Friday, June 8, 2012

Retreat Notes: Where to Begin...

I've been silent.

Two months ago I returned from a three month silent meditation retreat. I tweeted a bit about it but I needed some time to integrate my experience before I began to write about it.

"How was it?" is the first thing everyone asks. The retreat was everything I expected it would be and surprisingly more. I highly recommend it! There are a few adjectives which you would expect to hear… profound, illuminating, challenging, insightful, etc. What about crazy, comfortable, uncomfortable, boring, fun, weird, typical, difficult, disappointing, encouraging, depressing, inspiring? Yup. All those apply too and others that come to me when I reflect on what I experienced during 3 months of one on one with my own mind.

I kept a journal. It started off with typical reflections on mediation experiences then slowly degraded into outright complaining and gossip. The range of journal entries reflected the range of what my mind projected onto my surroundings: bliss, misery, crazy, annoying, sweet, sour, cold, hot, resentment, jealousy, joy, love, appreciation.

Retreat is like athletic training camp for the mind. Your teachers are your coaches, your fellow retreaters are your teammates, your cushion is your equipment, and your mind is your playing field. You have personal goals but can't quite escape a sense of competition. Group retreat is like gym or yoga class, the camaraderie promotes a collective discipline to show up each time on time and sit quietly still.

Silence was the easy part. Sitting was challenging but I conquered it. Concentrating was impossible and I finally gave up. Dorm snorers and sharing a tiny bathroom with 12 women was hell. Next time, my own room or solitary retreat! Yet, I would miss the bonding with dorm mates if I was isolated in my own room and I wonder if I would be as disciplined in solitary. No matter, I can count on the guru to present whatever it is I need to learn.

How did I do? I was a complete failure! At least that's how I felt for a good chunk of the retreat. I was perpetually judging my retreat mates, my dorm mates, the food, the weather, the bathroom smell, my lack of concentration, the noises people made in the meditation room, and so on and so forth. We were supposed to regard each other and the environment as completely pure, as ideal conditions and inspiring companions, but I couldn't seem to shed my spoiled rude New Yorker!

Yet, somehow, this spoiled rude New Yorker came away with a deep understanding of concentration and my mind's habits, and discovered a deep faith and guru devotion. So, not too bad!

Last December I had quit my amazing high paid job and moved out of my amazing Upper West Side apartment. I had lost my mind to find my heart.

Instead of trying to capture the essence of my experience which would likely come off as cheesy and contrived, I will focus on the hot topics that I've commonly shared with friends and sangha. Hopefully, some of the profound will ooze out along with the gossip and complaining!

Stay tuned for my series of "Retreat Notes" posts.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A Decision to Retreat

Last luxuriously long shower with no one waiting at the door for me to hurry up...not for three months.

Tomorrow I get on a train to a remote retreat center in a cold, wet part of the UK for three months of silence and sitting. I'm a spoiled city girl, so this roomy hotel shower will be something I look forward to in early April when I will be heading back home. Or, perhaps, I'll forget all about such worldly things and look forward to knowing my mind more intimately. Probably a bit of both!

So, how did I get here?

Sorry about that but that song has always been a warning to me. I've always told myself that I don't want to be like that, wake up each morning "same as it ever was."

I've been working a great job for the past 9 years and have a great life in NYC: the job, the apartment, friends, money, and my health. I'm not supposed to want change now. You can blame it on ole reliable: mid-life crisis. Though, I wasn't in any crisis when I took a leap to go to art school over a decade ago. Since the gallery shows have faded, do I simply want to climb another mountain just because it's there?

This past summer, a dear friend and her husband took the leap to move out west and start their holistic business with a bang. Their bravery reignited my secret longing to quick my job, go on retreat and move out west closer to my family. I confessed my secret to her over lunch one hot August day and she said to look for signs and omens. Thirty minutes later there was an earthquake in New York City! My friend looked at me and screamed "Oh my god, your quitting your job, going on retreat and moving to Arizona!" I replied, "Oh shit."

If I had been in California, we would have just laughed it off, but a building shaking quake in the big apple is nothing to sneeze about. Was that my sign?

A week later, a young man in our office was killed when he was hit by a car while riding his bike. A week after that, a close friend suddenly passed away from a stroke. She had just sent me a necklace she picked up while vacationing in Arizona because I had told her I was thinking about moving out there.

Meditation: I may die today.

My friend told me to make up my mind before the place burned down. Then I had a dream of the building burning down. OK OK OK, I get it. I quit my great paying job, moved out of my rent stabilized central park west apartment, and am now on the eve of entering a three month silent meditation retreat.

That's how I got here. The surface of it, anyhow.

My meditation practice has grown over the past seven years and as I have attended more retreats, I began to feel, dare I say, a calling to go on a longer and silent retreat. One month didn't seem long enough and a year seemed out of the question. Three months seemed just right.

Some say I'm not ready, some say they envy me, some say I'm brave, some say I'm crazy, some say they rejoice, and some ask why. Why? Because. An artist creates because they have to. I feel a similar inexplicable necessity. I'm excited and nervous at the same time.

Everyone seems to think I will be transformed. I have no such expectations or desires. Thanks to meditation, I finally like who I am. The only thing I anticipate from the retreat is the experience of it, whatever that may be. Perhaps I'll be the same, just more of the "same as it ever was."

'till April...

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Dharma Dreams: Bleeding Hearts

A tall handsome man offered me use of the lower level of his home for my art studio. The space was pristine, high ceilings, clean, white, gigantic! It was more like a museum than a house! He said that I could use it for my art or for anything I wanted.

Just one hitch: I could never leave.

The temptation was obvious but I knew it was a trap. I would have all the time and space for my art making that I could ever dream of but I would be a prisoner there.

Not a good deal. 

I decided to be free instead but he was already insisting that I couldn't leave.

We stood in front of a very tall wall covered with images of a heart being squeezed by a hand, the fingernails were puncturing the heart causing it to bleed. I told him confidently that I was going to leave. Again, he insisted that I couldn't leave. I said, "Yes, I can, watch." I proceeded to jump over the wall of bleeding hearts with ease. Somehow I knew I could do it, there was no doubt in my mind. When I was on the other side I said, "See!" He said, "I don't believe it, you didn't, you can't." I said, "I'll show you again." I came back over the wall and easily jumped over it again.

I felt so liberated and joyful, I was free! I wanted to tell everyone how to do it, how to jump over the impossibly high wall of bleeding hearts!

But no one was around. Alone in an abandoned downtown sort of location with graffiti and trash everywhere, I thought to myself, where is everyone? Was I the last one to escape?

Then I woke up.