Last month I went on my first meditation retreat with Michael Grady and Larry Rosenberg at IMS (the Insight Meditation Society) in Barre, MA. Because I wasn’t able to write while I was away, I took some time afterwards to verbalize the parts of my experience that I thought were worth remembering. Then I turned that journal entry into this blog post, so that I could sum up my experience and let it be a point of reference to someone other than me. Here it is:
I spent 5 days in mostly silence, doing a lot of meditating and trying to keep my mind on the present moment. Before I left for the retreat, while I was spending time in DC, I was having good experiences with being more in the moment. I had been writing a response for Sam Harris’ Moral Landscape Challenge when I started to come to terms with the fact that I was becoming very focused on finding out “the truth” about life, or about complex situations, and it was causing my thought process to become unclear and fragmented. So I started shifting my attention from trying to figure out what is ultimately “true” to focusing more on what is “true enough”, what I can gather from my direct experience. In the formative words of Terrence McKenna, I started making a shift from being a faerie, maneuvering through some metaphysical “superspace”, into being a monkey with the world in front of him, trying to sort out what was what. It was an important step in a process of grounding my attention, and it felt both energizing and edifying.
So going into the retreat I had experienced some serious letting go, and seen the corresponding feeling of liberation that accompanied that change in attitude towards my experience. I tried to bring that way of relating to my life with me, so that I could feel what effect it had if I kept with it. I wanted to try committing to just letting go and seeing what life was like uninterrupted.
I spent the first couple of days of the retreat going back and forth between simply trying to let go (and be entrenched in my experience of the moment) and doing what I thought of as “properly mediating” or “meditating the right/best way I could”. It was difficult. I felt at odds with myself and confused, the physical relaxation that usually came with my meditation practice was missing, and replaced by an underlying feeling of being stuck. I was jumping back and forth between two concepts of how to feel liberated, and trying to make the best of my time on retreat. Then, I started remembering how I felt during my last week in DC, and recognizing that during this week I felt really deeply at peace, and I even felt that my interactions with other people changed as a result of that feeling.
So I started to try and really bring that state of mind and relationship back to my experience. I focused less on verbal concepts and started to try and maneuver nonverbally using my feelings to dictate what was working in terms of being in the moment.
Also, the way I was focusing my vision seemed to be guiding me towards or away from this state of mind. Sometimes my vision would be really focused and guiding. It almost felt like physically opening my eyes more fully or focusing on one spot more with my vision was helping me shift more into a state of letting go.
As I became more in tune with my intuition, I started to realize that my ability to feel liberated, deeply happy, and at peace (with whatever was happening) relied on my ability to let go of excess thought and fully experience my life in the present. In a way, this is simple, but in practice this process did not always manifest itself easily. It required me to reach a sort of “sweet spot” where I was in the current of my changing experience, but not holding onto wanting to be in the moment so much that I didn’t notice that the current is still moving. This required me to do two things. First, I had to deeply trust my ability to recognize what was right and wrong in this respect, and let go of my feelings of doubt. Second, I needed to realize that it was a lot more effective to let go of what was not working than to move towards what was working. Because once you let go of what is not working, everything is already working much better than it was before.
It felt like there was a current or stream that made up my life and my surroundings, and it was always there. And the problem was that I was either trying to get out of it, thinking that there was something better somewhere else, or I was trying to stay right where I was and not go with the current, thinking that I needed to be in one spot. The truth was that the only thing that really worked was to be in it and to let the current take me with it. This is what it means to be present.
Still, I was going back and forth between my intuitive understanding of this and the formal guidance I had been receiving and repeating to myself. Don’t get me wrong, the formal guidance is great, and it acts as a way to verbalize some of these same concepts so that they can start to be realized experientially. But, in order to further let go, I really needed to commit, like a leap of faith almost. As long as I kept focusing on what to “do” with regards to my meditation I was trapped in the infinite reminders to “do this” and “not do that”, reminders that I wanted to hold on to so that I would never forget exactly how to get and stay where I wanted to be. This method of instruction never seemed to get resolved, I never felt like I had finally remembered enough instructions to stop telling myself instructions. And the instructions themselves were getting in the way.
Those moments that I was using to give myself further instructions were missed opportunities to actually be present. So my practice became noticing when I was perpetuating my thinking, and realizing that only letting go in those moments (and there were a lot of moments) would make me free and connected to my experience in life, as a part of this strange universe. I recognized that I wanted to be more connected with the current, for good reason; and telling myself how to operate tended to be a bad way of doing that. While engaging in walking meditation (when I would walk very slowly, usually back and forth) I started to really feel like I could commit to the present moment and let go of thoughts of the past and the future all at once. I would ask myself “where am I going?” and be aware of the fact that there was really no place other than the present moment, the flow of the current. I had prolonged periods where I felt deeply that there was nowhere that I needed to go and nowhere that I needed to stay. Afterwards, even things that I used to consider hindrances to my meditation were just a part of my experience like everything else. I could think, even fantasize, or regret, and that would be okay, as long as I was with it, experiencing it, not trying to escape it or change it in order to experience something else.
Throughout this time it was apparent that this was the way to diminish any suffering that I was creating for myself and be free to live and enjoy my life fully. So I made my only intention to cultivate that state of mind and build that ability to be present. I tried to experience it and come back to it as much as possible.
The idea of committing to “now” at all times proved useful, because it allowed me to acknowledge the fact that the present moment is all that I am ever going to have. In some sense, the current of my life is always available to be experienced more fully, and therefore there is always room to be more fulfilled in each moment of my life. Even if I thought of something in the future that I wanted to do well in, I recognized that it too would benefit from my ability to embody this sweet spot, where letting go doesn’t compromise attentiveness and attentiveness doesn’t compromise my ability to let go.
I almost felt like all the meditation instructions I had ever received and was continuing to receive were designed to put me at odds with myself to the point that I felt the need to drop it all at once and stop picking it back up. I was told, and I told myself, to not do anything, just sit and focus on my experience, but even in that, there were implications and questions, so I had to stop telling myself anything at all in order to really be free, and that didn’t require a strategy or method, just a sort of commitment. Eckhart Tolle talks about how thinking is an addiction, and relates thoughts to entities that don’t want to die, and want to become bigger and more secure. I think this is a useful reminder of the nature of our thoughts.
I had heard that probably the most universally accepted and prevalent of the Buddha’s teachings was about three qualities of our experience: impermanence, imperfection, and impersonality. The Buddha said that if we could deeply and truly understand that our experiences were always impermanent, imperfect according to our wants, and impersonal (not indicative of an intrinsic self or essence) then we would be completely free.
He also said that reconciling deeply with one of these qualities will inevitably lead to the experience of the others, so in one sense its all part of the same understanding. I think this is an important teaching, and I think this retreat showed me how reconciling with change or impermanence can act as a gateway to understanding these other characteristics and being more free.
Two quotes came to mind and I think they beautifully sum up the mechanisms of unnecessary suffering and potential liberation that I became aware of.
The first comes from Ajahn Tuhn, who rephrased the Buddha’s “Four Noble Truths” based on his own experience. He said:
“The mind that goes out in order to satisfy its moods is the cause of suffering.
The result of the mind going out in order to satisfy its moods is suffering.
The mind, seeing the mind clearly, is the path to the cessation of suffering.
The result of the mind, seeing the mind clearly, is the cessation of suffering.”
The second is a quote from Ajahn Chah, who had once been to IMS, more than 30 years ago. He said:
“If you let go a little, you will have a little peace;
if you let go a lot, you will have a lot of peace;
if you let go completely, you will have complete peace”