Featured Articles

A Weekend Retreat Recollected In Tranquility

A few weekends ago, while my wife was in Jamaica, I took a plunge of sorts. I took, and completed, The Art of Being Human, a two-day immersive course at my local Shambhala Center.

To say it was electrifying, transformative, and overwhelming would be accurate. It's already been awhile, and I'm still a little “off” from it.

Q. What did you DO with all that time, especially when not meditating?

A. We spent most of the time in sitting meditation, interspersed with a few modest lectures. We had been advised to read a few chapters from Chogyam Trungpa's Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior beforehand. I had already memorized this book and I was prepared to discuss those passages in some depth, to glimpse things I had missed. But by my best wild-ass guess, I'd say the course was about 25% light discussion, if that, and 75% pure shamatha, with intermittent breaks for walking meditation.

Q. What kinds of meditation did you do?

A. Shambhala's recipe for meditation is a deceptively simple one. Sit with a straight but comfortable posture, like a mountain. Eyes remain open, gaze softened, looking a few feet in front of you. (I believe this relates to its belief that meditation practice should not be cocoon-like, with eyes closed, but designed to be taken out into the world afterward.) And just sit. And breathe. For as much as an hour at a time. When thoughts arise – and they will – label them “thinking” and gently return to the breath.

Q. What insights did you have?

A. My mind is a tricky beast. It impressed me with its tenacity. It riddled me with past regrets and free-floating self-reproach, and when that stopped working, it started trying to help, pitching me projects and spinning irresistibly catchy tunes. It tried pretty much whatever it could to get and keep my attention. Detaching from thoughts was grueling work. And when I did, complex emotions and deep-seeded physical sensations and aches arose. I confronted a lot of stuff that I had never properly worked through, and I just sat with it, letting it be, until it passed on for the time being.

Q. What was surprising about the format of the retreat?

A. Judas Priest - there was so much sitting. It was some of the simplest, most difficult, and most gratifying work I've ever done. The instructors warned me that I might be unusually touchy afterward, and they were correct. The most basic aphorisms in the lead instructor's brief lectures nearly made me cry.

Q. What is your advice to someone who's going to do one?

A. Make sure you know what you're getting into. Quite a few people seemed to be struggling on Saturday and a few did not show up Sunday. One guy got himself a hotel room for Saturday night, to reflect and write about his experiences, and realized that the opportunities he had taken to care for himself in this way, throughout his life, had been few and far between. As he described the experience, he nearly wept.

Know that you may be overwhelmed for awhile afterward. And know that that's okay.

I write these posts to chronicle my fairly recent plunge into Buddhist practice and philosophy, to record what I experience and learn as it happens. Since the retreat, I find that I haven't had too much to say.

I spoke at an unorthodox tech conference the following weekend, and found that my attempts to adequately steel myself for that presentation drove me temporarily insane. I devoured books and research material and still felt myself ill-prepared. It was fine, of course. I spent a lot of time riffing with the moderator and only covered about 1% of the material I had ready. I experienced profound gratitude toward the organizers and the audience, the sort of gratitude I didn't know I was capable of. I had a wonderful time.

I am still absorbing this retreat experience. Simply reflecting on it may take up a significant portion of my resources for some time to come. And that's okay. As Willie Nelson said after he fell asleep in his car in the desert and woke up getting busted for weed possession, "It's part-uh life."

Vote for this article to appear in the Recommended list.

Site developed by the IDP and Genalo Designs.