Joshua Tree 2013 Retreat – Part 2

After noticing that the intellectual knowledge and study prior to the retreat was coming up and distracting me from actually being in the present moment, I began to label those thoughts, dharma-related as they may have been, as distractions — coming back to the body, the breath and the scene as it was presenting itself.

My walking practice really allowed me to focus. After a few days, I found that I chose the same path near the sanctuary for several walking sessions each day. Not having to choose which path to walk avoided the distraction of choosing. Walking the path with a concentrated mind, I stayed primarily with the sensation of my bare feet on the warm concrete; constantly moving and balancing, shifting from foot to foot, heal touching down, the ball of the foot, weight, toes, lifting, bending, the flesh of the big toe leaving the rough warm surface and moving forward through the air. My attention didn’t wander much, but to keep it firm, I began to use the phrase “Now, this.” Constantly bringing myself back to the experience of the present.

Another big theme for the retreat was “Opening the heart to what is.” I think this phrase actually came from the Qi Gong teacher, Franz. The other teachers talk a lot about opening the heart as well, but his awesome energy and accent come to mind when I think about it – so I attribute the concept to him in terms of my experience. “Opening the heart to what is” not only speaks of the present moment, it also is a call for openness and equanimity. Using the heart as the subject reminds us to connect with the present through our bodies and our senses instead of through the thinking mind; living a little deeper down in our experience, more directly and less conceptually.

I also used “Don’t know” as a reminder to return to the present when thoughts of trying to capture the retreat in terms of concept kept getting in my way.

I found that I was able to successfully witness the cessation of experiences, which is a practice related to the insight of impermanence.

Neti-neti led me into a deep place – which seemed to clear me out and allow for a very expansive sense of awareness and open-heartedness off the cushion, but also brought on a contraction sensation in the area of my head while on the cushion. Howie, in an interview said I was doing just what needed to be done in regards to this exercise, but there was no mention of where it was leading or whether or not to proceed.

I had several intense meditative experiences, including several “energy body” experiences, one if which was unique in my meditative history and involved a huge balloon-like sensation of expansion to occur in the top half of my body. This expansion released the tension that the back pain and the neti-neti practice had built up in me and left me feeling not only concentrated and energized, but also free from the contracted feeling itself.

Howie’s ‘big mind’ bell meditation encouraged us to open widely to experience – not to limit our awareness to that which happens within our skin and in our thinking, but to broaden our sense of being to include all we can hear, see and even the world beyond these two senses. Awareness itself is limitless, unborn, uncreated, boundless. After playing with this meditation and examining the method through the lens of the 5 aggregates, I came to see that there was a contradiction between the instructions and the practice. I brought this up in an interview with Howie. “Awareness is said to be boundless; the practice of big mind, as presented, has us hearing to the edge of hearing and seeing to the edge of seeing, and imagining the whole world to be in awareness — yet hearing isn’t boundless, and seeing isn’t boundless and imagination itself isn’t boundless and my experience of awareness is only as wide as the six sense gates.”  Howie’s answer was that it is true that this meditation is limited to the six senses and that they are limited. He said Spirit Rock teachers are comfortable using this exercise as a step along the path, even though it is based on imagining and isn’t truly the unbound awareness that is nirvana. He said, in fact that the difference between samsara and nirvana is that awareness in samsara is conditioned by the six senses whereas the awareness of nirvana is unconditioned. Some schools (he specifically said Theravada here) wouldn’t allow for the big mind meditation as we’d done it — because it could fool one into thinking they’d discovered boundless awareness when in fact, they had created something that was still conditioned.  I had just discovered the difference between two schools of buddhism through direct investigation on the cushion (as opposed to academic study). I’d also gotten a clue regarding the topic of unconditioned awareness.

This exchange, I later found out during my car trip home*, was one of the primary discoveries of my retreat; not in the sense of a breakthrough in practice, but rather a discovery about my practice.  I’ve been very drawn to Theravada Suttas and commentaries lately – especially those that give me nuts-and-bolts guidance on meditation practice. It may be that I need to start hand-picking retreats and teachers that align with these interests – and stay on track with regards to meditation instruction. It feels like my practice is ready to find a direction, to get more specific. Something big is starting to come into focus — the path.


* I serendipitously skipped my flight home in favor of jumping in someone’s car with one other woman and driving the 9 hours back to SF. This car ride gave my whole retreat a sense of completeness that I had really been seeking. I was aware of the seeking — I was consciously undecided regarding my retreat at it’s close.  Our discussion was wonderful, philosophical, and technical. Meditation practices, schools and buddhist history were all discussed. We concluded that Spirit Rock is a new form of buddhism, best suited for it’s role of introducing buddhism to a western audience. Not too austere, not too strict, heavily sprinkled with Metta practice and based on a solid Theravada foundation. It also included teachers from other traditions, such as Zen and even Advaita Vedanta (non-duel teachings). The teachings at this retreat had been authentic, sincere and at times humorous, but without a clearly defined technique. Spirit Rock is a school that provides a perfect environment for meditators to become familiar with buddhism without being too harsh to enjoy it – or too intimidating to continue. The general insight retreats, such as the Spring Retreat may be loosely based on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness – but to truly get instruction that penetrates deeply, retreat selection (and possibly considering other schools and teachers) will be necessary.


2013 Joshua Tree Spring Retreat – Part I

Back from the retreat.  What a beautiful place the high desert is. We even had a rainstorm. I ran three times, which I’d never done at a retreat and it worked out very well – no interruption of concentration or practice (although the running itself wasn’t particularly concentrated, as I’m not well practiced at meditating-while-running).

I came to the retreat having my head crammed full of Theravada teachings. I was ready to take my home practice, which has been strong since the last retreat and highly inspired by my studies — and use the abundant time to dive deep and unlock the insights underlying reality. I felt ready to go.

Turns out, having that much intellectual material, expectation for practice, thoughts-of-self as meditator, and hopes of repeated experience isn’t a recipe for success on the cushion.

I spent the first day and a half extremely focused on breath at the nostrils. Thoughts were brief, seen quickly and released. Body sensations other than the breath were included at times during ‘awareness of breathing with the entire body’ practices, but otherwise weren’t a hinderance. Concentration built up quickly. But off the cushion I wasn’t feeling the amazing connectedness, the merging with the desert, or the present moment awareness sense of awe. Disappointment arose, along with thoughts of self and a sense of “trying to make something happen”. I started to see that the retreat I’d come to wasn’t the retreat I was on… I’d brought my own agenda and I wasn’t in tune with what the teachers were offering. So I changed it up.

I began focusing on my breath in my belly instead of at the nostrils. This may not sound revolutionary, but it really changed my practice. I felt like a beginner. I couldn’t tell if I was controlling my breathing or letting it be natural (a common meditation experience for beginners, and one I hadn’t had in years). My thoughts began to swirl along with feelings and cravings and desires – I seemed to have disturbed my concentrated and empty mind, but I also had more to work with. Seeing the thoughts as thoughts, feelings as feelings, coming back to the breathing — I’d finally joined the retreat.

Off to the desert

Tomorrow morning, I’ll be headed off on retreat.  Last year’s retreat was a real milestone in my practice. Since then I’ve started this blog, developed a daily practice that really was a daily practice, went weekly to weekly sitting groups and read some wonderful books (The Island (Ajahn Pasano), Four Noble Truths (Ajahn Sumedho), Right Mindfulness (Thanisaro Bhikkhu) and I’m in the middle of the Wings to Awakening (Thanisaro Bhikkhu).  I’ve been experiencing my moments more fully and my sitting practice has deepened during this time. If I am being honest, I’d also have to admit that I’ve been preparing for this retreat. I can’t wait to see if some of the seeds I’ve planted will open up and flower.

I’m conscious of the pitfall of expectations. I’m also aware how wildly ironic it is to live thinking of the future in the form of a mindfulness retreat while overlooking one’s present moment experience. For this reason, I’ve developed a simple “redirect”: whenever I notice myself thinking of the desert -> come back to the present moment’s seeing, hearing, & feeling.  This routine has been triggered a lot this week.

To anyone reading this: be well, be happy and be sensitive to waves of metta coming from the southern California desert!