In yet another act of me falling ass backwards into one of the best things in my life, I just completed a 10-day silent meditation retreat in Dharamsala. I initially signed up for the retreat because I thought it would be beneficial to my grant research, but at the time I just assumed that I would be in class for a few hours in the afternoon and be spending the rest of my time out and about in the Dharamsala area.
The experience turned out to be essentially the opposite of what I expected. Rather than using the time to springboard myself into research, it instead gave me the opportunity to go on an intense exploration of myself, bringing me to a level of clear headedness and purpose beyond any that I have ever achieved before. I could not have imagined a better way to launch off my first true adventure in the subcontinent.
I was in silence for the entire duration of my time at Tushita (the meditation center), with the exception of 1-hour discussion groups for the first 2 days of the course. Even as far as these retreat courses at the center go, this one was highly irregular in that Lama Zopa Rinpoche, an incredible high lama and one of the founder of the center’s umbrella organization, Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition, was present on site for a retreat. The third night of the course he joined us to watch the movie Mystical Tibet, in which he’s actually the star. After that night, he decided to push his retreat back in order to teach on emptiness every night until the rest of the program, which was concluded with him giving the oral transmission of the Vajra Cutter Sutra.
I have a hard time immediately articulating the significance of the whole experience and will likely work it into my writings over the next few weeks. Nearly all of it is deeply personal and I’m still debating how much is worth sharing, though I’m inclined towards bearing more rather than less in the hopes that it might help things resonate with people. If I could even begin to wake just one person up, I’ll feel as if I’m accomplishing something truly remarkable with this blog.
One thing that did seem worth bringing up in its own post, though, is the whole idea of going on a retreat. Coming into the experience (once I’d actually realized what I was doing) I was having a difficult time accepting the validity of the retreat experience. To me, it seemed quite easy to cultivate all of these virtuous Buddhist (but really just human) ideals when placed in an environment so totally cut off from the outside world. No phone, no computer, not even speaking to the people around me. Put simply, it seemed like an escape from reality. After all, what’s there to be stressed about when you don’t need to deal with school, work, or interpersonal relationships? If anything, it sounds like a vacation.
Very early on, however, it became clear that this was absolutely not the case. Far from offering me an escape from reality, my time on retreat brought me as close to it as I’d ever been. Back at home when I’m in school I become so unduly concerned with things like school, life after college, staying in shape, navigating social situations etc. I treat all these things as the end all be all of existence.
But that is a complete and total illusion. It’s just a case of me getting caught up in my small world, 1 world that exists among 6 billion (not even including all of the animals that also live in their own small worlds.)
Furthermore, when I have inner problems stemming from my skewed view of my existence, there are an infinite number of distractions that I can throw myself into: exercise, TV, music, the Internet, drinking, spending time with friends, and so on. There’s literally no limit to the number of ways that I can us to avoid the reality of my situation.
Yet even with all of these possible distractions at my disposal, sometimes it just doesn’t work. Sometimes I can fall into such a state of existential despair (this happens far less these days than it did in the past) and there’s just no way to get out of it. No matter what distraction I seek out, nothing can calm the storms in my mind. The problem just continues to arise and pervade my entire reality, yet I refuse to just sit with it and embrace the discomfort, instead continuing to find a way to use the external world to run away from it. I’m afraid this is a thing that many people do, especially in a society in which many of us have such incredible material means with which we can distract ourselves from our self.
In the end, my solution always seemed to be to just wait it out, knowing that sooner or later external ‘causes’ (this is putting aside the question of how much an external event can and should effect your inner world) would shift and things would settle back to my happy equilibrium of comfortable fantasy existence.
On retreat, I can’t do that. Over the past 10 days, I have spent so much time alone with my own mind and have had absolutely zero distractions to draw myself away from my problems. I simply needed to look each of my delusions in the face as it arose, facing the reality of the situation in a way that I had never done before. Sitting in a meditation hall with nothing but my own thoughts, I couldn’t possibly keep reality out. I was forced to struggle with my demons and, even if it hurts sometimes, fuck, it feels good because I know it’s really and truly bringing me to a better understanding of my sense of personhood.
I also initially struggled with the idea that a high level of discipline brings about greater freedom. At first glance, this idea seemed to be completely paradoxical. However, with a strict code of conduct and a rigid schedule, the mind doesn’t need to concern itself with basic day to day functioning and contemplating how to spend leisure time. It opens up this vast store of mental energy that can be directed towards anything it wants. It isn’t about physical freedom but mental freedom, which is ultimately far more valuable. If you can be mentally free, physically conditions almost become trivial. This tremendous degree of spare mental energy and clarity proved immensely helpful in helping me achieve some of the ego penetrating work I mention above.
It also provided an extraordinarily necessary opportunity to sit and reflect. In many ways, my life has been moving non-stop since the last time I got back from India just over a year ago. From taking classes and working part time over the summer, to traveling to Tibet and China, and then returning to the States to begin plotting out ‘my future’ and relearn how to navigate college, I feel as if I’ve been mentally engaged in something or other for a very long time. During this time I’ve been exploring a lot of religious and spiritual philosophies, yet with little time to sit down and truly reflect on what they meant and how they might apply to my own experiences of the world.
The retreat environment provided me with that opportunity in such an incredible way. I was finally able to spend substantial amounts of time in meditation, as well as receiving Dharma talks on Buddhist topics, to turn my intellectual knowledge into an experiential understanding that comes from my gut. Not to say that I have successfully reached that point, but things are penetrating me far deeper than they were when I walked onto the retreat grounds a week and a half ago. I walk away from the experience with a far more intuitive sense of all of the philosophical systems I’ve been burying myself in for the past year and a half, even finding words flowing out of myself in conversation that I find to be so shockingly on point I don’t see how I could possibly be saying them. Forgive me for the humble brag, but it’s merely to communicate the point that we all have much of this knowledge lying within us, but it becomes covered up through years of habituation to worldly existence.
One thing that did slightly undermine this process of transforming the intellectual into experiential understanding was, perhaps ironically, the constant feed of Buddhist philosophy flowing into me from my meditation instructor and Dharma teacher. There were often times that I would be contemplating emptiness or the law of karma or anything really and before I reached a conclusion, a voice would announce the answer that Buddhism had arrived at. In many ways, this makes perfect sense because it gives as pure a view of Buddhist philosophy and contemplation practices as possible. Yet at the same time I believe it also compromises the experience of retreat in that it often interrupts the stream of thought before it reaches its logical conclusion, keeping knowledge in a strictly intellectual realm.
Curiously enough, this wasn’t something I noticed at all until leaving the retreat center. The first night I was off retreat I went out with a bunch of the people from my program, figuring it would be nice to get to know the people I’d been sitting in silence with for the past 10 days. The early end of the evening consisted mostly of discussing our backgrounds and future travel plans but as things moved deeper into the night, the conversation inevitably shifted to questioning of our existential condition. Speaking with a self-taught guru named Sai that I met in a bar shortly after leaving the center, it became quite clear that many of the people around me resorted to merely packaged answers in responses to his question “who is the I?” and other related queries. At one point he actually said, “Stop with all the Tushita bullshit and tell me what you think. Who are you?” Although I didn’t find myself using generic Buddhist philosophy 101 answers, I did notice how deeply the courses get into my head without even realizing it.
I’ve ultimately decided not to go back on retreat for another 2 weeks tomorrow. While I don’t believe it would be unbearably difficult as I actually had a shockingly easy time committing to the retreat environment, I don’t think it would be productive. I still have so much to digest and I need to return to worldly activities in order to integrate the teachings into my life and avoid having them sit in a mental vacuum.
As usual, this piece has dragged on substantially longer than I planned so I’ll cut it off here and leave further discussion of my retreat experience for future posts. However, I don’t want to leave this piece on a negative note, since I can honestly say that the past 10 days have proved to be the most valuable 10-day chunk of time I have ever experienced. I would seriously recommend embarking on a similar experience to everyone that I know that can afford to spare the time. In a way, I don’t think anyone can truly afford not to.