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.


  1. Awesome awesome awesome. You should link this to our Padma Garuda group on fb. I'm going to just give people this link when they ask what I did, as your description speaks so accurately of my experience too. xoxo.