Tuesday, June 29, 2010

What Gets Lost?

(Image of me at a student's farm teaching a retreat this last weekend,
by Dayna Flores)

"If you lose your mind, come back again"
A slogan from Shambhala Sun Camp

For over a month now, Dylan and I have been doing Weight Watchers. The first couple of weeks were awkward - adjusting to their point system, shocked by how little or much certain things "cost" me. But once I got used to it (and, in fact, went on 10 day retreat where I couldn't enter my info onto the online app or system all the time, which is how you really keep track if you are doing it online rather than "in person" meetings, but still somehow did pretty well, intuitively) it really made sense to me. It still does. There's a sense of how much something "costs" us financially, as always, can we afford to eat out, if so, how much, etc. Then there's now also a sense of what "costs" us physically - I worked out, I have some extra points saved up, so we can go to Culver's if we don't go out again this week anywhere with more than salads.

I like this way, frankly. I have tried "diets" with "calorie counting" before and it hasn't worked - too much to keep track of. This makes it simpler, and comes at a time when, due to Dylan reducing work hours to keep his sanity and assist me in my "business" side of teaching, we are on a tighter financial budget, too. As we buckle down on eating out to save money, we buckle down also on eating to save calories, fat, and weight. So far Dylan has lost 12 pounds, and I've lost 10.

"33 for 33" is our mutual goal - we both turned 33 this year, and losing 33 pounds for each of us would put us both in "healthy range" for our heights, etc, from where we were when we started. But as friends have pointed out, the benefits of WW are long-lasting - even if you don't consciously or electronically "track" your "expenditures" you become far more aware of costs and gains.

I feel it's a bit like a game, actually. Move this here, like Tetris, and weight will drop.
; )
There's strategy for sure - eat as many veggies as you want, basically, because they cost "nothing" in comparison to french fries. And so on, and so on...

This week a "hidden" gain/loss has come up - and it's a bit of both. A feeling of sadness, disconnect with my body has emerged - old trauma mixed with new stories and struggles. I have heard over the years about all that we carry in fat - hormones, emotions, toxins - and I wonder, can't help but wonder, if both literally and metaphorically I am losing some of the weight, the hidden fears and secrets, issues and suffering, that had trapped itself in my extra weight. Or even more likely, losing weight is taking away my barriers, my protection from these darker, harder places, all of which are centered around body image and body hurt. So far it actually feels harder, worse, than it has in awhile - I commented to Dylan that I am more aware now of how "fat" I feel because I am losing weight than I was while I was stuck at one place and in denial - but also real and raw, as if I am ready to work with all of this energy that's been caught inside me.

Food for thought, literally.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

"So, What Was It Like?"

Photo of the Great Stupa of Dharmakaya from my retreat.

This is the question, the inevitable, loving, probing question, one receives upon returning home after being gone for 12 days anywhere. But this question takes on special space when one is returning from a meditation retreat. Before I left, my sister-outlaw Patty (who will be my sister-in-law in a few months) noted that I was pretty courageous to go sit with myself. That was pretty outstanding of her to see - most folks see "retreat" and think "peaceful" and "vacation." The point is, of course, that there is no real thing as a vacation and that peace only comes through facing the deep stuff head on.

What I attended is a program called Warrior Assembly at Shambhala Mountain Center, in the Flatirons of the Rocky Mountains. It's what we call a "land center" - for instance, the center I direct in Madison is a "city center" - SMC and a few other locations are out in the wild, based on the raw land instead of in cities. SMC is the largest of the land centers - both by size and permanent staff - and 8,000 feet up, it's as raw as raw gets. I did my month-long meditation retreat there four years ago (dathun: month sit) and though I have visited other centers since then (Karme Choling, for instance) I knew I wanted to return to SMC for another program. As the program got closer I dreamt of the bouldering and dryness, the sun and the Stupa, the wide-open nights and small-town sized staff and program participants (300 is the average population during the summer, far larger than the local hole in the road for getting liquor and other amenities called Red Feather Lakes).

Warrior Assembly is a cumulative program - a 10 day celebration chock full of various practice transmissions at the end of two years' worth of 1o weekend programs. I actually qualified to do it over three years ago, but time, money and frankly, enthusiasm, to do it didn't pique until now. I had wanted to do the "more traditional" seminary path in Shambhala Buddhism - dathun is the first part, then Sutrayana seminary, then Vajrayana, and I will still do those latter parts. But between the requirements changing (one now needs to do Warrior Assembly to do Vajrayana) and some encouragement from the local sangha, as well as a decision by one of my best friends and my co-practioner Becky, with whom I did all of the other programs, I knew it was time.

Despite the fact that everyone thinks I was in silence for 10 days, I wasn't. There are many forms of retreat, and this one, I'd say, is more focused around Enlightened Society (Shambhala-speak for "not just sitting on your duff and meditating but actually doing something with what you learn to help the world"). The name of the program refers to the Shambhala path, which in some ways can be called "The Way of the Peaceful Warrior." One of the practices, the Dorje Kasung, have the slogan "Victory over War." How can we, while talking, walking, interacting; working, loving, organizing, still keep our heads on our shoulders, keep a good head and shoulders, and not just while sitting silently in a tent weeping our way through our deep dark issues?

I've done the month-long sit, and I'm hear to say that for my experience, the 10 days with some talking was far harder than a month in silence. I really have come to terms with my social anxiety in sangha-work - folks with whom I can be brutally honest, neurotic and even funny have helped me to face those anxieties and see them as hollow shells. Or so I thought. Put me instead into a 100-person container of strangers, give me a bunch of powerful transmissions and turn up the weather (40 degrees and raining the first three days, 80 degrees, windy and dry the rest of the time) and I quickly became raw, broken down, what Chogyam Trungpa, the founder of Shambhala, calls "thorougly processed." Insecurities and old habits appeared almost instantly - struggling to find ways to be accepted by others, scrambling for some kind of ground in a totally groundless container, even if the ground was neurotic and shit-filled, which is pretty much was inside my own mind.

Things I thought I was "over with" came back with vengeance and kicked my ass. All this time, though, others showed such love and honesty, containing me and my inner damage while taking care of themselves. It became clear pretty quickly - even then, but especially now in retrospect - that I was in fact having a "sane breakdown" if that makes any sense - not that it has to make sense. Breakdown in the sense that my ego, the part that says who I am and what I like every day, got lost along the way, and some other me, some deeper ground of fear and goodness, of sadness and joy, got the mic for a few days.

My last memory of the retreat is of the campfire on the final night, songs and jokes making the rounds with 25 or so of us watching the tail end of the fire and many shooting stars scratching across the sky. I snuggled into the middle of a pile of my spiritual peers - fellow Warriors, not against anything, but for sanity, in both a personal and total sense, and all the dirt dug up turned into a deep affection for the work, for these other workers, for the world. In that open space, the mountains brazen against the sky, turned white by the sun and wind - in that open space, everything lay out to dry - my self-defeating habits, my deep love of humanity - and from the charnel ground remains some seeds were planted of which I have a feeling it will take time to see the fruits. After ten days like that, I HOPE it takes time for them to fruit - I'm not sure I could harvest them right now.

"Can't you be more specific?" some of you are saying... "What did you do all day?"

A special calligraphy practice for three hours every morning. Two to three hour talks every day in the afternoon by the program directors. An hour or three of silent shamatha sitting meditation every day. Hour-long silent lunches eaten in the shrine room out of a single bowl. Discussion groups with other practicioners alternated with one-on-one meditation instruction meetings. Group breakfasts and dinners in uplifted dress. Early morning or late night independent hikes to the Stupa or Kami Shrine, or Marpa Point. The times in between filled with far-from-silent discursive but also often brilliant conversation with any of the 100+ other participants or staff.

It was a lot like life, in other words, and a lot not. Very social, very busy - only also very focused with a lot of practice.

Photos will be up soon on Facebook and Flickr - though I didn't take many, wanting to focus on the new practices, as Miksang sometimes takes me away in a situation like this, instead of taking me deeper in. I'm happy to answer any questions, if possible! - in comments section. Thanks for listening.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Back to Life, Back to Reality

Soul II Soul in my head today...

I arrived home yesterday mid-evening, after a non-stop flight from Denver. DIA is the most sprawled out airport I have ever had the misfortune to travel through (and one I usually avoid, though the treat of a non-stop from retreat is a worthy price to pay). It can take an hour and a half to get from arriving at the airport to get to one's gate, and that's at a steady gait, and the stress level of all the arrivees so pushed to the limit to meet their departures heightens the overall atmosphere in an uncomfortable way.

Also, of course, I was coming out of 10 days of retreat.

Sitting at Paradise Cafe in Boulder, eating salads before returning the rental car and RTD'ing our way down to DIA, Becky and I both consumed quickly, out of synch with each other for the first time in almost two weeks. At one point I stopped and looked at her and we both grimaced. I said something to the effect of "I hadn't realized at the time how synchronized all of us were with each other - not just in the same program, but eating the same meals, using the same bathrooms, and, of course, meditating together, practicing together, etc." She nodded. The follow-up comparison wasn't necessary, but I added it anyway, "Now of course I realize that in absentiae."

Madison is calmer, more like on retreat, only with far more familiar faces. Madison is more laid back than either Boulder or Denver Airport, or at least, my neighborhood is. Even the friends I ran into on my morning walk and breakfast trip realized I had just arrived home last night and to go easy on me. I, luckily, realize the same. This is what makes a "successful re-entry" - going easy on one's self - the emails, the phone calls, the face-to-face contact with what appears to be the same old world one left, only it is just as changed as the person who left is changed.

Back to life, back to the day we have
Let's end this foolish game
Hear me out don't let me waste away
Make up your mind so
I know where I stand

This isn't a romantic message to Dylan. It isn't romance at all. I got home from my morning errands to the main line in my head, and I looked up the words. A song I had heard before as a relationship plea, I now hear as a message from me to me - we're back, don't let what we gained waste away - make up our mind so we can stand tall again, re-entering reality.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Inside Story

Tomorrow I leave for a 12 day retreat. There will be a lot of inside time - out in the mountains, camping, programs in large tents, exposed to the elements - but inside of me, I'll be going in.

An acquaintance once said long ago that he hated the word "retreat" - it implied one was disappearing, escaping, going away, giving up. He proposed "intreat" (as opposed to entreat, which may also be a part of intreating!). Yes. I agree.

See you on the other side of my 12-day intreat.