To study the Way is to study the self.
To study the self is to forget the self.
To forget the self is to be intimate with all things.
Zen Master Dogen
As a way into writing a memoir, one must study the self. And yet, if this study is done right, I suspect, it will lead to a letting go of self, and an ability to find freedom everywhere.
As I’m writing this in August, we are in an astrological period called Venus retrograde. Venus is the planet most associated with relationships, beginning with one’s relationship with oneself. Venus is also about love, harmony, beauty, equanimity, what one values. When it is said that Venus has “gone retrograde” for a few weeks, which Venus does five times in an eight-year cycle, it means that from our perspective on earth, Venus’ motion appears to stop and go backwards. It’s an illusion that is symbolic. It’s a time to “go back” and re-evaluate and maybe re-orient oneself.
I am contemplating now where I was eight years ago, and eight years before that. I am reminded of an important passage, when I began what became a ten-year period of intense engagement with Buddhism.
This period, like any good cycle, had a beginning, middle and end, and then it was time to let it go, at least for a while.
By 1999, I’d had a long background in meditation studies and practice. I’d been in two Sufi organizations in which many of the students are also practitioners in one of the Buddhist schools. I’d soaked up a lot of it and had read a lot of books.
But then something happened in the summer of 1999. I was in a period of deep grief over the end of my long-term relationship a year earlier. I was doing daily Sufi practices with sounds and words, when suddenly I could no longer do those practices. My meditation became silent, still and non-verbal, and I didn’t know quite what to make of it.
I happened to find a copy of the Inquiring Mind publication at a local bookstore. I read it and realized that my meditation was spontaneously becoming like the vipassana or mindfulness meditation taught at places such as Spirit Rock Meditation Center in west Marin County. I had driven past the place countless times as it is set off from the road leading to the coast at Point Reyes.
I went out to Spirit Rock one Saturday for a day-long meditation. What they were teaching, in terms of silent awareness of breath, body, mental and emotional phenomena, jived entirely with what I was experiencing. Here, though, there was structure to it and explanation, and a really open and inviting environment. I started going out there several days a month. Before I knew it, I signed up for what would be the first of about 25 week-long retreats there over a ten-year period.
So many inner processes unfolded during these retreats that it would take me much more space than I allow myself in these blog posts. I will save most of it for an eventual memoir.
What happened at first was that I simply sat, day after day after day, in a big hall with a group of about 100 others, and usually three or four teachers. After each hour or so of sitting, there’s a period of walking meditation, and there are meals and chores and a nightly talk and sleeping and not much else.
That means that one’s mind has an uninterrupted chance to see and watch – and maybe become astounded by – what’s actually rattling around in there. Some meditators become very focused on their physical sensations. My experience was to stay anchored in awareness of the breath and watch the slowing down of the mind stream. It became so slow that I could watch a thought gently arise out of nowhere, pop like a bubble, and fade away.
At first, mostly what I “did” in meditation was plain. I would listen to the celestial inner sound current, which many meditators are blessed to be able to hear. I would also just feel intense emotional pain come up and dissipate, over and over, just as it was, without trying to make it go away.
In 2000, a woman who was my best friend suddenly dumped me with no explanation. I spent several retreats sitting with deep pain from that, until the endless rehashing of stories and questions of “why” subsided.
The retreat format includes having each student meet briefly in a small room every other day with one of the teachers. Several retreats into this series, I reported in one of my interviews that I was having the odd experience of feeling both grief and ecstatic joy at the same time. The teacher explained that because I was allowing grief to be fully present, I had opened up the space for joy to be there as well.
Taking a retreat several times a year, the inner happenings built from one retreat to the next.
Grief and attempts at mental problem solving while on the cushion continued to arise, but increasingly, I was drawn into sustained states of shimmering bliss, by day 3 or 4 of a retreat.
These experiences took me by surprise because they had nothing to do with anything. It was not the joy of a new job or a positive outcome about something tangible. It was about entering a realm where joy always already exists, unconditioned by anything.
I went to many retreats held the week between Christmas and the New Year. When California is not in a drought, the winter is the rainy season. I would sit for unknown periods of time listening to water drip from a drain spout onto the cement patio outside the hall. The beautiful sound of this water dripping would crack me open into states of unusual, non-verbal awareness.
On one rainy New Year’s retreat, I sat outside under an overhang listening to the water and watched my euphoria slip away into a state of crystal-clear equanimity. It was something beyond joy. I went in for an interview with one of the teachers, and he intuitively “caught” my state and named it. Equanimity. Like joy, it is always available and not dependent on anything.
There were many other experiences of entering into unknown inner states that seemed like “places” in their own right. By having the luxury of silence and stillness over many days, one can enter these states. It’s important to do so, even once in a while, because when one has had those experiences, they never go away entirely. Even when ordinary life gets crazy, one can always sit back and recall that something else is available.
What I soaked in mostly during these retreats was the truth of the passing of time, moment by moment, like the relentlessness of an ocean wave that rises and quickly returns back into the vastness of the sea. Amidst constant motion, there is a something that is still. What is that something?
At a retreat on New Year’s eve, there’s a ritual of staying up late for a dharma talk and a rite of each person tossing into an open fire a slip of paper on which one has written something one wants to let go of.
Then we’d go sit and pray and wait for the midnight moment to come. Someone outside would toll the meditation bell, slowly, 108* times.
In the candlelit darkness, rooted in the watching of each breath, each moment, in its unique splendor, the sound of this tolling bell said, wordlessly: Listen now, hear now. This moment won’t come again.
This truth of impermanence, when accepted, is Beauty Herself.
- 108 is a sacred number in Hinduism, from which Buddhism both departed and derived. There are many explanations of the number 108. Some of the explanations are astronomical.