I begin this report about my first 100-day retreat with a short poem by Kim Stafford, who is the director of the Northwest Writing Institute in Portland. We were acquainted in the late 1960s, when we were both undergraduates at the University of Oregon. The poem is titled “Legacy of Beginning” and is on Kim’s website:
“People who begin to know / the Buddha will apprehend in each / person, each place, each encounter / the visible, / the invisible, / the secret, / and the deeply secret. / To raise a child, to understand a dream, / to care for a place, to know a river, / one must attend to these four ways. / Study the visible. / Apprentice yourself / to the invisible. / Live / in such a way as to / deserve the secret. / And prepare for the moment when, / in spite of all you have done or not done, / learned or not learned, you may, as a splinter / in the heart of a fire, be welcomed into the holy / flame of the deeply secret. / To begin / behold this beauty / of the visible.”
The form of this poem is much more beautiful on the written page then it is in this letter. But in it Kim talks about what I would call the outer, inner, and innermost or secret aspects of Buddhist teachings. Having studied about Buddhism and practiced meditation intermittently since 1975, I have been a student of my current teacher, Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, since 2005. The next step on my meditation path is to conduct 100-day retreats during which I do a particular meditation practice – a three-hour-long liturgy with many thousands of mantra recitations each day.
My goal for this first such retreat was clear: to learn how to establish the conditions that support extended meditation practice at home (instead of in a traditional isolated retreat). I now know very well what conditions support my having time and space for practice, esp. amidst the demands of maintaining our household and coordinating caregiver support for David. There were, of course, unexpected challenges with the six individuals who supported us and spent time with David, but I met everything that presented itself with equanimity. David was very content simply to know where I was all the time. Curiously, he would check in with me, but seldom came into my studio until the last practice before the final morning of my retreat. Then he sat quietly in a chair through the remainder of that session. In that moment I felt that he shared in the blessings of the retreat.
My teacher gave me most helpful instructions when we talked before I began, especially to enjoy my solitude, to keep caregivers in the retreat boundary, not to worry about family until and if something major demanded attention, and to use “not to tight, not too loose” as a guideline. The main results are that I reestablished a strong and stable practice and continued my dharma study. There is, of course, much to say about subtle levels of awareness and experience, but it is harder to put in words.
The outer aspects of my life in retreat are easy to talk about: why I undertook this retreat, the challenges with the caregivers especially, the record I kept of the practices I did, and how this retreat was a kind of recalibration of my life—developing a new template for my ongoing daily activities. I created a spreadsheet that listed all of the practices that I do: types of meditation, mantras and prayers, and the main practice I was carrying out. My daily practice also included yoga and walking, a level of self-care that I have not had for a long time.
I should say also that I initiated this retreat out of a kind of desperation after the many years of intense outer activity. Just as I was planning my university retirement, the floods hit Colorado in September 2013. I spent more than two years working on both our house and site in Jamestown, where David and I had lived since 1999. I was utterly exhausted. And this retreat period seemed like a way to regain a sense of composure, a time to rest from all of this outer activity, and to get back to my inner work and to my art.
There is so much to say about the inner aspects of the retreat. Near the end of the 100 days, during which I so greatly enjoyed my solitude, I also began to feel quite lonely. Loneliness is such an intrinsic part of human experience: in the end, each of us dies alone, and I remind myself of that every day. But I also wonder about what my life will be “post-retreat,” and especially, with David’s decline, I miss deep companionship. It is kind of strange, but I feel that my solitude during the retreat had a purpose. That is different from loneliness. And so, one afternoon near the end of March, I wrote in my journal: “Though I have been enjoying my solitude, today I feel so lonely. I find a place to lie down in the park where the grass is dry. I take off my sunglasses and hat in order to face the sun. When I open my eyes, I see the blue sky, such a pure deep blue, and a pair of ospreys circling directly above me. I hear a flicker pecking on a tree in the distance, birdsong, and the sounds of small planes leaving the Longmont airport. Now I am connected to this ground.” I had many experiences of the illusory and fleeting nature of experience and phenomena, including joy and exuberance, loneliness and suffering.
I also re-entered my artistic work, which I have not done in a sustained way for years. I had thought I would turn to some of the incomplete projects that were hanging on the walls of my studio, but instead I undertook a new project of creating small paintings (5” x 7”) related to the meditation practices I was doing.
And then there is the innermost or secret aspect of how I practice, much of which I do not share. One of the main aspects of working with my mind has to do with how I make things solid and real, instead of recognizing that everything is impermanent—every state of mind, every feeling, even life itself. We live in such a sacred world, and therefore gratitude and compassion and generosity are crucial.
In the end I flowed with what needed to happen and what needed to be done, both to maintain David's and my daily life, and to meet the outer obligations I already had made. I enjoyed the whole process so much. The sum of this experience is that I want to do it again with a more intensive focus on the meditation practice itself.
11.26.16 Epilogue: My second 100-day retreat will begin in late December 2016.