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!

Oh, I Am A Weak-Willed Wretch

thailand buddha wat phra keo

So, what’s it like to leave behind the everyday trappings of life?

Mixed bag.

I’ve been a bad girl in connecting to the Internet to blog, read Facebook and answer and send email. We have broken silence by whispering to one another. I have listened to music, using earbuds, on my laptop.

Technically, I should not be doing any of this. But I am not a practicing Buddhist, more here to support the devout faith of the sweetie. And, yes, I am sufficiently weak-willed that I cannot fill 6+ hours a day merely staring at the trees.

I’m learning.

I attend the teachings, of which there are two or three a day, beginning with chanting and meditation, and which last 60 to 90 minutes. It can get very esoteric, with endless examination of concepts like mind, clarity, self…It’s both stimulating and a little exhausting.

The lama, who’s also a friend of ours, is funny, down to earth and everything he says makes perfect sense in the “real world” beyond the stone walls that enclose us.

It is odd to be surrounded by 64 strangers, from teenagers to seniors, with whom we’re (blessedly) forbidden to speak. It’s such a relief to not have to talk or listen or react or remember. To drop all pretense of being social or friendly. But we’ve also been admonished to be even quieter, as some of us have been whispering to one another while outside away from others, or in our rooms.

It’s also interesting to be surrounded by people with little or no way to assert status: their schools, graduate degrees, job titles, neighborhood, clothing, jewelry, handbags, cars, shoes. What we see is what we get. What we see is all we know. What we “know” is only surface anyway, here and elsewhere.

We watch one another and wonder what their story is, with students here from Europe, Canada, South America: the beefy, the lame, the bald, the long-haired, the lithe.

It’s an elegant, self-imposed house arrest, our only allowed territory the halls, rooms and grounds. The highway is just at at the end of the driveway and our car sits right there, for once — yay! — undriven.

(I know others are breaking the rules by actually going off-campus, using cellphones, etc. I’m not the only one succumbing to temptation [she said defensively].)

So, here, we look inwards or outwards, sky-gazing.

Remove the usual distractions of kids and pets and work and commuting and movies and shopping  and ATM withdrawals and buying gas and groceries and paying bills or playing Angry Birds — and you suddenly find time to read, think, paint, draw, take photos, sleep and — of course, pray, listen to teachings and meditate.

It will be a challenge for all of us to re-create that sacred quiet space within the craziness of “normal” life. It’s also quite moving to share space and time with others on, for this week anyway, the same path of questioning and learning. Five students have left along the way. Without ever having exchanged a word, you notice their their silent absence immediately.

On Thursday, a new influx appeared, a spiritual shift change.

The physical space enclosing us all is lovely, a four-story former Catholic monastery now open to other faiths, and a frequent site for Buddhist retreats. It faces — what else? — West Point across a narrow stretch of the Hudson River.

You have to love the irony of prayers and chanting and meditation literally facing the academy training soldiers to kill and be killed. The hiking trail through the woods includes (!) Benedict Arnold’s escape route.

We eat vegetarian food, four choices at every meal, at long communal tables, sitting on wooden chairs. Everything is spotless, polished, cared for. There are vases of fresh flowers and bamboo from the gardens, so there is, everywhere, something beautiful to look at, touch or smell.

The garden has a huge lavender bed filled with bees, a wild garden with green peppers and sunflowers and gerbera. A huge bamboo grove looms over a bench where you can sit and read in the shade. I enjoyed an hour there watching a bad bunny eating anything he could find.

Such a calm and quiet place to escape the relentless chest-beating of ego assertion!

I’ll miss this as I plunge back into the elbow-in-the-eye world of professional journalism in New York.

But boy am I ready for a tuna melt with fries and a cold beer! (Or a steak and a martini.)

The Sounds Of A Silent Retreat

National Register of Historic Places listings ...
The Hudson River, which we overlook...Image via Wikipedia

The humming of fans

Kids’ shouting and laughter from the nearby park

The gurgle/splash of tea/coffee filling a mug

A bullfrog at the pond

Cicadas

Crickets

The scrape of a chair against the floor

Gunfire — target practice across the river at West Point?

Rain

Wind in the trees

A lawnmower

The scrape of the greenhouse door against the slate doorstep

The thunk of a softball landing in my mitt (What is the sound of one glove snapping?)

The beep-beep-beep of a delivery truck

Someone tapping stone

The ribbit-ribbit-ribbit of frogs in the dark

An occasional airplane

The shushing of a riverside waterfall on the opposite bank

The flapping of flip-flops

The sweetie’s breathing in the  bed next to me

The rustle of foliage as a bad bunny eats the garden’s lettuce

The echoing horn of a freight train on the opposite shore

The commuter train thundering up and down the valley

The buzzing of motor boats on the Hudson River below

The whine of mosquitoes

Birdsong

Bees buzzing in the lavender beds

The pealing of the hand bell used to signal prayers, meditations, teachings and meals

The clinking of cutlery against china at mealtime

The whoosh of the dishwasher’s hose

The ringing of the gong to start meditation

The clicking of mala beads

Om Mane Padme Hung and other Buddhist chants

No Meat, Conversation Or Liquor — Will I Survive?

Padmasambhava, a picture I, John Hill, took in...
Padmasambhava...Image via Wikipedia

Well, my dears. Off today on a 10-day silent, vegetarian, Buddhist retreat about a 30-minute drive north of my home.

The idea was the sweetie’s, this year’s birthday present.

He’s been a devout Buddhist practicing Dzogchen since he spent six terrifying weeks in 1995 in Bosnia at Christmas, shooting photos for The New York Times.

His mini-altar in the hallway has a small Buddha wrapped in a prayer scarf. A laminated card tucked on the driver side of our ancient Subaru is that of Padmasambhava.

When we started dating, in March 2000, the difference in our faiths — I attend an Episcopal church, albeit not every week — seemed like a potential stumbling block as he is so much  more devout. But it’s not a competition.

And he’s always been really supportive of me, attending my church for more than a decade.

I’ve met and enjoy his lama, Surya Das, author of several books, with a new one out, “Buddha Standard Time.”

He and I even went to see “Mamma Mia” together a few years ago. Namaste on Broadway!

The retreat offers three teachings a day, the only time we’ll be allowed to speak. The food will be vegetarian. There will be no cocktail hour, or wine at dinner, both something we usually enjoy daily at home.

Steak? TV? Three daily newspapers? No, no, no. Ah, the things I cling to.

We’re taking my softball glove and ball, and my bike. I’m taking my camera and watercolors, and plan to write a speech due August 10 in Minneapolis.

I’ll sit in the teachings and meditations and chanting as much as feels comfortable. He and I will share a room, and plan to write notes back and forth. It will be very odd — and difficult — not to talk to him. We typically talk several hours a day and I really enjoy it.

So it’s already a powerful meditation on the loss of that comfort. We may whisper to one another in our room. We’ll see.

I’ve been the butt of jokes for weeks now. “Buddhist,vegetarian, silent — I can’t think of three words less likely to describe you,” said one friend.

If I can get access to the Internet, as yet unknown, I’ll blog during that week. If I can’t, hang tight! I’ll be back here on my regular schedule, posting every other day, starting again on July 31.

Wish me luck!