I had some trepidation but mostly I was excited. At last, I was going to do my first solitary retreat at the Tibetan Buddhist Retreat Center where I lived as a volunteer: A month off of work; no phones; no people bothering me; no talking – just utter peace and quiet in a cabin tucked away in a beautiful, pristine forest – watching the snow softly drift down outside big windows, chopping wood for the pot bellied stove, meditating, becoming a calm, spiritually accomplished person… Sounded wonderful. I was ready. Well…except for one thing…I hadn’t factored in the bit about my mind going with me!
It took just one day – one measly day of trying to sit still on my cushion before my spoiled mind realized I had taken away all of its distractions and toys: music, computers, conversation, books, movies – all of it! … It exploded and ran amok. Every song I had ever heard, ever, streamed through my head 24/7. There was endless chatter. It never stopped. Not for one second. Walking to the outhouse, cooking, sleeping. It was like every obnoxious relative one could possibly imagine had moved into that cabin, and they wouldn’t shut up and they wouldn’t go away. There was no escape hatch.
Finally, after about a week, I ran down the trail to my teacher’s house, and burst through his door, pointing at my head. “MAKE IT SHUT UP!” I shouted. “DO SOMETHING. YOU’RE THE BIG MEDITATOR HERE. FIX IT!” I ranted. I was wild eyed and breathing hard. “Something has seriously gone wrong. I was just fine before I went into retreat and started meditating,” I challenged.
He smiled. “Your mind is always non-stop busy like this. You’re just now noticing because you have paused in your life and paid attention. Like a locomotive that has fallen off the tracks – it takes a while for the wheels to stop turning.” “Oh my God. What was I thinking?” I was incredulous. “And in the meanwhile…?” I asked desperately, every cell in my body freaking out. “Give it time. Keep going,” he replied kindly, “And oh…try some butter. It helps settle the winds of a stirred mind.”
It was true. My mind eventually got so exhausted it finally gave up and let go. And when it did there was a gap in the frenetic bandwidth of discursiveness and I had a glimpse of the vast sky, not just the clouds – the ocean, not just the waves. It felt like a moment of grace, a taste of a bigger truth. I have continued to do many retreats since that time – sometimes alone in cabins or tents, sometimes in groups with other people.
Thinking of retreats I was reminded today of a moment years ago when I was gardening. I would buy potted plants and then just stick them in the ground willy nilly, paying no attention to the tightly packed roots spiraling around inside the can. Time would pass. I would notice that the plant was not exactly dying, but not exactly changing or growing either. Hmm, I would think: perhaps too much sun – not enough sun? Maybe different conditions would help. I would dig it up and move the plant to another location – again, not paying attention to the fact that the roots looked exactly as they did when I put the plant in the ground the first time. No changes. A friend who was visiting one day observed what I was doing. She rolled her eyes. “Give me that plant,” she said. Then she grabbed a knife and proceeded to violently hack into the root ball, shredding the roots till they splayed out all over the place. I gasped. “You have to create chaos,” she said. “Be merciless. Only then will these roots find a different way to be. Only then can they reach into new, fertile soil so the plant will flourish and realize its full potential.”
It was one of those Ah Ha moments. Now every time I feel the pain and unease of stretching past my habit patterns and comfort zones I try to remember the story of the root ball. It’s about growth. It’s about growth. And on that note…I leave in a few days for Arkansas to participate in a group retreat for two weeks. I will be unplugged. When I return I hope we still have a government open for business. Until then, to whoever is following this wandering blog, I wish you all the very best.