear to tread…) Perhaps it could be described as the ultimate falling away of the veil of illusion that we are separate from all that is. It is a state of living awareness of this union, not just the interconnection of separate beings, relying on each other, in relationship, but the truth of the unitive wholeness of being. With this deep awareness, our fear of ‘other’ evaporates. Our craving for ‘more’ falls away. There is no ‘other.’ There is no ‘more.’

In an enlightened state we see that time is just useful scheduling software, not a hardwired truth. We see how each moment is complete and expansive when we allow ourselves to be present for it, to sink into it, to use all our senses to absorb it into our awareness. We see this earthly life of the senses as a gift and a profound education in experiencing cause and effect and impermanence.

That’s my best guess at how to describe enlightenment. But I also know that there is no description that will reveal it, and no way to experience it through any description.

Some teachers teach that enlightenment is not likely to be attained by any of us in our lifetimes. Some teach that enlightenment is possible in any moment. Some teach both. I don’t find a contradiction in any of this. Teachers know how easy it is for us to get very goal-oriented. We have a lifetime of training to keep our eye on the prize that looms in some distant future. Naturally if we believe that enlightenment is the ultimate goal and that we are aiming for it, we will be leaning into the future and not able to stay fully present, thus unlikely to ever become enlightened! A catch-22 if ever there was one.

So, enlightenment is not the goal of meditation? No. Enlightenment, should it happen, is a potential side-effect of the ongoing process of practicing staying present. The door to an enlightened state is not someplace in the distance, but in the ability to be fully here, now and relaxed. So we practice this because being here, now and relaxed is in itself a gift and worthy of our intention, effort and concentration.

Siddhartha’s awakening under that Bodhi tree was not as instantaneous as it may seem. He had, after all, six years of intensive concentration practice to build on, so that he was available and ready for the insight that led him to sit under that tree, and the clear intention to stay there as long as it took. As long as it takes. That is important for us to remember. No cut off dates, no ultimatums, just clear intention.

Let that be our inspiration to practice, practice, practice, developing the ability to focus in a relaxed receptive way, developing the ability to be fully present.

May our relaxed present spacious minds know Mara in all its forms. May our relaxed present spacious minds greet Mara, knowing it is not something outside of us, but our own fear, our own craving, our own desire for happiness in a state of constriction and distortion.

The other day at Trader Joe’s while Will was standing in the checkout line, I wandered the candy aisle, reading the label of each chocolate bar, lusting, yearning, yet terrified of purchasing it. I could feel how much power I was giving away in that moment, but I also knew that if I just stayed with those feelings instead of letting them thrust me into action, I would be okay. So I just kept wandering the aisles, indulging in all the powerful emotions until it was time to go. Maybe another time I will be able to buy one and practice having it around, unopened, but I sensed I wasn’t ready that day to do so. Mara is not the chocolate but our fear of what will happen if we buy it, coupled with our strong desire to do so.
May our relaxed present spacious minds hold Mara in an open embrace until the fear and craving dissipates. May we be well. May we be happy. May we know peace.

Pilgrimage: Lumbini

At the end of the documentary “The Buddha” that aired recently on PBS, they mention the four places pilgrims visit to follow the life of the Buddha. They are Lumbini where he was born, Bodh Gaya where he sat under the Bodhi tree until his awakening, Sarnath where he gave his first dharma talk, and Kusinara where he died.

I thought it would be interesting to explore what we learn from visiting, either in person or in our thoughts, these places that supported the Buddha’s physical life and his spiritual practice. And how exploring his life inspires us to learn from our own lives as well.

Today, let’s talk about his birthplace. Lumbini is in the foothills of the Himalaya. It is located in southern Nepal very near the border of India. If you are surprised to hear he was born in Nepal, remember that neither of these countries existed in their modern forms in his time, but that’s where the village is located.
Here is a brief video of how it looks today. There are many versions of the story of his birth but most go something like this*:

Siddhartha Gautama was born in the sixth century BCE to a very wealthy, probably noble, some accounts say royal, family of the Sakya clan that lived in the city of Kapilavastu, 25 km east of Lumbini. His mother’s parents lived in Lumbini and it was (and is) common for a woman to return to the home of her parents to give birth. As she and her party neared the village, they paused to rest in a lovely grove. Perhaps she was already in labor and realized she couldn’t make it all the way, or perhaps she went into labor there. Under the shade of trees, she gave birth to a baby boy. Unfortunately, within a week after his birth she died.
His name Siddhartha, means accomplisher of aims. Gautama was his clan name.
It was predicted — either through dream interpretation or astrology — that he would grow up to be a great conquering warrior or a great spiritual leader. Though the culture of his day had clearly defined career paths for every child, based on the caste system, and of course every parent wants a child to do well, this powerful prediction seems like a lot to put on such a small freshly-arrived package of human flesh!

The Buddha advises us to pay attention to any residue of any of the labels we may have been given. Think back to words and other ways in which parents, sibling, other family members, playmates, teachers and others shaped your view of yourself. To what degree do you still accept some of them, unquestioned? This is a worthy exploration. Sometimes we like the labels we are given, or they grow on us. We can still question them. How much of what we like about them is just a sense of pleasure at being ‘known’ by someone we love?

So what was the effect of hearing about this prediction on Siddhartha’s father, a widower with a newborn son? Not surprisingly, given these two potential futures, he, of a warrior class, desired for his son to be a great conqueror rather than a spiritual teacher who would turn his back on the material wealth of his family.

So, the story goes, the father used every means to create the causes and conditions that he hoped would lead his son to appreciate and defend his possessions and position by pursuing the warrior path. He gave him a very sheltered life, never letting him go beyond the palace walls, and made sure that he was given a strong athletic education to be physically ready for battle.

He gave his son every luxury, but he went further than that. He actually made sure that there were no signs of illness, old age or death within the palace walls. The gardeners must have been very busy clipping off blossoms before they faded! And the servants must have gotten early retirements.

It reminds me of the old airline policies toward flight attendants, getting rid of them when they showed any signs of losing that youthful bloom. They might have been on to something! When air travel was in its early days, when so many of the passengers were new to this idea of flight, perhaps keeping them distracted with youth and beauty, keeping their minds off of the truth of aging and death, might have had some psychological basis, probably not calculated but just intuited.

Siddhartha’s father was protective, just as we are often very protective not just of our children but of ourselves, shielding ourselves from the pain of the world. I was reminded of this recently when someone was telling me how her husband couldn’t stand to be in a hospital room, no matter how much he cared for the patient inside. And I remember that my father, powerful and worldly in so many ways, couldn’t bring himself to go to the viewing of his mother’s body after her death. Until I was in my mid-twenties I used to faint at the sight of a needle piercing skin, even a rhinoceros getting a tranquilizer injection on Wild Kingdom!

To varying degrees we all put up protective palace walls for ourselves and those we love. When I was a teenager my beloved cat died in my arms late one night on the way home from the vets after she’d been pronounced incurable. The next morning I woke to plan her burial, only to find that one of my brothers had already buried her in some still-undisclosed part of our garden. He did this to protect his little sister from pain. He fortified the palace walls of an already sheltered life. It was so sweet and loving, but it was misguided, for it left me no way to come to terms with my loss, no ritual to release my emotions. He wanted to give me a bypass for my mourning. But there is no such thing. Trying to create one may set up a delaying mechanism that can go subterranean in our psyches and comes out in some other way.

As parents we all want what is best for our children, and we all know the impulse to protect them from suffering. The other day a friend expressed just such a concern. She was afraid that her teenage son might be hurt by a girl he had a crush on who didn’t seem to feel the same way towards him. I told my friend, yes, he very well might. And it will be difficult, but if that happens, it will also help to create compassion within him, an awareness of the responsibility of love. And, I added, that girl too will most likely some day be hurt, and it would be the very making of her. Getting hurt in love was the making of me when I was a teenager. Until I felt the pain of rejection for myself, I was at times thoughtless in my casual dismissal of the attentions of some very sweet boys who didn’t deserve my rudeness.

So in each of our lives there is this legacy of being labeled and being sheltered, then in turn we label and shelter those we love.

Siddhartha’s father intuitively wanted to protect his son from the unavoidable truths of earthly life: old age, illness and death. He had the same reasons all parents have, but also this prediction to deal with. He knew that it is these very things that awaken in each of us a spiritual yearning to understand the nature of suffering.

So often our pursuit of a spiritual path is ignited by a brush with serious illness, the death of a loved one, or the challenges of dealing with the process of aging. Think back to when you felt drawn to meditation or another spiritual path. Was there any loss, illness or realization about the nature of life that stirred this yearning within you?

Seeing this connection between brushes with the realities of life and the yearning for a spiritual path, Siddhartha’s father’s reasoning made sense. But, as it turned out, even the palace walls and every opulent delight was not enough to contain the curiosity about the world that Siddhartha, by now a young married man in his late twenties, developed. He implored his father to let him go out and see the world. So his father sent ahead men who would clear the streets of the village of any signs of illness, old age and death. But on his first venture outside, Siddhartha came upon someone who was ill, and asked after him and found out about the pain of illness. Then he ventured forth a second time and saw someone who was old and bent over, and once again he questioned and discovered that youth is fleeting. And when he ventured forth once again, he saw a corpse and discovered that the body and this earthly existence is impermanent. The fourth time he ventured out of the palace walls he met a traveling ascetic, someone who had abandoned material things to pursue a spiritual path, and he felt the call to follow that path, in order to find an end to suffering.

This was the piercing of the veil of innocence and the acceptance of a much more complex world than we at first imagined. Do you remember any point in your younger life when you felt the veil of innocence fall away? For me it was when I was around eight years old and some friend told me about the Holocaust. I could not believe it. But questioning revealed that it was true. I couldn’t understand how something like this could have happened just a decade before and I didn’t know about it. What else were they hiding from me?

Once the veil is pierced, then what? For Siddhartha it was clear that he had to give up his opulent life, leave his wife and baby to go off on his own in pursuit of the answer to how to end suffering for himself and all beings. So-called Christian bloggers who, for whatever reason, feel threatened by Buddhism, love to point out this moment, describing the Buddha as a runaway dad, a dropout and a loser.

We don’t need to make excuses for Siddhartha’s behavior. In the first place he was not yet enlightened or teaching. And he was human, a very important thing to remember that helps us have compassion for the human foolishness and foibles we find in ourselves and others, including the so-called Christian bloggers!

But let’s also put this in the context of the times in which he lived. He was not leaving his wife and child destitute. They lived in a palace with extended family, servants and resources. Does this replace a husband and father? Of course not. But remember that men of his day and class were not expected to consider the personal desires of their wives in determining their own paths. Nor were they expected to rear their own children. So it’s important to keep all this in mind, not to make excuses, but just to keep things in context. Had he been a warrior, he would have been off fighting wars for years on end, and this would have been totally acceptable by his (and our) society. But his choice went the other direction.

I find it interesting that Siddhartha ventured forth into the greater world at the age of 29. I’m reminded of Gail Sheehy’s landmark book Passages, that said that around the age of 28 one goes through a big shift. Siddhartha obviously did. Maybe you did too? Think about that period of the late twenties into the early 30’s. Was there anything expanding in your awareness, some realization that cracked open the world as you knew it?

For me it was the women’s movement, when I woke up to my blind complicity in accepting second class status as the way of things.

If you had an unveiling around that time, did it change the direction of your life? In what way? And if not, in what ways did this new awareness get incorporated into your life?

So you will see in this story of the early years of the Buddha’s life we can also discover lessons we’ve learned from our own younger lives. As a spiritual teacher the Buddha used stories from his own life to teach the dharma. Buddhist teachers today readily use their own lives as fodder for the dharma. And we each can look to our own lives for insight as well.

Next week we will talk about Bohd Gaya and the awakening of the Buddha.

*There are a number of variations on this story in the different Buddhist traditions. Some have more iconic aspects. I’ve chosen to tell the one that contains the most points of agreement and trust that the facts are contained in the core conjunction of these stories. However, if you have the interest, do an internet search for some of the variations of “Buddha’s birth.”
**His mother may have dreamed it, or her dream may have been interpreted to mean it, or astrologers may have predicted it.


Last week I didn’t teach due to my husband’s surgery, but requested that the class meet on its own, and that they discuss what they would like to be learning next.

When we met this week, they shared their findings. They requested that at some point soon we go back and review the earlier dharma talks, particularly ones focused on The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. Some of them were not in the class at that time so it would be new for them, and others felt that they wanted to revisit the material now that they have over a year of meditation practice that will give them a new perspective on the subject.

So I plan to do that over the summer, in effect have ‘summer reruns.’ Maybe this will be an annual tradition. Those who are traveling in the summer won’t miss anything new, and it gives me a vacation from prep time to relax and renew. I know, I know, I just got back from Mexico, so how much more relaxation do I need? Hey, I’m just responding to the request of my class!

We also discussed how it seems a time in our lives of needing to expand to hold all the extremes we are experiencing in an open embrace, we had a discussion about how that feels.

Personally, I am currently holding elation, euphoria and relief because I have a new granddaughter, healthy and beautiful, and her parents are finding their way quite naturally, maintaining their own health and equilibrium. Yay! And because my husband had a successful surgery and is now officially cancer-free. I am incredibly relieved.

But I am also holding concern, worry and sadness because just beyond the edge of the immediate family, there is open heart surgery, severe or chronic illness and huge life challenges. I work to be present for all of it, and to hold these feelings in an open embrace without becoming overwhelmed. This involves creating a spaciousness to receive them all: the elation, the sadness, the worry. All are welcomed. None is denied entry. Each is given a turn to express itself, but only awareness gets to sit in the throne and hold the space. Awareness holds all of it with an open loving intention.

Because of all that’s been going on our lives and in the lives of those we love, and because it is natural for our minds to label and organize all this information, we might start labeling these experiences. One sangha member said, “Everyone was so happy to be done with 2009, imagining that 2010 would have to be better, but…”

So we looked at our natural inclination to judge a whole year by the cumulative contents of our experience. It is really just another of the ways we cause more suffering in our lives. When we determine that a year is a lost cause, we feel we are just waiting for it to be over and get to the ‘good’ year that is coming. If we can let these organizational concepts of days, months and years go, we can be more present, allowing each moment its full expression, without having relegated it to being a part of a larger time frame that is already named and blamed.

Our brains are busy organizing information, collecting data and fitting it nicely into some kind of framework. That’s how we created the whole concept of linear time. It’s a filing system, nothing more. Very efficient, but it’s just a filing system. We need to be careful not to mistake these systems for the truth of our experience. It’s like letting the IRS determine what you will have for dinner. The right brain doesn’t have to be in charge of every little thing, and noticing when it is making statements that are causing suffering is a valuable insight.

There’s another set of labels that gets bandied about a lot in my circle of friends. As they increasingly notice that they and those around them are finding their bodies ‘betraying’ them, there is a tendency to say ‘Welcome to old age.’ I have to wonder if this is useful, this labeling all our experiences in the old age file. By association it brings up so much baggage. There is so much we as a society attach to old age, mostly in the form of limitations. So is this label a means of acceptance of the fact that we all will die sooner or later, which is healthy, or is it a kind of trap that takes us out of this moment, this set of actual sensations, and creates an overlay of suffering that only exacerbates whatever challenge we are actually facing?

So this is how the conversation went this week. Lots to think about. Lots to notice in the way we talk to ourselves and others about what we are experiencing. How much is true? How much is really our direct experience?

In the coming weeks, I’ll be doing some dharma talks inspired by watching the documentary on PBS “The Buddha.” If you didn’t get a chance to see it, you can check on for local listings or get it online. It isn’t required watching, but you might enjoy it.

The Lasting Value of a Meditation Retreat

Last week we talked about the Three Refuges, ‘The Triple Gem’ of the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha, or as Rick Hanson in his book Buddha’s Brain calls them: teacher, truth and community. I shared how on a Buddhist retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, the gathered retreatants ‘take refuge’ formally by repeating a call and response chant the first evening before going into silence for the course of the retreat.

On a retreat this sense of refuge is palpable. Physically we are in a land apart from the hustle and bustle of normal life. No crowded noisy streets, no driving, no television, no telephone, no radio, no computers, no music except perhaps some evening chanting. No shopping. No reading. No writing. Just our own bubble of experience within the calm of a community in silence.

We are on retreat not just from busy-ness of our regular lives but from social interaction as well. We neither speak nor have eye contact with one another. We don’t need to think of the right thing to say or smile at someone.

There are many courtesies within this silence, but they are done synchronistically, needing no involved interaction. The only exception is during some yogi jobs that require teamwork and during short group meetings with a teacher, just to check in and see how we are doing. There are yogi jobs that require no interaction, and most teachers will respect your silence if you wish to maintain it in meeting, as long as they can sense you are okay.

This silent spaciousness to simply be can feel lovely or scary at various times throughout the retreat. Non-interaction is especially freeing for those who are compulsive talkers and interactors. Sometimes it’s a difficult adjustment, but mostly it is a deep and rich release, all the more profound for the contrast.

While silence does not free us from any interior turmoil that might arise, it does give us a lot of space in which to notice it. It’s similar to the way the refrigerator’s hum is hardly noticeable during the day, but in the middle of the night its sound is amplified. On retreat there is a lot of time to sit and walk with whatever arises, and a lot of support to stay with the experience, regardless of whether it is pleasant or unpleasant.

Usually by the end of a retreat the mind is clearer, the heart is softer, and the body is healthier. Having taken refuge in this safe environment that demands so little of us except to sit, eat, walk and do a yogi job for less than an hour a day, we settle in to ourselves and gain greater insight into the nature of our existence in this body at this time.

Most likely, having had a powerful positive experience on retreat, we set our intention to carry that clarity of mind and openness of heart out into the world, to give ourselves sufficient time to really meditate, to eat slowly with great appreciation for all who contributed to the meal from the sunshine and seeds to the cashier at the market to the cook, and to walk in nature at a pace we can really see, hear, smell and feel connected to the natural world.

We set these intentions and maybe to a certain degree we can keep them. We might come home and establish a more consistent meditation practice if we didn’t already have one, or renew our dedication to our existing practice, having seen how valuable it is. And at least for a while hopefully we are able to carry over some of that deep rich interaction with the world around us that we had on the retreat.

But it would be most unusual to be able to sustain that deep inner calm and clarity for very long. Out in the world, back in the fray, we find ourselves mindlessly munching, chatting away on our cell phone, watching something we don’t care about on television, and walking or running right by the trees and the lizards who whispered all their secrets to us on retreat. Chances are we barely notice the song of the birds or the sound of the water, or even the feel of the ground under our feet.

So what was the point of going on a retreat? Was it just an escape with no sustained value?

For most of us the lasting value of the retreat is learning that we do indeed have the capacity to be present. If we have never been on retreat and if we find meditation challenging, then this inner discovery is crucial. Even though we may not be present in every moment of our lives, we now know that we can be present. We know what being present feels like. We have learned what elements help us to be present and on retreat we have had extended opportunity to practice them.

These helpful elements include:

  • Setting our intention to be present.
  • Slowing down.
  • Making space in our lives for a regular meditation practice.
  • Intensive concentration training that shows us how to be with whatever arises.
  • Wisdom teachings in whatever form we receive them best.
  • A community of supportive practitioners who remind us that being present is possible in every moment.

So what we take home with us, when we have broken our long silence, is the Three Refuges – the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha.

We take home the Buddha in the inspiration of the historical Buddha and his followers right down to our teachers sitting before us, exemplifying dedication to spiritual development, helping us to understand that we each have access to our own Buddha nature.

We take home the Dharma from the nightly talks when the teachers tell stories to demonstrate the dharma, drawing from their own life experiences, their own unskillfulness, their own mindless moments, for the benefit of their students; and from our group meetings with teachers and the answers they give us to our questions.

And we take home the Dharma from the teachings of the natural world as we walk or sit in silence, opening to its wisdom, its ready answers to any question that is rising up within us.

And often the sweetest of all, we take home the Sangha – the feeling of being supported by each other during the retreat, inspired by each other’s dedication to the practice, to staying with our experience even when it is difficult. This may sound odd since we are in silence and have no eye contact and are in our own little bubbles of protected space. But during the days of the retreat, as the silence, relaxation and safety sinks in to our beings, we increasingly feel our deep interconnection. We begin to understand how it’s possible for that flock of birds to move together as one being, turning in unison as they fly. We sangha members move not in perfect unison, but with spaciousness and natural courtesy that feels as if our personal bubble is an energy field, and we all sense the energy fields when they touch, so that our bodies don’t bump into each other. Which is good, because in silence you can’t say ‘excuse me.’ I remember when we were given an hour of practicing coming out of silence the night before the close of the last retreat I was on, and suddenly we were bumping into each other and saying ‘sorry, sorry’ all the time! As if silence was what had kept us in a cohesive sense of unity.

Afterwards, when the retreatants have gone to their homes all over the world, there is still this awareness that they are there, connected through this shared intention to practice being mindful in our lives.

And having felt the sweetness of the sangha on retreat, we find our sangha in the outer world. Though they didn’t sit beside us in the meditation hall, or across the table in the dining hall, or share a room with us in the dormitory, or walk back and forth beside us in the walking hall, still we know them to be our sangha sisters and brothers, sharing our intention to hold the world in an open embrace. We recognize them in their compassion, their supportive or inspirational energy, and their willingness to be present. A sangha is not a clique or a club that let’s you in under certain conditions or has the right to keep you out. It is, in its broadest sense, those people in your life who nourish you, who support you in your practice, even if they don’t know it.

So after a retreat, even after the serenity has lessened, we take home the three refuges. In our daily lives we are supported by them. They comfort us, inspire us and keep us as present as we can be in this moment. That is the long lasting gift of the retreat. And it is a gift not just to ourselves but to those around us. Taking this time for ourselves is an act of generosity to the world.