Retreat from the world is an important part of any spiritual path. My daily practice serves me in this way. The hours that I spend on my own practicing, away from the computer and duties of life, nourish me deeply. Going on a long silent meditation retreat was something I yearned for in the past year and I finally was able to make it happen recently. Oh the silence! So wonderful. The place where I was has a new pagoda with individual meditation cells which are like large closets. I didn’t think I would like them so much but once in, I didn’t want to come out. In fact, I asked the teacher if I could spend more time in them.
This is not to say that there was incredible ease in my practice at all times or even most of the time. My mind is very busy. I am an expert multi-tasker which serves me very well in the “real world”. So, it took 3-4 days for my future planning mind to unwind itself. Then came the emotional havoc, worry and fear. Our minds are even smarter than google’s algorithms in serving up content that will catch our interest. It seems that the more equanimity that you find, the more the mind steps it up into themes and topics that you cannot ignore. And THEN came the feel-good emotions! You think that would be good, but it’s actually much much harder to let go of mental states that give you good feelings. You find all kinds of ways of justifying staying with the pleasant memory from the past or fantasy of the future. Out of the 80 some hours that I sat for meditation over this course, I bet you that I was only really truly fully present, calm and clear for an hour. And, yet, it was absolutely worth it!
By the end of the 10 days I felt good but I didn’t feel an incredible transformation or revelation had taken place. I felt rejuvenated on a deep level but also physically and mentally tired. It wasn’t until I got back that I felt the shift. The first couple of days of re-entry were intense to say the least. I felt like I couldn't get my footing, like the earth beneath me was constantly shifting. Every sensation was amplified, good and bad. Love! joy! fear! grief!
One of the things you are able to observe when you do these types of retreats are the barriers that we all erect in order to simply deal with daily life. If we really opened ourselves to the huge influx of data and experience it would overwhelm most of us. Shortly after returning, I went to teach one of my regular yoga classes. I felt like I was in a dream. The words were coming out and I (or someone!) was managing to effectively sequence a class. The students were doing the poses and I was able to deeply observe them but still I felt ungrounded, unfamiliar. Later I was able to think of this analogy: it feels like my system had a significant software upgrade with a lot of new features and I while the program is still familiar, I am back to being in a “Beginner’s Mind”.
It was difficult for me to even drive my car after class. I took myself out to the beach and called a dear friend to meet me. I needed to feel the ground under my bare feet and experience the ocean and the sky. I also needed kinship with someone who would understand what I was going through. I told him, that as difficult as the experience I was having was, that I didn’t want to go back to not feeling, not seeing the truth, that it is too precious. And, yet, I didn't know how I would live in the world feeling like there was no ground beneath me to walk on. Pema Chodron says she once told her teacher, Trungpa Rinpoche, that she felt like she was going crazy when returning to daily life. He replied, that's because you are not used to being sane.
The next day, still feeling unhinged, I went to class with my teacher Manouso. He acknowledged the dilemma and related that although he’s felt a similar experience, we must recognize that it is our duty to come back to the world, to live in the world, to act skillfully. Retreat is an important part of a spiritual practice. It helps us to deeply embed the practice into our beings. But for most of us who weren’t born to be monks or nuns or renunciates, we also have to learn to come back and integrate that deep experience into our lives. By going back and forth between the inward state of retreat and aloneness to the external state of interacting with others and serving the world, it is our hope that these eventually become one fluid experience. We retreat to hone our skill; we act in the world to discover which skills we need to work on.
I didn’t tell Manouso I was unhinged but he’s a perceptive guy. He taught a class that addressed my needs in a way I didn’t even know I needed. Class started with a long seated meditation (20 minutes) and moved into a restorative class of long forward bending poses. At the end of class, I felt integrated again, whole, ready, confident to be back in the world. I am still learning the new "software" but excited about the new features I am discovering!
Uttanasana is a standing forward bend. When the head is rested it creates a deep quietness in the brain. If you can't reach a block then use a chair. The effects of this pose take hold even more strongly if you can stay for 5, 10, 15, 30 minutes! The legs continue to work strongly, thighs pressing back so the abdomen becomes soft and draws up towards the spine. The back of the skull/ears releases towards the floor so there is length on the back of the neck. The armpits drop towards the floor (yes, shoulders are NOT lifted in this version of the pose!) but the elbows stay wide so the upper chest and back don't become congested.