August 12, 2012

Running with the Mind of Meditation on Solitary Retreat. ~ Fay Octavia Elliott

“All joy in this world comes from wanting
others to be happy, and all suffering in
this world comes from wanting only
oneself to be happy.”

~ Shantideva

The companion book I brought along on my first solitary retreat was Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche’s new book, Running with the Mind of Meditation.

I realized that the week-long Vajrayana Buddhist intensives that I attend seem to be the equivalent of his 26-mile marathons. I could only imagine that the 10-day deep retreat I was preparing for would be my version of his 32-mile ultra-marathon.

Throughout the book, Rinpoche describes how we can prepare for these events and how we can relax and enjoy the experience although it may take all the endurance we can muster.

Rinphoche writes, “Running and meditation are very personal activities. Therefore they are lonely. This loneliness is one of their best qualities because it strengthens our incentive to motivate ourselves.”

It all begins with our motivation.

What is my motivation to practice and why am I all alone at this retreat? I asked myself this question the first day of the retreat knowing that the answer will keep me going when it got more difficult towards the end.

The Sakyong says he remains enthusiastic through 10-day or month-long, 18-hour sessions of liturgical chanting and meditating because he knows the experience will benefit others. His enthusiasm becomes my inspiration, as I know these practices are a benefit not just to me but to all sentient beings, especially my family, friends and students.

The Sakyong describes how we use the four dignities—tiger, lion, garuda and dragon—to train as warriors on the Shambhala Buddhist path.

While the dignities may be practiced progressively when we begin our Shambhala training, they are also all-inclusive and overlapping. This retreat was a window into the dignities practices as they apply to my own Vajrayana path. I hope you will enjoy sharing the experience with me.


“During the tiger phase, we work on developing the strength and focus of our mind. With mindfulness and gentleness, the mind develops the ability to know what it is doing.”

~ Running with the Mind of Meditation

The Sakyong explains the importance of building a base level of fitness and capability for running. I can see how repetitive visualization and mantra practice is a way of building our base as Vajrayana practitioners. Completing each set of practices over time strengthens our mindfulness, discipline, commitment, motivation and love for the Shambhala lineage.

The Sakyong devotes a whole chapter to gentleness : “…it is gentleness that allows us to finish a marathon, not putting pressure on ourselves….Gentleness is ‘just doing it’ in such a way that we can do it again and again.”

As I grow weary on Day Two of my retreat, reading The Sakyong reminds me to be gentle with myself. I still have a long way to go.

The Sakyong likens the capacity for gentleness to developing limitless love and compassion. When he mentions Nelson Mandela, I think of something I recently read about Mandela in the book Buddha’s Brain: Mandela was so loving toward his prison guards that they could not continue to mistreat him.

The authorities kept changing the guards and Mandela kept treating the new ones with loving-kindness. Not surprisingly, one of his former guards sat in the front row at his inauguration as the first black president of South Africa.

After I complete my chants and raise energy, I offer the energy, light and love to an ever-widening circle beginning with my own lineage and extending out to all sentient beings throughout the three times and the 10 directions.


“Happiness is a direct result of not struggling with ourselves so much …when we are no longer struggling with ourselves, we are more content, more at peace and thus happy. We may not necessarily be more enlightened.”

~ Running with the Mind of Meditation

The Sakyong describes the day he put on his running shoes with the delight of the snow lion.

In intensive practice, at some point we get a wind of delight or begin to feel that things are finally going well. I have this feeling as I build a base in meditation practice, one moment things beian to ease and I develope a rhythm in my practice with the daily commitment to “just doing it.”

By Day Three of this retreat I notice that my mind is settling down and there is less struggle and more ease.

On the third morning, the call that I have been waiting for finally comes: my dear friend Mark died in hospice the night before.

His bedside companion says there was a hint of a smile on his face as he died. Sitting at the retreat, I smile whenever I think about him.

I try to imagine what he was seeing as he left our world. Mark’s three year journey with cancer has been an amazing opportunity for his family, friends, and Windhorse team to love and support him and one another. I feel so blessed to have been part of this experience.

Although I am over two hundred miles from the Shambhala Mountain Center in Red Feather Lakes, Colorado, it is uppermost on my mind.

There is a raging wildfire threatening the center. The Sakyong asks us to practice for the beings affected by the fire. For me, the fire is personal—in less than two weeks I am supposed to take residence at SMC as their first chaplain.

I don’t even know if there will be an SMC for me to go to.

I worry about my friends, the Great Stupa of Dharmakaya (at the center) and the center’s future.

The fire interrupts my visualization. So I send light and love and energy to the residents, retreat-goers and all other sentient beings affected by the fire. I visualize an ocean of enlightened beings blanketing the fire and putting it out.

Running with the Mind of Meditation contains a chapter on pain.

The Sakyong advises that, “…in meditation we experience physical pain as well as pain from thoughts and emotions, but we cannot let this suffering completely rule our minds. If we do, the pain sabotages any benefit we might gain from our practice, and the whole session becomes a meditation on suffering.”

These words are very relevant to my practice as I experience daily chronic pain even when I am not practicing.

During meditation, I sit in a chair and use various props to accommodate my body. On Day Three there is a new wrinkle, a painful muscle spasm over the right side of my rib cage.

The spasm is the result of an old surgery and is usually dormant. It woke up this morning during yoga, and now the spasm keeps coming back during my sitting practice. I play with my posture and finally complete my visualizations pacing back and forth among the rooms.

I have learned that by staying focused on the practice, my mind is less distracted by the mental suffering.

I once heard Pema Chodron say that the middle is always the most difficult part of a retreat, regardless of its length. When I cross that point, I feel very happy. The next morning, my sitting practice seems more stable and despite the new wrinkles, I maintain my stability and complete the day.

I decide to fast, spending the next day reading and writing to remove even more distractions from my practice sessions. That evening, I read the chapters on garuda and looked forward to an outrageous Day Four.


“The meditation technique of the garuda (mythical bird) is moving forward with a healthy balance of mindfulness and awareness, with the result that we surpass previous limitations.”

~ Running with the Mind of Meditation

When I planned Day Four, I didn’t know the very plan was outrageous (qualities of the garuda) just because I would be going beyond my usual limitations.

I love that notion so much that I even decide to walk down a very long, steep hill which I had avoided all week. At an altitude of 8,200 feet this was an outrageous idea since my lungs have very limited capacity. It is outrageous but not dangerous, which the Sakyong warns against as foolhardiness.

With the aid of trekking polls and a strategically placed boulder to sit on halfway back uphill, I complete the climb and am rewarded with an unbelievably awesome view of the Battle Mesa near Grand Junction, Colorado, on the cliff at the base of the hill.

The Sakyong says a variation of the Shantideva opening quote is one of his favorites.

He points out that “In the garuda phase, we expand our mind to include others. Happiness is the experience of love and kindness between family and friends. The thought of love is the most powerful of feelings.”

The previous day I hadn’t checked my phone messages. This morning, I discover that Nancy, my adopted mother, is in the hospital.

I live in community with Nancy, a friend and two awesome and amazing cats. Nancy was a student in one of my meditation classes when my mother died. She offered to become my surrogate mother and “Bengali teaboy” and has been close to me ever since—we’ve been living together for over six years.

She was nearing her 81stbirthday and was very concerned about being a burden on me. I decided that day to cut my retreat short.

My plan was to go home the next day to support her and to be with Mark’s family, who had come to town to make arrangements for his memorial service, which I conducted.


“The power of the dragon is intention….I believe that with pure intention, you can bring almost any activity on your spiritual path. My intention in running is to benefit others. Thus running is a continuation of my spiritual journey.”

~ Running with the Mind of Meditation

In 2007, I left the corporate world to seek a way to make my life more meaningful and to find a way to give back.

I found what I was looking for in the program leading to chaplaincy at Naropa University. Every step I have taken since then has been leading in this direction.

To be ordained as a Shambhala Buddhist minister required taking all the Shambhala courses through Vajrayana seminary. At the beginning, it all seemed very daunting. Like a runner, I just kept putting one foot in front of the other and arrived.

Obviously, I didn’t stop there. The deeper our lineage has committed to enlightened society, basic goodness and the path of kindness, the more at home I have felt. Sticking to the path fuels my motivation and intention to make my life be one of service and benefit to as many beings as possible.


“The point is that we are optimistic and engaged. In that way, not only is our activity of benefit to others, it is also personally satisfying and leads to contentment and happiness.”

~ Running with the Mind of Meditation

Throughout the book, the Sakyong talks about happiness.

He emphasizes that happiness comes from our relationships to family and friends. I would add that happiness comes also from our relationship to our spiritual teachers.

During my retreat it was a joy to share the companionship of the Sakyong. He shared so much of himself with me in this book, and I learned many things I didn’t know about him and his life.

I felt the strength of his guidance and support all along the way. It feels like our relationship is stronger now than ever.

After only five days alone on retreat, I began to understand how a year he spent in solitary retreat so deepened the Sakyong’s commitment to Shambhala and the world. I felt the deepening strength of my commitment to my bodhisattva vow, to our lineage and the greater community.

I left the retreat looking forward to going home to support my family, friends, the SMC staff and participants and the larger community in whatever ways I was capable.

“…we too can take a solitary and lonely activity and turn it into a dynamic period of developing an intention to help the world.”

~ Running with the Mind of Meditation

May it be so for all you meditators and runners in the world.


Fay Octavia Elliott is an ordained minister of Shambhala Buddhist religion, meditation instructor and chaplain.




Editor: Lara C.

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