One of the difficulties of writing about the experience of the retreat is in finding the balance between talking about concepts/definitions which need to be understood in order for anything that I’m saying to make sense, and just writing about the experience itself and not worrying about whether the reader is familiar with the terms I’m using. The latter isn’t appealing to me, but the former results in a lot of verbosity and a loss of cohesiveness.
I think I’ve done a decent job of balancing it here, though I’m sure there’s a lot that I have missed. If this is the first post of mine you’re reading, it might help to go back and read some of the things I wrote about the last retreat: in this post I outline the general schedule of retreats, and go into some Buddhism 101, and in this post, towards the end, I talk about wtf meditation actually is and what mental muscles it exercises.
I’ve been hearing a lot of things about this retreat in the days and weeks leading up to it. That it’s really intense, that it’s not that intense, that it’s the most important retreat of the year, that the really serious practitioners (the “Dragon” group) are supposed to commit to reaching enlightenment by the end of it (look, I’ll be happy if I end up with generally-more-productive days as a result of the retreat, and maybe eating fewer cookies – enlightenment feels a little bit out of reach).
Some people are dreading it. Some people are excited for it. For me, I’m definitely in the excited camp. I’ve been at the monastery for a month and a half now — The 7-day retreat last month was tough but fascinating, and I imagine that the 14-day retreat will be tougher and …
I’m very motivated today. following my breath comes much more easily, and I’m noticing so many subtleties around it that I’ve never noticed before.
My inhale doesn’t feel smooth. This surprises me – it’s like a series of gasps, punctuated by small, almost imperceptible shudders in my body. Is this how I normally breathe? This is so weird. At the end of the inhale there are even more gasps, like my body is desperately trying to get the last few drops of air in.
When I exhale, it feels like there are multiple reservoirs in different parts of my torso slowly being emptied.
When I’m lying down, I can easily feel the breath in my stomach. When I exhale, there’s a flattening in my entire torso, a sensation which feels deeply restful. I’ve never noticed it before.
I’m starting to be able to feel it in my belly even while sitting. It’s like a gentle curling-under at the end of the inhale. That’s the best way I can describe it.
There’s edges of emotions, I can’t quite place them, like a strange hard flatness somewhere in my mind-space, or maybe it’s in my body, I don’t know, it’s too subtle. When I feel it, I have the thought “there it is” and I start to cry. What the hell? It passes quickly. Maybe it’s nothing.
I have beginnings of thoughts about people. I can tell who it’s about and I can tell that I feel tight and uncomfortable and averse to it, but the thought itself isn’t there, doesn’t fully manifest.
The morning schedule is exactly the same up until breakfast (45 minutes of chanting, 1 hour of sitting meditation, 1 hour of physical exercise), so things are feeling pretty mundane, though I have far more motivation than usual. There’s a let’s do this quality to each sit, rather than the usual let’s get through this so that the rest of the day can start quality. It feels exciting, but also peaceful. There’s literally nothing else to do for the rest of the week but get to know my mind better. How cool is that?
Halfway through the afternoon, and I’m getting annoyed. Everyone around me is …
On the evening before the first day of retreat, Jango, the head of operations, gathers all 18 of us (guests and residents) in a room to discuss what the coming week is going to look like. At this point I’ve been at the monastery for 20 days, but all of it was during Responsibility Periods (you can read more about that in this post where I outline the daily schedule of a normal Responsibility week) and this is the day we are switching into the Awakening period.
Without going into the specific order of things, every day will involve approximately:
1 hour of chanting 1 hour of physical exercise 7 hours of sitting meditation (this will include 1 or 2 private interviews with the head teacher each day) 2 45-minute meals 1 hour of cleaning 1 hour group Q&A with the head teacher 1 hour dharma talk / exhortation 2 hours of walking meditation (optional – this can be a sitting meditation if desired), and 2 hours of self-practice time (nap time!)
These numbers aren’t exact – sometimes certain periods would run longer, cutting into others.
If you do the math, this leaves about 6.5 hours for sleep every night. You can understand …
The answer I usually gave whenever someone asked why I was moving to a monastery for a few months was “I want to stop lying to myself.”
They usually didn’t quite know what to do with that.
It really is as straightforward as that, though. We all lie to ourselves all the time – this is, I assume, not a particularly controversial thing to say. We create all sorts of stories about all sorts of things – about who we are, about what is and isn’t making us happy, about …
Ok. So, we just completed a 1-week silent retreat. Well, we didn’t “just” complete it – it ended 4 days ago, but I haven’t known how to write about it. So I just haven’t.
I have my little notebook where I jotted down notes throughout the week – I intentionally tried not to “journal”, but to just write quick snippets of my experiences, for reasons I’ll get into later – but I didn’t even bring myself to look at it until today. Not because the content is particularly deep or dark or even too interesting really, but because every thought I had about the retreat would branch off into 5 more thoughts, and I would …
Soryu is the head teacher at the Monastic Academy. He is an American-born economist who has spent several decades of his life doing intensive contemplative practice across Asia, and founded the Monastic Academy in 2013 as a training ground to bring together traditional contemplative wisdom with effective worldly action.
Soryu is the reason I keep coming back here.
I’m not really one for idols or mentors. I want them, but it’s rare that I find someone whom I actively look up to, or whose advice I actively and repeatedly desire. Somehow Soryu has become that person.
I don’t agree with everything he says, nor do I wish to follow in his footsteps and renounce the pleasures of everyday life and become a monk. But there is an intensity and care and intentionality to everything he does, on a level I have never seen before. He was the only person able to provide satisfying answers to my skepticisms about meditation. He is able to cut through to the core of conversations, able to give direct and harsh feedback while beaming with kindness, able to push people hard, relentlessly, unyieldingly, while holding them up with love and compassion. I have never met someone so dedicated to human growth.
Soryu has been on a solo cabin retreat for the past few weeks. This means that he is doing his own intensive practice, away from the rest of the residents and guests. I saw him once, as he cross-country-ski’d across the grounds back to his cabin during an exercise period, but aside from that I have had no exposure to him during this stay so far.
Yesterday morning I got to participate in the ceremony to bring him out of retreat.
I wrote the following shortly after the ceremony, and as such it is mostly written in present tense.
At 8:30am, when we have finished with the morning schedule, we meet in front of the main building and prepare to walk to the cabin. It is bitingly cold, but …
The most common question I got when I told people I was temporarily moving to a monastery was probably “wtf do you do there?”
Do you spend the whole day meditating? Nah. Do you have to stay silent? Nope. Is everyone super serious? Well, people take what they do seriously (which is a good thing!), and there are many rules to follow, but it’s actually a pretty goofy and friendly place. It’s almost certainly not what you’re imagining it to be.
Before I get into the daily schedule, let’s paint a picture of the property itself.
A short tour
This is what the grounds look like in autumn:
Of course, right now it looks a bit more like this: