November 25, 2004
Writing about meditation feels like writing about the weather. Even if I could describe the experience accurately, it would almost certainly sound hopelessly boring. But people keep asking me, “What was it like?” And so I feel compelled to say a little here about my experience over the last couple of weeks.
Earlier this month, I traveled to Karme Choling in Vermont to participate in two weeks of the annual fall dathun (Tibetan for "month-long retreat").
What was it like? Well, I wish I could tell you about my encounters with the godhead, the mind-blowing insights, the non-stop epiphanies. I wish I could show you my shiny new halo, or the sunbeams squirting out of my eyes. But the sad truth is, I came out feeling just about the same as I ever was.
"Enlightenment," said Chogyam Trungpa, "is the final disappointment.” Meditation, in other words, is not about getting results. It’s about letting go.
I arrived at Karme Choling Thursday night around 7:00pm, tired and bent way out of shape from a 22-hour journey of red-eye flights, five sleepless hours in a metal chair in Penn Station, and seven hours crammed into an Amtrak seat on the way up to White River Junction. By the time the van deposited me in Barnet, I was feeling exhausted, cramped, and cranky as hell.
For the first three days, I sat there plotting my escape. I bucked up against the whole situation: the ten hours of sitting every day, nagging back pain, the bowing and chanting, the oryoki meals (an impossibly choreographed Zen dining practice involving stacking bowls, carefully folded cloths and a dizzying ritual of unfolding and folding the cloths, stacking and unstacking the bowls, chanting and eating). I spent most of the first couple of days wanting to bolt out of the room, away from the premises and from my own roiling mind. Even though I had been meditating off and on for ten years, I felt like an abject beginner, wondering what I had gotten myself into.
Then, one afternoon, our teacher John Rockwell said something that stuck:
Not much else happens. For the most part, sitting on a cushion for ten hours a day is just about as boring as it sounds. There's no door prize. But when you sit there for two weeks of staring into the void, doing nothing, accomplishing nothing, what slowly dawns on you is this: that we spend our whole lives looking for a result that never comes. We try to improve ourselves, get noticed, get rich, get a better house, a better relationship. Most of our lives are spent trying to change the situation, or to change ourselves. And none of those strategies ever seem to work. Most of us walk around in a perpetual state of mild disappointment. This is also known as samsara.
Eventually, sitting there, you just sort of give up. You drop your resistance, and start to relax, just a little, into the boredom. As Acharya Rockwell put it, you start to "turn the boredom outwards." This is also known as nirvana. Or so I'm told.
The SanghaAlthough I never knew quite what to expect until I got there, I had envisioned dathun as an intensely solitary situation: sitting alone, staring at my navel, getting my dharmic groove on. What I didn't expect was to discover how intimately the experience was bound up with the presence of 70 other people.
For two weeks, we sat together, ate together, cooked for each other, cleaned each other's dishes, scrubbed the toilets and literally depended on each other for survival. Spending an entire week in silence, paradoxically, seemed to draw us closer together. When you eliminate the usual discursive chit-chat that we usually rely on to interface with each other, you realize more deeply how much we actually need each other.
Which is not to say everyone got along famously. Even in silence, you find yourself still forming opinions and judgments about people. And how keenly aware you are about what other people might or might not be thinking of you. A kind of mild paranoia sets in. And when you're sitting there for ten hours a day staring at the back of a cute girl's head, it's all but impossible to keep the occasional discursive thought from arising.
But after a while, you also realize that while you're sitting there constructing your little character portraits, storylines and fantasies about all these people you barely know, that you are really just constructing an elaborate work of fiction. In some sense, our notions of other people are always figments of our imagination. And it dawns on you that for most of our lives, we run around forming these little judgments and assessments about people, based on little more information than the backs of their heads.
On the last night, the staff decided to "relax the container" and let everyone cut loose. We had a festive dinner (saying goodbye to oryoki and hello to knives, forks and plates), corked open the booze (for the first time in two weeks), and then all spilled out onto an impromptu dance floor. After two weeks of mostly not talking, it felt something like going to the junior prom. We all had to remind ourselves how to socialize again.
Fortunately, we were blessed not only with good company but with the presence of a talented musical contingent, including Denma, Jonah and Michael Doucet (of Beausoleil), who got the party started with a raging set of guitar-and-fiddle music.
After two weeks of silent practice, opening up socially felt like releasing a huge outbreath.
The GratesOn the day they cremated Trungpa Rinpoche’s body on a field at Karme Choling back in 1987, they say that the sky suddenly cleared, hawks began to circle in a tight formation overhead, and rainbows appeared. I know that sounds like the stuff of made-up legend, but there were eight thousand people who bore witness to what happened that day; even Time magazine covered the strange goings-on. People who were present that day will tell you that for a few minutes that afternoon, everyone’s mind just stopped.
On my last day at Karme Choling, still feeling slightly hung from the last-night party, I took a walk up into the woods to see the grates where they had cremated Trungpa’s body. After a long hour’s hike, I found myself at the top of a hill in the woods. Moths hovered like dakinis around an opening in a stone wall that led up to the site. There, atop a blanket of fallen fall leaves, sat two rusted grates encircled with stones and prayer flags, a rudimentary stupa. I stood there for a long time. I didn't see any rainbows. The sky stayed cloudy. But for a few minutes, I felt my mind …
… just …
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