Dear elephantjournal.com readers,
Columnists Peggy Markel, Mary Taylor, Carolyn Gimian, Abbey Smith and now Frank Berliner are back in our new, paperless manifestation. This one, Frank’s first since we left behind our print magazine for the www, is a special treat: a preview of his forthcoming, first, long-awaited book:
“Dear Waylon… I’d promised to write about the practice of retreat. In fact, I’m doing a two-part exploration of it: this one is about group retreat (dathun), the next one will be about solitary retreat.
Two points here: first, it is the most personal, self-disclosing thing I’ve written for elephant to date. Second, it’s actually based on a chapter from my upcoming book: ‘Falling in Love with a Buddha: A Spiritual Autobiography.'”
Image: Chronicle Project.
The Highly Personal Matter of Meditation
by Frank Berliner
In this article, we look at meditation practice from an experiential, even somewhat raw, perspective. Though I wrote at the end of my last article that I would discuss solitary retreat, I see that it might first be helpful to discuss the personal experience of practice in a general way. I will use my own “case history” as a foundation.
If your Dharma teacher is genuine, he or she will constantly give you the message that their only function, ultimately, is to tell you again and again that you must do this yourself. You must walk the path on your own. No one else can do it for you. Your teacher can provide an example of how to do it—a powerful and at times uncompromising example. But you cannot do it by imitating him or her, either.
You can’t simply read or study your way to enlightenment. As the old saying goes, if I had a dollar for every time my teacher said words to this effect to me and others, I would be a wealthy man:
“It is only through your commitment to the discipline of meditation practice that we have a true connection. Or any connection, for that matter, ladies and gentlemen. Without that, our connection is doubtful. So please, keep sitting! Maintain your practice!”
Between my first meeting with my teacher in the Summer of 1974, and my next one six months later—mindful of just such advice as I’ve quoted above—I sat. To call it meditation would probably be an overly inflated description of what I actually did during this time. But I did sit. In fact, I did little else.
Before meeting my spiritual teacher, I had practiced a form of meditation for several years while living on the land in northern Vermont. Twenty minutes a day, eyes closed, repeating the mantra the instructor gave me and which I was stictly enjoined not to share with anyone else. I repeated the mantra silently until I would “transcend”. As far as I could tell, I simply fell asleep. But it was also true that I invariably woke up feeling more refreshed, and that the chronic headaches which had afflicted me for years did in fact subside.
Ultimately, however, I came to think of this as a high-powered nap. It was a refreshing escape, but an escape nonetheless. And it didn’t begin to address the deeper, gnawing sense of dissatisfaction and yearning in my life. Surely, I told myself, the path of spiritual practice must be more profound, more real than this. Such ponderings soon led me to my teacher.
From him I received a different instruction: to meditate with my eyes open and place my attention on the breath. For several months I meditated each day according to this instruction, sometimes even for an hour without a break. I felt that I was accomplishing something. But in retrospect, I was merely putting my toe into the deep water of mindfulness-awareness practice. A whole ocean lay in front of me.
Three months after that first instruction, I actually moved to a Buddhist retreat center, and soon found myself immersed in meditative discipline of a most arduous kind. We sat in group retreat for a month, 10 hours each day, with breaks only for meals, tea, and a work period. After two unbroken weeks of this, a day off; then two more weeks of the same schedule.
And we did this twice in three months. To say that it was grueling for me would be an understatement.
The first two weeks of the first month’s sitting marathon, I was plagued by a level of physical discomfort I’d never before experienced. My body—trained to hold, tighten, focus, and push itself through countless athletic competitions from early childhood, rebelled at this seemingly endless exercise in not-doing. I couldn’t sit still for even a few minutes without experiencing sharp pain in my legs. The distraction from this pain quickly reached a level that made it impossible for my mind to stay focused on the breath. I re-adjusted my posture again and again, extending my left leg every few minutes to relieve the intense ache.
Added to this was the psychological discomfort of seeing that many others were able to sit still for long periods without moving much at all. I expected the women to be able to do this, but the men! Since my main motivation in life up to this point had been competitive, I felt that I was losing the race to enlightenment. The irony of this being a race that you win by not moving at all was not entirely lost on me, but I was a bit too invested in the image of myself as a winner to appreciate the humor. What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I do this? Everything seemed to become a mean little joke at my expense.
When I was not actually on the cushion, I schemed endlessly to make my next session on the cushion more bearable. First, I brought extra cushions in and placed them under my knees, so that my crossed legs were slightly raised and my hamstrings less stressed. But having achieved a little relief by this strategy, I now found that my crossed legs pressed uncomfortably against each other at the ankles. To relieve this discomfort, I first wore extra socks, then brought smaller support cushions to place between my offending ankles.
Soon I and my meditation spot began to resemble a kind of Rube Goldberg contraption, a human Leaning Tower of Pisa. Each new expedient I tried just led to pain somewhere else. I was like the old-time cartoon character who, pushing the huge bump on his head down in order to flatten it, only ended up creating an equally gross bump on another part of his body.
Was it my imagination, or was the otherwise motionless yogin sitting across from me silently laughing at me? Whether he actually was, or not, the humiliation of my predicament was ongoing. My pride mocked me even more than my uncooperative flesh and bone.
After the day off, my physical obstacles began to become more manageable. My body seemed to relax, and I required fewer props at my cushion from then on. But the relief from this seemingly merciful shift in my spiritual fortunes was brief. It was as if the physical pain proved to be merely a screen—a curtain which, once pulled back, now revealed a vast, agonizing terrain of mental speed, distraction, discursiveness and uncontrollable fantasy.
It was as if my mindfulness of the breath now bobbed up and down like a tiny lifeboat in an endless sea of emotional turmoil. It seemed to disappear for hours at a time, then pop up surprisingly long after I’d forgotten it altogether, or perhaps simply given in to the certainty that it had sunk to the bottom for good. I spent much of each day wandering in memories of the past, whether painful or pleasurable. Eventually all became a kind of grey, desolate sameness, like the sullen November sky outside the window of the meditation hall. Painful or pleasurable, all those memories and fantasies gradually became less charged, more hollow.
My subconscious gossip rolled on relentlessly to snatches of favorite music of the moment, their melodies and lyrics replaying themselves with compulsive intensity:
Don’t your feet get cold in the wintertime,
The sky won’t snow and the sun won’t shine,
It’s hard to tell the nighttime from the day.
You’re losin’ all your highs and lows,
Ain’t it funny how the feelin’ goes…..awa-a-ay.
In the final week of that first month of sitting, tormented by boredom and lonelieness, my scrounging memory—like a hobo in a dumpster—spent an entire day on the cushion deliberately regurgitating every rock n’roll song I’ve ever heard.
The second month of intensive sitting was slightly less arduous. Part of it seemed simply to be the change of season. Winter had fully arrived, and there were many cold, brilliant sunny days with deep, sparkling snow and pure blue skies. The transparent light outside often filled the meditation room, and the whole atmosphere seemed more cheerful and more uplifted. Food seemed to taste better. During the midday break, walks in the icy winter air were invigorating, and made the afternoon session of sitting more wakeful and more bearable for me. My body had become a little more cooperative, my mind a little less speedy.
It was still extremely boring, but I was inspired for the first time to contemplate one of my teacher’s instructions about the different kinds of boredom. There was the hot kind, and then there was what he called the “cool“ kind.
The hot kind of boredom was certainly well-known to me, by now. It was like an itch that perpetually needed scratching. That itch wouldn’t leave me alone for a moment. It was a relentless feeling of always wanting to be somewhere else than where I was. It had always run my life off the cushion, but before I allowed myself to really sit down and stay with that feeling instead of simply moving on to the next activity in order to avoid feeling it, I had never really noticed just how completely driven by it that whole life had always been.
It was as if when I sat and meditated, I was like an automobile endlessly idling in the garage. The motor was running but the vehicle wasn’t moving. I began to appreciate so vividly how much of my mental energy was being wasted each day by worry, by stale and repetitive hopes and fears, by rehashing the past and over-planning the future. Yet the engine kept humming, and most of the time it was as if I couldn’t find the key to turn off the ignition.
A cool kind of boredom first dawned in me when I began to wear out the energy of hot boredom. One day I realized that I was myself creating this constant hamster-wheel of desire and dissatisfaction, of expectation and disappointment churning endlessly on in my head, and that absolutely no one else in this world was doing this to me. Perhaps I may gradually have begun to unhook myself from my addiction to all this mental momentum. Or perhaps, and more likely, a sudden sense of openness occurred when my last fantasy had just collapsed and another had not yet popped up out of nowhere to take its place.
For a moment, I actually stopped struggling. For a moment I really saw the beauty of the light in the room. For a moment, too, I really noticed that others were sitting with me—with all their own struggles, pains and challenges. And that they had been sitting with me all along!
The cool boredom began to infiltrate my meditation when I found myself content—even for a moment—simply to be where I was, right there, sitting in that room with all the others who were also practicing, feeling my breathing right now, and letting my thoughts and fantasies come and go, live and die, without chasing them endlessly and fruitlessly wherever they wanted to take me.
Who would ever have thought that boredom could be a minor spiritual accomplishment? I marveled at my teacher’s insight, not to mention his sense of humor.
Next time, I will explore the topic of solitary meditation retreat, based on my own (raw and rugged) experience.
Frank Berliner became a student of the Vidyadhara during the first summer of the Naropa Institute in 1974. He lived at Karmê Chöling from 1974-78, then served Trungpa Rinpoche over the next fourteen years as National Director of Shambhala Training and Ambassador to the Berkeley Dharmadhatu. Frank now lives with his wife Nan in Boulder, Colorado, where he teaches the psychology of Buddhist meditation at Naropa University, and maintains a private practice as a psychotherapist and organizational consultant.