So, What Did I Learn?

Reclining Buddha
Reclining Buddha, in Bangkok. Been there, saw him! Image via Wikipedia

Hard to believe it’s all over.

There were times I had no idea what day it was, even when I kept counting them off on my fingers, like some crazed prisoner. A nine-day silent retreat is its own sort of marathon, intellectually, spiritually, physically — and if you’re not a vegetarian, culinarily. (If that’s a word.)

We broke Noble Silence Saturday at 4:00 p.m., finally able to talk to the many people who most intrigued us all week, and vice versa.  Our group included teachers, a lawyer, software engineer, an artist. They had come to the Hudson Valley from California, New Mexico, France, Colombia and Canada.

Oh, the chatter!

Within a few hours (sigh) we’ll soon be back in the heart of all of it:

the partisan insanity running the country; finishing up my book proposal; finalizing my keynote speech to retail executives on August 10 in Minneapolis; making social plans; trying to plan a fund-raiser for the writers’ grant-making group on whose board I sit; the usual aaaaaaarrrrrgggggghhhhhhh…..

What do I carry home?

A renewed appreciation for silence.

A reminder of how much I love and appreciate ritual: the bells, the gong, candles, the prayer wheel, the gesture of namaste.

Some cool new friendships.

A bracelet of wooden skulls strung end to end, a gift from Lama Surya.

Story ideas! Maybe even a new book idea.

The knowledge of how a week without any animal proteins except butter, eggs, yogurt and cheese affects my body.

Discovering I really don’t want to eat kale or quinoa again. Ever.

That, despite my hatred of most things institutional, routine, managed, scrutinized and communal, I actually had a great time.

That Buddhism is the spiritual equivalent of freelancing. You may have a whole network of fellow path-followers, striving at their own skill level, but you’re on your own, baby.

That elegant and sensual austerity — fresh flowers, pretty bedspreads, gorgeous/simple bathrooms — is not only possible but very pleasant.

That I crave brie, hummus, nuts and beer.

The absolute thrill of meeting and hearing from a brilliant woman I’d never heard of before, Mirabai Bush. Hearing teachings from a woman who is deeply spiritual and smart as hell and able to work in the real world is soooo cool!

A small folding fan, pressed into my hand at breakfast by Alice, an artist here who noticed me fanning myself in meditation with a folded prayer sheet.

A fervent hug, offered in the dining hall by a young woman we had dubbed Pretty Girl, after I revealed in a  Q & A that I was trying to find ways to comfort a friend whose Mom is newly diagnosed with cancer.

Realizing that everyone is here for their own reasons, moving at their own speed; PG fled Friday, never to return.

Wonderful photos: of the lama and Tulku Dorje (another teacher, a reincarnated lama) sitting on a bench beneath the bamboo, laughing; of the sweetie and the lama, laughing; of the bad bunny I found in the garden; of the flowers there.

A glimpse of a possible way to blend the spiritual and practical, the intellectual and emotional, the bodhisattva and the blogger. I’ve always seen the two in opposition, and maybe they’re not.

How much I enjoy being a room with people excited about the same ideas.

How hungry I am to find a way to live and work that’s both ethical and fun, earns me the sort of living I want but doesn’t poison me with material obsession.

That time flies when you’re totally absorbed in what someone is saying. I normally want to jump out a window if someone tells me to sit still and listen for two hours to dense stuff. Here, I can’t get enough of it.

Realizing how spiritually parched I often feel.

Finally — ka-ching! — a much clearer understanding of the duality I struggle with more and more: between my cerebral/intellectual/competitive/money-making/I want to write a bloody best-seller dammit self and my softer/emotional/striving for social justice self.

And my new refuge name….Urgyen Gyalmo…Dharma Queen.

No pressure!

18 thoughts on “So, What Did I Learn?

  1. Hello Caitlin or ‘Dharma Queen’ and thank you for looking at and commenting on my blog, I was interested to read your thoughtful post on attending a silent yoga retreat. I too enjoy yoga and have found that it brings out a duality in my life as well, such as quiet/noisy etc. Mostly I enjoy letting go and the stoppage of time and space that is created by practicing yoga – even if it is only achieved in the space of my small mat. I wish you the best with your writing, Namaste, Nancy Leavitt

    1. Thanks for visiting.

      This retreat was focused on Dzogchen Buddhist practice, not yoga, although we could do yoga every morning for an hour with a teacher if we wanted to.

      Time quite disappeared there. Very pleasantly so.

  2. “That Buddhism is the spiritual equivalent of freelancing. You may have a whole network of fellow path-followers, striving at their own skill level, but you’re on your own, baby.”

    That’s wisdom right there, and a heckuva lesson to take in!

    Also managed to get a copy of your book… I’m in the midst of reading one other book and a play right now, so I hope to start yours in earnest by next week. But the first page alone, discussing freelance, hooked me in. Can’t wait.

  3. It sounds, if not immediately transformative, then potentially so.

    It’ll be interesting how you go about melding everything you’ve experienced in the retreat into your everyday life. Which did you run for first, the cheese, nuts or alcohol? 🙂

    1. It was exactly that…How it will play out longer-term will be interesting to watch.

      The using it every day is the huge challenge; we were told to try meditating in the everyday, crazy moments like waiting in line…and yesterday at the damn post office I thought “No, not here!” 🙂

      First meal out was a cheeseburger and a beer.

  4. Funny how food can preoccupy when you can’t get what you want. I came back from a trip, after nearly 16hrs flying, across time zones, wanting a burger. Only to be told that they were still doing breakfasts. No burgers for another hour. Not a good moment.


  5. I feel like life is always defined as a race. I bet this retreat definitely slowed days down and gave you a chance to think about life and its purpose. Kudos for getting through it alive AND enlightened. Give us your new-found wisdom! 🙂

    1. Wisdom? Hmmmm.

      Seriously, yes, it really does place you in a space of questioning your automatic/reflex/habitual behaviors, good or bad. I think it would be a valuable experience for anyone as the Buddhist principles — for all the esoteric elements of chanting and unfamiliar words like dakinis (sort of angels) or tulku (reincarnated lama), lama (teacher), bodhisattva (sort of a saint) — so much of it is smart, sensible and do-able in any context at all. The main point of Buddhism is awareness: of your own habits, of others and their needs, of being in the present.

      I liked Surya’s saying: “The only place you can be is now.” That forced me to realize how much time I spend musing on the past or projecting into the future.

  6. Enjoyed your post! This is not my tradition, but I appreciate that we can learn many things from eastern religions and spiritual teachings. Good luck as you continue to explore and to learn about yourself from this perspective.


  7. Sounds like you emerged from the retreat much ‘wealthier’ than when you first came into it. And funnily enough: quinoa and kale are two of my all-time favourite foods. If I had to pick just two foods to eat for the next year, those would be them. (But I would miss hummus, too.)

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