Who is on Retreat? (written 2014)
The second morning in a retreat centre I haven't visited before. I wake twice before the morning alarm even though it is set very early. It has not been deep and satisfying sleep. I feel the beginnings of “grumpy” mind this morning when I find there are a number of people busy at the coffee station where I go to make my early tea. Yesterday I was alone, and yes, I prefer that. It was about 15 minutes earlier though, so.... There will be thoughts to watch, as planning mind formulates a schedule to meet personal preferences. It is a constant effort catching the gap between external events and the leaps the mind makes.
This morning the young woman who shows me the kettle switch I”ve been fumbling for, raises her eyes, unsmiling, to be sure I understand and my mind leaps from her neutral face to a mental formation: “She feels superior and annoyed”. This mental voice that divides everything into self and other is familiar, and recognizing its persistence is humbling. Is it any wonder that confusion rules our world? Such cruelties, injustices and war-making the selfing leads us to. How can this be wise in an evolutionary sense? Someone once told me I expect too much from evolution. It is interested only in the survival of the species, that a few make it to child rearing age. But can this impersonal force reach across species? If we were a wiser species, we would not eliminate other species from the earth on a whim. Ah...convoluted thinking. And a product of my fuzzy morning head. I should take my tea outside for a stroll. Dissolve the voices in fresh air and awareness of breath. Perhaps that is the best plan.
This wet and chilly June continues. This morning, though, a dry spell of sufficient length for walks...before breakfast and afterward. The tall, crowded-together homes on the other side of the ravine are far enough away to imagine how pure and beautiful the view must have been before their construction. It is still lovely.
First sitting this morning is clear and still. The open quality stays with me until breakfast, when there is need for a spell of quite ordinary mindfulness as the “self” pushes itself forward, hungry and demanding. I arrive with the stragglers, having gone to my room for meds first. French toast on the menu but none left in the warming bin and sounds of whipping eggs from the kitchen. It will be awhile. Pour tea and sit. Directly in my view at a neighboring table is a large young man with four slices of French toast on his plate. I see aversion arise and hear its unpleasant voice nattering in my mind. Annoyance. The story begins. Smile, breathe. Shift from targeting this stranger to noticing my own selfing and desire. Now the harsh voice of self criticism arises. Another face of aversion. Sigh!
Later I find some whitebread French toast in the new lot and sit down to eat, but as I do so, the retreat coordinator brings a plate from the buffet to show me. Wrapped in foil, it is labelled “white bread French toast”. OK. It was there all along if I'd looked further. I didn't see it. And now I feel obligated to eat this too, made particularly for me and I spin into a story about her annoyance with me since she made these special arangements. Watching the mind. Suddenly a burble of silent, relieved mental laughter and I feel calm and settled, leaning back in my seat, mere audience to this inner struggle. I recall instructions. Nothing to do with me. I don't will these voices into being. I can work to quiet them, to replace them. I can let them recede, not give them power.
Now and then over the morning I find my mind drawn to composing a thank you and apology e-mail to send to the retreat coordinator when I get home. Ah...this fragile self and all its needs. Now it is off begging for love and understanding. Poor thing. Quit your fussing and come here.
The teacher offers a metaphor to consider in meditation: Concentration is that which holds the apple still. Mindfulness is the knife that cuts through it, creating the thinnest of slices. So for me today, I foster concentration in the sitting, practicing the skill of presence, and this is useful as I move beyond the cushion. Broadening awareness as I move through the day, mindfulness looks closely, cuts through to truth.