Just A Retreat Day (written 2009)
Providence can be a busy place. It's a lovely multi-use facility where I often come to retreats. But today was a day for testing concentration and practice through distracting sounds. In the morning sudden bursts of loud hip-hop dance music...seems someone was testing the P.A. System. This went on at intervals for perhaps 15 minutes and when Bhante (who last night had expressed gratitude for electricity here, not having it in his kuti) observed that this is what comes of ready electricity, there were waves of laughter.
A further personal test for me was a tiny woman wearing enormous trousers, who arrived late and has placed her seat next to mine. She is exceedingly restless, moving and pushing papers, blanket and towels and cushions about, slapping down the notebook she scratches into from time to time.
In the afternoon, children crying (thwarted desires) outside the window and a cheerful group of arrivals practicing readings and hymns in the room next to our meditation space. Tonight I recall the words of a Zen teacher shared in a book I read some time ago: “Don't bother the traffic”. Keeping the mind here, and letting the sound be there. There are never “perfect conditions”.
In a couple of breaks over the day I read about jhanas. Test my cynicism like placing a thumb against a blade. But I'm inclined to accept there are states of consciousness available that I've no inkling of. Whether I need to achieve these is a different thing. Back to the breath. Finding tranquil spaces. I am reminded again of being with what is, of the need for the right causes and conditions to come into play and that the hard work of virtue and mindfulness do not require seclusion but patience and practice and determination. This is the foundation I continue to build.
The day has gone quickly, as has the retreat which ends tomorrow.
There are times when I am dismayed by flights of anxiety arising from horrendous fantasies that my mind is able to weave in a flash. I try not to follow my instinct to turn away but instead to look closely at the physical manifestations and not the story...my pounding heart and great surges of adrenalin, tearing eyes and closing throat. These are nothing new and have plagued me always, but especially as a mother. Most often the stories are in regards to sorrow or pain for my children that I am, of course, powerless to avert. What practice has changed is allowing me to look at the emotions and not the story. Not to ask why I do this, but how am I feeling when these arise. To recognize the unskillfulness of such thoughts. Replacing them with focus on body and breath. As I keep watching and breathing, this passes, as everything does, and in awhile I am calm again.
I think so often of my mom and imagine that what I could see from outside of her lifelong anxiety was the merest tip of the iceberg. How did she manage? And how we made sport of her fears. Sorry mom. I know that prayer and belief in a God who listened and protected us all must have been some solace to her, but when the protection failed, when we suffered, when dad was dying, what did she do? “My rock”, I remember dad calling her, watching her from the sunroom window. He was fragile and wispy as a feather then, his voice and body pared to nothing. She was walking back from getting the mail at the gate. Determined, unsmiling, not knowing she was observed. Inside, the rock was crumbling and at his funeral she fell apart.
Will my practice assist me in finding a better way to live with life's losses? Knowing the fact and inescapability of change and loss and decay. Watching it every moment. Living just this. Such that wisdom opens the door to equanimity. What little experience I've had so far gives me confidence to continue on this path.