Monthly Archives: August 2012

to cut through the nonsense of mind


Last time I left with some of the emotional process that has come up for me in meditation, specifically loneliness. This is not why I meditate, exactly, to get in touch with these emotions. In one way it is, because if I ignore them altogether, they fester and cause problems in other ways (just ask my friends). But when I pay attention, my emotions are like anything else. They shift, change, and go away. The title of this post comes from a quote by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana which I posted previously: “Practice [meditation] is an ongoing investigation of reality, a microscopic examination of the very process of perception. Its intention is to pick apart the screen of lies and delusions through which we normally view the world, and thus to reveal the face of ultimate reality.”

Apologies for such a cheeseball example, but in the photo above, from an incredible park in south western Australia (Cape Le Grand National Park), the clouds are pretty daunting. But check out the clear blue sky in the middle left. That clear blue sky is behind the storm clouds, too. This is the mind. Clouds of emotion come over us, and if we identify with them, we are those emotions. We are a bad luck day at the beach. We can get stuck here pretty easily. But if we take the clouds as transient, and understand that the calm is there behind them (awareness), we just see and watch the clouds for what they are in that moment. Clouds. Which serve a purpose like everything else in the ecosystem.

bird-capelegrandI often tell people that crying fits are quite normal on retreats—especially, I’ve noticed, among older men. (Or maybe it’s more memorable coming from older, unemotional men. Though it’s also possible they have more to grieve, if they shoved it away way back when, as society expects of them.) Out of nowhere, patches of long repressed emotions spring up to be faced. I’ve had my share of these over the years, and while I don’t always have a good cry, certainly sadness springs up. When I went upstate for the first retreat, I thought I might have to face hurt and pain from various happenings of late. I had stories around them and I was expecting it, maybe even preparing myself in some way.

Things played out differently. My mind was fairly calm, when it wasn’t agitated. (Haha.) First, it was agitated by a few annoying people around, who didn’t want to leave me alone on my solitary retreat. Worse, it was agitated by events that did not exist in real time. Stories about all sorts of things. One, for example, about a dear friend who was moving back to Europe a week after my retreats ended. She did this. She did that. Well, I would just to do this. And fine, that. Well, I see. Okay, then. You know what? I can just let this friendship go. She’s leaving. I don’t need her. I have plenty of friends.

Push, slam, shove away the pain of impending abandonment. That’s what I did in my mind, over and over again. I knew on some level what I was doing. We’d even discussed it on a different note earlier in the summer. I recall her saying that she and her father fought, always, just before she left home. What is tremendously painful and humbling is that I know what I am doing, and I still do it. And this is where meditation comes in.

sf-brightonWhen I came back home from upstate, I read some of my emails at the start of the second in-city retreat. Zka (all of my friends have nicknames), my about-to-move friend, had emailed announcing that she wouldn’t leave the week after my retreat, but almost the day after. As in, no more time with Zka.

“Well, I see. That’s just fine then. Seems we are done.” Her excuse for early departure was so long and over-explained that it could not be true. And I had a birthday party for another Z the night before she left. “See how little I need a Z? Hmmm? You got that?” I asked her in my head (albeit not quite that directly) over twenty-five times. So it seems we’d barely get to see each other at all. That’s. Just. Fine.

If you are at all aware of the inaccuracy of the stories you tell yourself, or you have ever been left by a dear friend and you have very stubborn defense mechanisms, you can imagine the things that were going though my mind. How I might reply to her email. How I might do this. How I might say that. How I didn’t need her anyway.

On one lunch break I stepped into an Indian gift shop on 23rd Street, looking for a beach blanket like O’s, which ever-delinquent Kapil did not bring me back from Bombay (Zka on the make-do-for-now blanket at left). Instead I saw a pretty silk scarf that said Zka all over it. The heart in me that burned through my defenses while sitting on my ass all week, going back to my breath every time I noticed I was elsewhere (plotting, conniving, defending against imagined insults), marched me over to the register to buy it. My hurt gave way and I temporarily forgot that I’d written her off. I smiled. I had a pretty scarf for Zka. I was happy.

And then I was mad again. I was beginning to fight with myself because I knew what I should do (clear my schedule and spend time with Zka) vs. what I wanted to do (not rearrange my schedule to suit her last minute change). This was a nice back and forth that went on for a few days.

Okay, enough for tonight. God. I have to sit now. I’ll finish the story next time.

This is part ii of why meditate, thoughts on my two 1-week back-to-back meditation retreats:
part i
, part ii, part iii, part iv, & part v. An abridged version for moderns exists at Shambhala New York.


why meditate?


I had promised myself I’d do a meditation retreat back in May, when I’d finally have some time. But, May is a festive time for university people and I had a lot of celebrating to do. Then it was June and I am a summer girl. I couldn’t dedicate a week or more to sitting on my ass inside, pining for the sunshine outside. So, I waited. By August it got cool and less sunny and I pretty much had to do it. My psyche was pressing me. There was an in-city retreat at Shambhala, where I’ve sat the most, in my neighborhood, so I could go to yoga in the early morning and be there to sit at 8:30am. Easy.

It’s nice to remind myself why I didn’t sit a retreat in May, because I’d felt a bit delinquent for not. Had I the clarity sitting brings then, I would have handled some stresses of the last few months differently. But I also would have missed my sunshine and swimming (Sveikiname to Rūta Meilutytė. Yeah, you knew I was going to get that in somewhere. My favorite stroke!), and honestly, this was one of the best summers ever. I’m not going to put in a for a change.

I did two retreats back to back. The first upstate, solitary. I read, wrote longhand, sat (meditated), did my yoga (Mysore, before breakfast), swam, and hiked. After, I took the train from there straight to the Shambhala Center for the in-city retreat, without stopping at home. This was with people, some I knew. But it was, for the most part, silent.

lake-yoga-legs“Why do you meditate?” people ask, and it’s not the same people who ask why I do yoga. For whatever reason, I feel that the meditation question is much less loaded than the yoga question. But it’s more difficult to explain. The practices aren’t separate, in my mind. They are, and they aren’t. For me, one isn’t possible or complete without the other, and their histories are bound up in one another as well. Perhaps I’m avoiding the question here.

I meditate because it puts me in touch with me and what matters. Not me in the me me me sense, but me in the soul sense. In the deeply connected sense. In the meaning sense. Life is full of so many distractions that I forget very easily what is important. Sitting puts me back in touch. It brings up things I’ve avoided because they are difficult, hard, or unwanted. I face them, and they dissolve. This does not necessarily happen consciously. Though it can. Hatha (physical) yoga can do this for me, or start to do this, especially if pranayama is involved. But to really get anywhere, I have to sit.

When I went upstate for part one, there was a lot going on in my head. Lots of ideas to process, relationships to figure out. I also just needed to decompress from time in the city. I’d been crashing at a friend’s place for a few days, and relished having my own space again. I liked it up there and felt safely wrapped in the beauty of it. Being silent and alone (albeit with people around) brought back, at times, a feeling of loneliness I associate with traveling alone on long trips in my 20s. I don’t feel this loneliness when I go it alone at home, in my own city and space, even if I take days to myself. Perhaps this is because I rarely go offline for that time, or because of the familiarity of it and the distractions of home. My thoughts and feelings around this are yet to be explored. It’s part of a budding discussion with a friend who says that meditation is the only time, substantially, he doesn’t feel the void of isolation. He’s meditated quite a bit more than I have (as far as long retreats go), and he also experiences isolation and loneliness differently than I do. We’ve yet to see.

It’s heavy and achy, that loneliness, and I don’t like it. I usually try to push it away. When I don’t, I feel something underneath that I haven’t quite gotten to because as soon as I get near, it shifts into something else. Maybe this makes no sense to a non-meditator, and if not, I am sorry. Maybe I need to back up and explain from a non-meditator’s perspective. This is getting long already. So, next time.

This is part i of why meditate, thoughts on my two 1-week back-to-back meditation retreats:
part i
, part ii, part iii, part iv, & part v. An abridged version for moderns exists at Shambhala New York.