Joy and Beauty
I knew I was ready and excited for this month-long retreat at the Forest Refuge when I found myself dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Beat it” and “Thriller” at the counter of Dunkin Donuts in Boston Logan airport. However, the woman taking orders and delivering food was indifferent to my antics and not too terribly impressed with my dance skills!
I was excited to see the beauty of rural Massachusetts covered in snow. Forest Refuge was specifically built for meditation practitioners (yogis) developing deeper levels of concentration. Insight Meditation Society (IMS) consists of the Retreat Center, usually for shorter retreats, Forest Refuge for longer retreats, and Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, a clearinghouse for Buddhist teachings and training.
The surrounding landscape of the Forest Refuge is stunning. Among the snowpack were gray barked deciduous and conifer bearing trees. Through the white and green spotted grayish trees one is looking in three directions at a distant bluish ridgeline. There is a maze of hiking trails in the forest meandering through peaceful and vibrating forest. I hiked most days in a variety of conditions: cold refreshing windy air, and ground cover of snow, ice and brown fallen leaves. I enjoyed matching my clothes to the changing conditions. With mindfulness, this is heart practice. While at the Forest Refuge, I never heard an emergency vehicle, and I only heard two small aircraft.
The facilities are well designed and gorgeous. There are plenty of bathrooms and showers, I never came close to waiting. The meditation hall is gorgeous and has a ceiling that is a square pyramid with a section cut off the top. On the sides of the pyramid are windows. Surrounding the hall are windows. The floor is arranged with burgundy zabutons and zafus set on a shined varnished hardwood floor. In the front of the hall is a grayish metallic sculpture of the Buddha. The Buddha is flanked by palm trees. One morning after the 620AM Metta (lovingkindness) meditation, I found myself alone. As I looked out of the southeast window, the sun was breaking the ridge line and a huge deer was grazing amidst the snow. The meditation hall is truly an inspiring place to sit.
The buildings on property are made of rustic brownish wood and the window frames and roofs are painted an evergreen color. The complex is beautiful amongst the surrounding woods around us. The dining hall was also comforting and very attractive. Raised ceiling, varnished tables and floors. As usual the food was delicious.
My second teacher, SN Goenka, would amuse students by saying “you thought it was a good idea to come here!” What I think most of his students thought he meant was that we actually have limited control over our lives through thought, views and ideas. LIke most long retreats, I had no idea of the depths of understanding and loving kindness that I would be exposed to.
My first teacher Peter Carlson suggested I go to the Forest Refuge at least four years back. I had waited three years for this retreat because of COVID. Then I signed up for a retreat with a teacher who had written the books and had more notoriety. I was in a lottery, and did not get picked. I decided to go as soon as possible.
I did not know the teachers, but I was certain they had been practicing longer, teaching longer and had more wisdom than I. I could call this decision a “good idea,” but I prefer to consider this the Dharma (laws of nature) working our lives. I ended with the teachers that spoke to my heart of intimacy and vulnerability and my love of the natural world.
My teachers for this course were Rebecca Bradshaw and Caroline Jones. Rebecca tells of being 14 years old, growing up in youth in Minnesota. Her father would take her and seven siblings with a bunch of teens to the northern woods of the State of Ten Thousand Lakes. She recalls resting under a tree and saying to herself “If I sit here and continue to think I am going to miss the beauty of this world.” I am convinced most our transcendent spiritual moments have been among running and still waters, dense multi-colored rich forests and majestic peaks and hills, swamps and plains.
Rebecca emphazed how important it was to bring embodied presence to our practice. Our experience is often infected by the conceptual world of thought, ideas and prejudices. We miss out on the grace of the people and the world around us. She encouraged yogis to enjoy the alluring beauty of the grounds around us.
What this also does is bring joy, calm and insight to practice. Just resting in the elegance of infinite color and shapes in continuous motion and change. The exquisiteness and vastness of nature is the meditation hall for mindfulness of the senses, sights, sounds, touch, smell and even thinking. Can we take in this beauty without losing our presence of mind? Nature is unceasiingly changing, subtle and gross changes.
This answered one of my earlier questions to the teachers, how to practice momentary concentration, that is attending to whatever arises in awareness through the senses. Rebecca would recommend walking meditation to ground the mind and to be aware of change in the outdoors.
All of the walking meditation rooms had great views of the out-of-doors. There was one room that had a lovely, colorful hanging tapestry of the Buddha. One of the rooms featured wooden plank floors in a screened outdoor room. I used walking to stabilize my mind when I became tired. I also used the walking to practice momentary concentration and observe impermanence of touch by attending to the bottom of my feet . When stopping or turning, being present for impermanence by attending to what is seen, such as tree limbs or water moving. Or the rising and falling of sound through the wind or the sound of birds. Or touch by the air on my skin or the wind on my skin.
Core Issues: Not Belonging
“Truth Seeking Yogis Go After Suffering”
Although I felt joy throughout the retreat, there were also challenges. Early in retreat I would find myself anxious and disconnected from the other yogis (meditation practitioners.) On retreat there are guidelines around np speech and avoiding eye contact. Amidst this “Noble silence,” I would walk into the dining hall and feel paranoid. I assumed yogis were looking at me and judging. Early on, I was anxious in the meditation hall. We were required to wear masks in common areas, so initially meditation in the hall with a mask was a challenge. I almost had a panic attack in the gorgeous meditation hall.
I go for the suffering. I typically make good use of my regularly scheduled teacher interviews.Teacher interviews were 15 minutes, twice per week. There was also one optional meeting a week, monitored by a resident teacher Chas. I found it difficult to open to the level of anxiety and paranoia I was having.
One of my core issues, and very consistently with others in our culture, are the deeply conditioned thoughts and emotions around not belonging to the tribe. I thought my work in the therapy and Dharma practice had cleaned up that piece of my suffering. I contend that retreats can bring up deep rooted historical suffering.
Rebecca and Caroline said it is OK to look around at people during silence. One of the techniques I have been using is to note “person” when I see a person. That gives an opportunity to avoid entertaining the reactive, defensive mind and strengthen Metta, our true nature, the loving, compassionate mind. This noting practice can also be like a mindfulness bell alerting us to attend to a person with Metta, someone we may otherwise be indifferent towards.
Chas would tell us that the group meetings were initiated because people were missing the relational piece during retreat. One yogi stated she found the silence oppressive, yet necessary “because we are here to learn how to die.” And of course the silence is an assistance in deepening our mindfulness and concentration. Chas would note that there are retreats where yogis have options regarding eye contact/no eye contact.
I think the meditation hall was a different issue. I have expectations around how long I was to sit and how many hours a day I was to sit. When I came to Forest Refuge this ended up being too much “efforting.” I would run into pain and agitation much earlier than I was used to. This created suffering manifesting in anxiety and discouragement.
As I regained my confidence, I decided to move my cushion to the front line of the meditation hall. After being there a few moments, I had a thought: suppose these seats were reserved for monastics? For the only front row spaces taken were by monastics. I once again become paranoid, imagining the gaze of other yogis to be like a laser in my back drilling a hole! So with breathing I began to settle, then did a little useful and comforting self talk. Well Andy, what do you think these Buddhists are going to do? Take you in back of the meditation hall and beat your butt?
What Rebecca and I revealed was what I am convinced to be male conditioning. Early in my meditation days, male conditioning was activated and enhanced in the Southeast Vipassana community of SN Goenka (SEV.) I am not blaming, the conditioning was there before SEV. It was that the conditioning was fertilized and cultivated in that community by an imperative around stoicism.
At the same time in SEV, many paramis (perfection of character) were activated and enhanced. Sitting for longer periods allows determination and effort to grow. I am grateful I can sit for longer periods and work with pain.
What I misinterpreted turned out to be an internal feedback loop. Inflexible expectations about how to sit: more sitting and longer sits with stoicism.The loop is fueled by a deep longing to belong, nothing wrong with that. When I struggle, there may be aversion and tendency to judge myself. Certain emotions may arise like anxiety and shame. Human, but unskillful. Then I do not validate my own preciousness, I resort to perfectionism and control. And back to inflexible expectations. This is an internal feedback loop.
The way out is letting go of attachment to expectations. If I begin to go to harmful emotions, can I have mindfulness with self compassion? Metta practice (lovingkindness) can be practiced on those parts of myself that are suffering such as shame. Very important to go to Metta so I validate my own loveliness.
I had a goal of continuous mindfulness, no problem. What helped on retreat was moving from the meditation on the floor, then a chair, then to walking meditation. This helped with continuity of mindfunesse and concentration. Rebecca would later validate there is nothing necessarily better about chairs instead of the floor. She moved to a chair because she knew she would have to have knee replacement if she stayed on the floor. Moving to the chair was a loss for her.
I was also experincing discouragement. With Caroline, she helped with the discouragement. In fact throughout the retreat both teachers were exemplary with validating emotions. A helpful suggestion Carolina made was to bring to mind an image of the Buddha encouraging me.
When I went to bed, I was challenged by ruminating thoughts around regret for difficulties of being avoidant in relationships. Rebecca taught me that regret is the only unpleasant yet wholesome mental conditioner. I need to regret in order to not make the same mistakes again and again. The key to regret is to remember, yet to avoid the ruminations. She also gave me an excellent strategy having its roots in the Tibetana tradition: Recognize, Regret, Remediate and Recommit. I was also reading ‘’The Magnanimous Heart” by Narayan Helen Liebenson. Narayan has practiced since the early 80’s and for 12 years had a significant Zen teacher in Taiwan. She is a co-founder of the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center in Cambridge Massachusetts. “The Magnanimous Heart” has a chapter dedicated to regret.
Core Issues: Gender
Although I still get a little anxious around sharing the tender places in my heart, vulnerability and intimacy have rarely if ever hurt me. Yet there is still a piece of me that is on guard.
I am so grateful to have had male and female allies, therapists and Dharma teachers during my journey. In working specifically on sex and gender issues, I was honored to spend many hours with an amazing and vibrant woman who presented similar challenges. On retreat, I was so grateful to have two female Dharma teachers who could contradict my suffering.
There was a woman on retreat who moved with the most amazing grace. I thought she was a dancer or an amazing yoga practitioner. Or maybe she was just incredibly mindful of movement. Although my proliferating thoughts were enchanting, there was minimal sexual content.
In order to quiet the mind, yogis tend to avoid eye contact. This supports Noble silence and the silence facilitates mindfulness and concentration.
One day in the silence, I sat at her table. That day I just had to look at her. And I did.
She looked me in the eyes. And I was convinced that she was not very pleased. Understandable.
As I processed this in my room there were several emotions: disgust, fear and rejection. And evaluating: was I sexist? I justified my actions by asking myself would I have done this with a guy? Yes and I have. But it is really the same issue, judging a person based on how they appear. And for me, that is probably going to be more activated with women.
And I had violated her space: yes! What did I feel: disgust! Fear of not belonging. The shame of rejection by women including my mother.Anxiety. Interesting, disgust, shame and anxiety, yet no anger.
I think one of the huge values of the Dharma practice is renunciation (another parami.) Just letting go and not taking things so personally.
So I took it to Rebecca, shared my thoughts and feelings.
Rebecca: “You know Andy, women have sexist inclinations also!
Rebecca “What emotions did you have?”
“Disgust, anxiety and the shame of rejection.”
Rebecca: “You know what I do when this kind of thing comes up? I imagine myself softly touching cotton balls to my heart.”
Sangha (spiritual community) is rich and rewarding. We can share most anything and feel closer to others instead of more distant from others.
Core Issues: Confidence
I was able to talk about my insecurities about teaching in Lakeland with both teachers.
I really like teaching, but when I consider other teachers with much more sitting and teaching training I become doubtful.
Caroline: “Causes a lot of suffering, right?
“Yes, a lot of suffering (tears.)”
Caroline: “I would not have made it without a mentor. Get regular support, perhaps a therapist or someone in the NVC (Non violent Communication) community. Also only teach what you are comfortable with and lower your expectations of yourself. My brother Ken Turner in Lakeland Insight Meditation Group (LIMG) has been telling me this for quite awhile.
I have improved with lowering expectations. I have moved through significant suffering and am more motivated to share the teachings. I am convinced I need more consistent support.
I really relate to the embodied awareness of emotions. Much better for me than being in the head. During one of my interviews, I told Rebecca about my appreciation of how she valued the teachings of sensations and feelings in the body. I also reported an aversion to people intellectualizing experience.
Rebecca: “It’s like this with teachers here at IMS. About a half are feeling type teachers and the other half are more intellectual.”
“I rail against intellectualizing. I can remember being at a friend’s home, and being in conversion with three other men. Very intelligent men. I thought I could not keep up and felt left out with the intellectualism. I felt lonely, angry, anxious and ashamed.”
Rebecca: “Of course you rail against that. That is a form of oppression. This type of oppression can be even harder for men. Men who are the visceral, emotional types often get judged or labeled as soft.”
I understood! What she meant was that one had an easier ticket to be included if it appeared they attained more knowledge, could express more knowledge or completed more education. If it appeared one had less than another in an intellectual arena, they may be subtly left out or not as appreciated in the tribe. I felt validated over a situation I had taken complete responsibility for, when in fact there were many conditions that led me to feel angry and lonely. In that situation I am still responsible for my aversion and disconnection.
Practice points : “Receptive Interest”
“The mind is by nature already radiant. It’s shining. It is because of visiting forces that we suffer.”
One of the points Rebecca and Caroline were emphasizing was allowing the Dharma to unfold in front of us. I like the term they would use: receptive interest. This term implies that we are open to whatever experience arises, and that we are interested in what is occurring. I like these terms better than the traditional labeling of the first and second awakening factor as mindfulness and investigation.
Rebecca told the story of a sight impaired man. I attempted to find the story without success, so some of the following may be slightly incorrect. I believe the setting was Europe, WWII. What he stated was that he did not have to be active, aggressive with learning his way in the world. What he discovered was that all of his other senses and new ways of operating in the world came naturally. He just needed experience to unravel and he would develop his other senses. And he did just that successfully.
In one of the interviews, I expressed to Caroline that I was having problems with awareness of sensations on the outbreath. Despite Goenka’s instruction on not craving a sensation, perhaps I was craving a sensation. What she asked me to consider is to imagine your awareness to be like a satellite dish, picking up information from the environment around us. I found this to be very helpful in training my mind to have receptive interest.
One one of the interviews with Rebecca I noticed that when I would become distracted, I had conditioned my attention to “pop back” to the breath. We inferred that it could be not wanting to look closer to my pain. I think that may have been leftovers from my earlier views of meditation.
One of the more beautiful moments was in my room practicing sitting meditation. I was having a nice hard cry, a loving and compassionate cry about the suffering of my daughter Lenora. It had rained rather continuously the previous evening. Water drops on tree limbs would begin to form and grow. As they grew, sunlight would move through them, causing a prismatic effect of several colors. Then the drop would fall effortlessly to the ground.
As soon as I came home, I went with my wife Susan for Father’s weekend at FSU. I felt more presence for Susan and my daughter Lenora and cried more tears than I ever have. Something got uncorked.
So with our group in Lakeland, Lakeland Insight Meditation Group, we are moving past COVID. We have lost a few key players for what was important community service in their lives. In “The Magnanimous Heart,” Ms Liebenson discusses all of the folks who have left Cambridge Insight. I have heard Tara Brach talk about this also. The loss of people leaving has been difficult for me, but I typically channel any doubt or discouragement into effort around the practice and the community.
We have a board retreat at an airbnb this weekend to see and enjoy each other, meditate and figure out who we want to touch in the community. We need to evaluate what we are going to offer the community.
Adjusting to teaching has been very challenging for me. Peter is willing to continue to guide me, but I think the forest Refuge and the meditation community (Sangha) Massachusetts did a lot for my confidence.
It is important to keep life simple so I can continue to practice. I was motivated to read “Boundless Heart ” by Christina Feldman on the retreat. She is a guiding teacher for IMS and the founder of the Gaia House in the UK. I was inspired to see Metta in a different way. To practice mindfulness and metta throughout the day, I need to keep life simple.
Community has always been critical for my well-being. One of the first things I did when I came home was to call a family member who has been a challenge for me. My intention is to befriend all, and do a little remediation on some relationships I have been challenged by. I will continue to move closer to the folks in the Sangha.
with much loving kindness
Gratitude to Susan, Glenda, Peter and Paula