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Back from Retreat, I’ve joined the Zombies

March 29, 2010

Arrived home from retreat yesterday. Wow, what a time. The ego comes up with some amazing things when it knows it’s control is threatened, some of them scared the pants off me.

The retreat was titled “The Power Of Mindfulness” and was led by Christina Feldman and Chas Dicapua, both teachers at IMS in Barre, MA (Christine also being the co-founder of Gaia House in England).

Driving through Worcester, MA I was unsure of the “secluded” location I was headed to, but things became rural, really rural, after only a few miles. I passed a few farmhouses, some horses and realized that yes, I would be secluded. As I pulled into the parking lot I picked up the cell phone to let my wife know I arrived safely– no reception. Yup, this is seclusion!

I, and everyone else as they arrived, were given a brief tour of IMS. It’s quite the place, with an interesting history. Rooms for the retreatants are set up much like a dorm, which worked out very well. After the tour, paperwork is filled out and each person is assigned a yogi job. My job was to clean one of the bathrooms, I couldn’t contain my excitement.

I won’t go through every minute of the retreat, but skepticism started arising almost immediately after the opening talk and silence was invoked.

After each sit session we were to do walking meditation. I don’t do walking meditation much, as a matter of fact, I didn’t quite understand it. To me, seeing all these folks walking around ever so slowly, and then stopping in the middle of nowhere, I wandered if this wasn’t some sort of sick joke and I was an extra in the latest George Romero zombie flick. WTF was going on? Had I made the right choice coming here? I sat there with my cup of tea, freaking out, locked in silence.

The first night seemed to end quickly, and I was left to battle with my mind– fight or flight what was I going to do?

I awoke the next day, a little less confused, knowing that this is where I needed to be. Up at six we all walked our way toward the meditation hall for the first of many meditation sessions. I gathered my thoughts and concentrated on the present, it felt good to be grounded again, not as freaked out. We then headed over to the cafeteria for breakfast, after which it was my first encounter with cleaning the toilets. Man did that suck, but I did it with a plastic smile on my face the whole time. Afterward it was sit time again, off to the meditation hall. The pattern of the day was set, sit then walk, sit then walk. Minus lunch and tea (dinner) this was our day.

I was reminded again of the zombie-like atmosphere when the first walking meditation session began. I watched in horror as people walked back and forth, back and forth, slow as molasses on a cold day.

On our tour we were told about the history of the building, and why there was a bowling alley in one of the lower rooms. The place was originally built by someone who was well to do. Afterward it was purchased and used as a seminary to train priests. When the church owned it, they kept the bowling alley that the original owner had installed. After IMS bought it, they kept it for a bit but eventually stopped using it. Before they did, in the late 1970’s, they had invited His Holiness the Dalai Lama to IMS. He came, and while there he bowled a couple games. I figured if I was really going to get into this walking meditation stuff this would be the place that I would walk. So there I was, back and forth, stop, back and forth, stop (drool and grunt). I was slowly rotting, becoming a zombie by the second.

What the hell was I doing here anyway?

I’ve had a little discomfort in meditation before, where the knees and thighs decide it’s not longer time to just sit but time to get the f up before they break off. After a few hours of this back and forth, sit and walk my knees were killing me. I seriously did not think I could do it anymore. I noticed some people were skipping some sessions and thought I’d do the same, but that’s not why I came here, to not participate, I came here to do this thing the whole way, not half way. So I kept on, battling through the pain. The last two sessions of the evening I was begging, inside of my head, for the bell to ring. Why hasn’t that damned bell rang, I’ve been sitting here for a long time now, c’mon bell ring!!! Enough complaining though.

Saturday night’s Dharma talk was based on a brilliant poem by Portia Nelson, titled “Autobiography in Five Short Chapters”. (I have copied and pasted the entire poem at the end of the blog entry for you to read). The poem was broken down and presented as one of the most profound teachings on samsara I have heard. The short and tall of it is this, we can keep doing the same thing over and over, we are always going to get the same exact result. The thing is to change what we are doing, to really make a change. Then and only then, will we achieve anything different.

I went to bed that night a bit worn down of body but feeling more grounded in mind. Something was going on in my head, all this silence had done something. It allowed me to sit with all of this crap going on in my head and to just stop it from stewing and just be there, wherever I was. Whether I was enjoying that last cup of tea before bed, or just laying there in bed before dosing off, my mind finally had stopped and it felt great (even through the aching knees).

Sunday morning came to quick, and off to the meditation hall for our first sit we went. The knees were still killing me, but somehow I was able to work through the pain, a minor adjustment here and some mind adjustment there, it was all good. We then went to breakfast and my mind turned to the job I was to do afterward, cleaning those damned toilets again. But that’s not the thought that actually went through my mind, the thought was this “I need to make sure those toilets are really clean, they’ve got new a new retreat starting soon and people are going to need a clean bathroom, I’ve got to do a really good job here.” Normally, my mind would say something like “WTF did you just think, did you just actually think that?” There was none of that thought, no mind contradicting the mind that was here and now, now then or later, just now. It felt good. The toilets were pretty clean too.

The sessions went on as scheduled and at noon the retreat closed down. I was bummed a bit, felt like a couple more days and I’d be right on track, but I already was in a  way. On my drive home I was cut off, and I felt for real, the road rage welling up inside. But, learning how to look outside of something and give it the proper space, it dissipated and I went on my way with no anger bogging me down.

Today, Monday, all of that is another story though, samsara sucks. It felt like none of it happened. Was it all a dream? I know my mind is playing tricks and the ego is trying to overpower me once again. I’m not going to let it happen though. Not today, not right now!

Autobiography in Five Short Chapters

by Portia Nelson

I

I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I fall in.
I am lost … I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes me forever to find a way out.

II

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place
but, it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

III

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in … it’s a habit.
my eyes are open
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

IV

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

V

I walk down another street.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. prozacville permalink
    September 19, 2010 5:54 pm

    Just been on a similar retreat with Christina in the UK and heard her give that dharma talk. It’s a humdinger, isn’t it. A classic.

  2. September 20, 2010 7:35 am

    Thank you for the comment. Yes, the teaching was great, I have the recording of it and it’s just as good the second, third and more times!

  3. June 10, 2010 9:47 pm

    Greg,

    Glad you’re enjoying the blog. I would love to get back to IMS at some point, it really was a moving experience. Hoping to do my next retreat with a Tibetan teacher though… will have to keep my eyes out for one…

  4. Greg Horton permalink
    June 10, 2010 3:52 pm

    I’m really digging your posts Nate. I can really relate to your thoughts. Glad I found the site! My sister in law and her family lived in Barre for years and we went there alot, but I was not into Buddhism and had no idea aboout the IMS. Wish I could get back out there now. I’d like to get to a retreat sometime. There is one on the Cape in the fall (Cape Sangha arranges it). I guess there are also weekend retreats in Cambridge. Someday…

  5. March 30, 2010 7:04 pm

    I love this post! Way to really hang in there and let practice work on you.

  6. March 29, 2010 8:29 pm

    Thanks for the fine description of your experience, and also for the remarkable poem (which I may republish on Ox Herding).

    Barry

  7. March 29, 2010 1:44 pm

    wow, ten days! That it’s a bit lofty for a new jack like me. Maybe once all the kids move out I can go for it, but what’s that… sixteen more years till then. :(

    I would love to another 3 day retreat though, maybe a different place next time… we’ll see though. It truly was a great time, but being back in the noise of life things seem back to “normal”. Not sure that’s why I went on retreat in the first place you know?

  8. March 29, 2010 12:12 pm

    Awesome – not that samsara sucks (which we all know already!), but that you had what sounds like a great retreat. Wrestling with the ego, mara, etc, is all par for the course. Next time aim for a 10-day retreat. You won’t regret it. For me and many people I talk to, it is only after about day 4 that the mind/ego begins to shut up and true presence, lasting presence, arises. Then it’s about 5 days of heaven, then one sad day when you realize it’s all ending! :)

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