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 even more fascinating. I’ve been a meditator for about 5 years, but a lot of that has been highly undisciplined – sometimes meditating daily for 30 minutes, other times only meditating a few times a month. I am a total child in this journey, which is a remarkably exciting place to be – it means that even a single day of a meditation retreat can be an incredible opportunity for personal growth.
(This is probably true for more-experienced practitioners too, but I’ve never been one of those, so I don’t know.)
During lunch on the day before retreat, we talk about our personal practices and what our intentions are for this retreat.
I’ve been told, from several directions over the past few months, that it might be good for me to put some focus onto self-directed loving-kindness techniques. (Loving-kindness is a particular type of meditation, also called Metta meditation, which is focused on cultivating positive emotions towards others and towards yourself). I have, for the most part, ignored this advice. I figure – I’m a loving person. I’m a compassionate person. I care. I don’t need to practice it. Besides, loving-kindness meditation is so boring.
But when people suggest that I try doing loving-kindness towards myself, I don’t have a lot of good reasons for why I shouldn’t. It’s weird and embarrassing and kinda hokey, sure, but none of those are good reasons to not try it. And I do tend to be pretty harsh towards myself. So I decided, for this retreat, I’m gonna give it a shot. The worst that can happen is that it sucks or is boring – and anyway, I can always switch my technique. But, let’s give it an honest shot.
Okay. Here we go. Day one of having nothing to do but focus on my mind and my body and my experience. Here. We. Go.
The usual form for loving-kindness meditation is to pick your object of focus (in this case myself) and mentally think things like “May I be well. May I be healthy. May I be at peace. May I be free from suffering.”
Oh my fucking god is that boring, though.
I’ve been told to try various phrases, because it can take experimentation before you find ones that actually evoke some sort of emotion in you.
May I be happy. May I be at ease. May I be joyful – wait, is that the same as happy? May I be… respected? Can I say that? May I be loved – no, that just makes me feel sad. May I be – fuck, I hate the phrase May I Be.
Okay, I wish. I wish myself joy. I wish myself… prosperity? Do I? Why did I think that? Okay. I wish myself friendship. I wish myself love – no, still sad. I wish myself strength.
No, wait, fuck wishing. I am strong.
Whoa, there we go. There’s some emotion there.
I am strong. I am capable. I am healthy – er, ok, not feeling much with that one. I am caring. I am… funny? What?
I repeat various phrases, and one period goes by (26 minutes), and then another, and slowly I narrow down the phrases that evoke emotion in me. By the end of the first few periods I am repeating the following over and over:
I am driven. I am strong. I am determined. I can do the impossible. I am unstoppable.
It feels… well, honestly, it feels great. I’m literally spending hours telling myself how great I am. But it also feels embarrassing, like it’s some bizarre self-help thing where I’m trying to convince myself of things that aren’t true. But, man, they do feel true. The more I say them, the more I believe them. I am unstoppable, and if anyone thinks otherwise it doesn’t even matter because I’ll prove them wrong.
Whoa. Positive self-talk is powerful.
Amidst the awesome rah-rah powerful feelings, I’m really craving a cookie. I have a box in my room and a box in the fridge, and man do I want to use the 4-minute break between sessions to get one. Plus I’m fucking tired. A nap would be great right now.
I am driven. I am strong. I am determined.
I can do this 2-week retreat.
During the morning walking period, I put on my winter clothes and go outside. The last retreat had lots of deep snow, and walking outside was a fun challenge, but today everything is icy and slippery, and jagged shards of ice hit against my shins as I try to walk in the snow.
I try to keep my positive self-talk going. I am driven. I am strong. I am determined. I can do the impossible. I am unstoppable. I am driven. I am strong. I am determined…
My sock is twisted in my boot, and it’s hitting my ankle in an uncomfortable way. And it’s fucking cold out. I should probably just go inside and do the rest of the walking period in the main hall.
I laugh out loud. I am unstoppable. I can do the impossible. Unless it’s chilly out and my ankle hurts a little.
I stay outside for another five minutes and then go in.
Every morning of the retreat includes one Guided Meditation period followed by a Q&A led by the head teacher, and every evening includes a Dharma Talk. I might talk about these a bit, but I’m not going to place a huge focus on them in here, mostly because it would take blog posts upon blog posts to do any sort of justice to even a single day’s topic.
In this morning’s session, Soryu talks, among other things, about positive self-talk (what a coincidence!) and about working with the criticizing voice in our heads. He says something that sticks with me: that the critical voice, the one always saying that we aren’t good enough, that we did something wrong, that we need to be pushing harder – this voice can be damaging, but we can also find an element of compassion in it. This voice genuinely believes that we can be better. It expresses it negatively, but the base belief, that we are capable of being more than we currently are, can be a positive one. We can tap into that.
He also talks about self-referential feedback loops, about the stories we tell and re-tell ourselves, and how going into that feedback process consciously and creating our own positive stories which feed into themselves can be one of the most powerful experiences and greatest joys.
In the meditation world, people often talk about “the self” as something that we are trying to let go of – that we can’t be too attached to our ideas of our self if we want to reach “enlightenment” (I’m not gonna go into what enlightenment means here, but let’s assume for the moment that it’s a desirable state which is achievable by the average person). What Soryu is saying seems to go against the idea of letting-go-of-self, and I file it away as something to ask him about in my next interview.
[I’m gonna go into my interpretation of “non-self” for a few paragraphs here, because I think it’s highly relevant to the larger story of the retreat – if you’re not interested, scroll down to the next section.]
In years past, the idea of non-self seemed absolutely ridiculous to me, even quite damaging. In fact, I think it was the first topic I annoyedly asked Soryu about when I first met him in 2015 as a staunch meditation skeptic, and although I don’t remember his response anymore, I remember sitting quietly afterwards, stunned that I was finally able to get a satisfying answer about it. Thus began my love of the Monastic Academy.
Over the years, I have heard many opinions and definitions about the concept of non-self. It’s common to hear in Buddhist circles that the self doesn’t exist, or that there is no such thing as a self, or that all beings are without self – and, weirdly, all three of these have subtly different meanings. I’m still struggling with it myself (heh) but the most reasonable definition that I have pieced together is: There is no single unchanging thing you can point to as your “self” – the self is constructed from many elements, all of them individually changeable, all of them coming together to create your current self-as-it-exists-in-this-instance. Change any of those variables, and the self changes. This isn’t particularly weird or profound, I think – it’s a pretty reasonable position, and one that aligns with my experience of the world.
But this comes with some pretty deep, if subtle, questions, most notably: Who is it that’s doing this experiencing of the world? What is experience? When I’m typing these words, who is doing the typing? And I mean, of course it’s impulses in my brain putting together concepts in language and sending signals to my fingers on how to move in order to put those concepts on the the screen, and it makes sense to talk about it as my brain and my fingers – because of course this brain and these fingers are more connected than this brain and the fingers of the person next to me – but let’s be real, when I say “my fingers” I’m not conceptually talking about “the fingers that exist within the complex system of interacting events through which a feeling of myself arises”. I’m talking about something that belongs to me, because I don’t know how to think about it in any terms other than mine. But who is the me that is possessing these things?
And so, the idea of non-self is about being able to see more and more clearly that this complex system doesn’t have anything specific within it to identify with. Who is the me that these fingers belong to? Is there a satisfying answer to that? Does there have to be?
And the more we see ourselves as interconnected systems without inherent self (and as such, only a constructed self, useful in a particular moment but ever-changing), the more we can let go of unhelpful habits and harmful behaviours, and, ironically, become the selves that we actually want to be.
This is, of course, a really rough and incomplete – and maybe even juvenile – definition of non-self, and I’m a bit hesitant to even include these paragraphs because, like I said, some of these things would take pages upon pages (volumes upon volumes) to expound on.
Okay. Let’s leave that there and go back to the retreat.
After lunch we have a chore period, and then 2 hours of free time during which I nap like a champ. At 4:30pm, I’m back on the cushion.
My favourite technique is called “see-hear-feel” or “note everything”, in which you say the label “see” or “hear” or “feel” to yourself every few seconds, depending on where your attention is placed in that moment. (This can be done both for internal sensations, like mental chatter, or external sensations, like sounds.) I find it extremely difficult to do, so it’s always something I’m “working towards”. After ten lovely minutes of positive self-talk, I decide to switch into see-hear-feel to see how it goes.
And goddamn, it’s never been like this before. My attention is simultaneously relaxed yet completely connected with what’s happening. There’s a shuffling sound. Hear. There’s a flash of an image in my mind, of the person who i think is shuffling and what they might look like right now. See. There’s a tingling in my leg. Feel. There’s another flash of a mind-image of the room I’m in. See. There’s a cough. Hear. There’s the thought “I wonder how much time has passed.” Hear.
Sometimes I’ll get caught up in an imagining without realizing it, and many seconds will go by before I realize that I have stopped labelling (or that my labels have become nonsensical and disconnected from my attention). When this happens, I switch back into positive self-talk for a few minutes as a way to “re-up” my attention, and then continue with the labelling.
This feel so fun. This feels too fun. Isn’t meditation supposed to be a slog?
After a few periods, I decide to switch my technique again. Let’s try some outward-focused metta.
I conjure up an image of someone I care about. Within a few minutes, the may-you-be-wells and may-you-be-free-from-sufferings fade into disinterest, and I’m left with a very simple phrase: I love you. I imagine person after person after person, and I say I Love You to each and every one of them. I imagine people close to me, people distant from me, people I have worked with, people who have hurt me, people whom I have hurt. I love you, I love you, I love you.
One period passes, and I’m feeling so jazzed. How many more people can I think of? How many people can I love? Why the shit did I need so much convincing to try metta?
In the evening, I have my one-on-one interview with Soryu. I can’t believe it’s only been a day and so much has happened.
When I walk into the interview room, Soryu asks what’s been happening and I say, half-guiltily: “I’ve been having a lot of fun.” Then I talk animatedly for several minutes about everything that’s been happening, as Soryu smiles and quietly listens. I want to ask why he’s smiling, because he doesn’t normally do that in my interviews, but I’m too caught up in explaining all my experiences of the day that I never really find a good moment to ask.
Then I ask him the question that’s confusing me: Aren’t I, though all this positive self-talk and through the guidance that he gave us this morning, just more strongly reinforcing my sense of self? How does that fit in with the idea of letting go of self?
His answer is lovely – if rather confusing at times – and I listen to the recording several times in the following weeks:
“In two ways. One is that – do you remember this hand gesture that I was using earlier? So, this,” he holds up one hand, “means consciously constructed, and this,” he holds up the other, “means un-consciously constructed.”
He was using these hand gestures during the Q&A period this morning, and would occasionally wave one hand or the other when discussing the difference between a consciously-constructed self and an unconsciously-constructed self — the kind of self that most of us live in, the kind of self that most of us identify strongly with.
“The more consciously constructed the self is, the more it’s seen as self-less. By seeing that, we go beyond the sense that so many of us have, which you’ll hear me rail against so often, that there is no such thing as a self.”
I love when he rails against Buddhist concepts, or rather, against what he perceives as incorrect interpretations of Buddhist concepts.
“This is a very dangerous perspective. It means that murder is not bad – that’s absolutely what it means. It means there’s nothing wrong with killing life on earth, because there’s no one there anyway. That’s an extremely dangerous thing to say. But many of us find ourselves saying it.”
“It’s not that there is no such thing as a self, and it’s not that there is such a thing as a self. It’s that a self is constructed – that doesn’t mean it’s bad. It can be really there. It’s just constructed – it comes and goes. That’s all. A person is born and dies. It doesn’t mean you should kill them. For someone to be killed and for someone to die are two totally different things. It’s important for us to be absolutely clear about that. By trying to say that there’s no one there, we’re trying to say that there’s no difference – but there is a difference. So, by seeing how the self is constructed, we see the self as self-less. We’re not saying that there’s no such thing as a self, it’s just that the self is seen as… without self. It’s still alive, precious, amazing, wondrous, just like all kinds of constructed things,” here he gestures to the room we are in. “But it’s constructed. Like a sunset. It doesn’t mean a sunset is bad.”
“So, that’s the first way.”
“So, now we see that it’s not a permanent thing, and yet it can be a precious thing. So compassion, ethics, still hold their place. Also, in order to transcend this fixed, tight sense of self that causes some so much suffering, we construct a kind of self that will transcend it.”
Here he pauses, and I quietly stare in confusion and wait for him to continue for several long seconds. These days, I’ve grown relatively comfortable with holding the confusion of phrases like “the self is seen as without self” and “we construct a kind of self that will transcend the self” without just giving up on the conversation altogether, so I just sit and wait to hear what he says next.
“And so that’s what you’re doing. You’re constructing a kind of self that will transcend self. This is completely reasonable, actually. Once again, it’s like — if you’re in this room and you want to get out of it, I could tell you how to get out of it. And the entire path that I describe that goes out of this room will be in this room. The entire path out of the prison of self takes place within the sense of self. Now that doesn’t mean that just being anywhere in this room is equally useful for getting out of it. Some selves are more helpful for transcending self than others. Some selves are less self-ish than others. And so we carefully construct a sense of identity that can go beyond identity.”
“And it works. It’s not even strange that it works – it’s logical, it’s reasonable that it would work. It’s not some mystical statement – there’s such a thing as a mystical statement that can’t be fit into logic. This is completely reasonable. “
“Through doing that work it’s more likely that we will transcend a sense of self, but furthermore, if we construct it very carefully, then that self will be in accord with the realization of non-self. Which means that after that experience, we will have less work to do to in order to bring our lives into accord with compassion. That work has to be done – it can be done before awakening and it can be done after awakening, but it must be done – we can’t use awakening to avoid it.” He pauses here for a moment. “Or, more accurately, we can use awakening to avoid it, if it’s not complete awakening. And so we must not.”
He clasps his hands together emphatically on the last words. Everything that he teaches, everything that his organization does, comes back to the importance of compassion. I like that about him. He doesn’t talk about enlightenment (awakening) for the sake of enlightenment, but as a necessary step for truly being able to be of service to others.
I wonder, sometimes, what it’s like to be him – to believe the things that he believes, to do the things that he does, to spend his life the way he spends his life. It’s too difficult for me to comprehend – he is too other to me.
But there’s so much that I can learn from him, and I’m excited for it. I bow and leave the interview room, feeling my feet against the floor as I walk back to my cushion, excited for what tomorrow will bring.
13 more days of silent exploration.