On the first morning of the 10 day Vipassana (a traditional moment by moment awareness practice) retreat that I attended this month at Spirit Rock in California, Jack Kornfield said, “One of the interesting things about spiritual practice is that each time you set out, you can’t know what you are there to learn.”
He was encouraging us to stay open and to maintain a “beginner’s mind;” approaching our time at the retreat without a set agenda.
This proved to be excellent advice.
Each day in the quiet, clear, air, my mind began to unfold in surprising ways. What was also surprising, was all the ways that it stayed the same. All of my tried and true mental habits seemed to relish new ground on which to transverse their walk of shame. The real difference was that I had the space and time and spectacular teachers to help me see these patterns in action.
A few days into the retreat I had the good fortune to meet with a sensitive young teacher named Matthew Brensilver. I immediately started asking him what I should read and with whom I should study back in New York (to extend and deepen the intense experiences that I was having within my meditation practice).
He encouraged me to hold off on those questions. He suggested I keep my attention on the actual experiences themselves, rather than subtly moving away from them by wanting to know more.
As I was leaving he offered me what he described as a Zen expression—In Kyoto, longing for Kyoto.
These five words became an eye-opening gateway into one of the most prominent habits of mind and, for me, was one of the most important lessons of the retreat.
I began to notice, for example, that I would take a few bites of something delicious at meal time and then immediately wonder if there was more, or if the kind Bodhisattva cooks would be making it again. While taking a beautiful walk during the break periods, I would spend much of my time in the rolling, golden hills reassuring myself that if I wanted “more” I could take the same walk the next day.
Even during the insightful Dharma talks in the evening, just as I felt myself touched by the words, I would often, be in the next breath, find myself no longer listening, but plotting how to study with the teacher again in the future.
Does this sound like something that you do?
It became so clear how “attachment” or “clinging,” in the Buddhist sense of these words, got directly in the way of the experience itself. What a bummer. We can be in Kyoto and yet be longing for it at the same time; and we probably are!
When I returned home, and could finally just Google things rather than live through them (kidding!), I learned that the expression Matthew had offered me actually came from a poem by Matsuo Bashō (1644 -1694):
Even in Kyōto—
hearing the cuckoo’s cry—
I long for Kyōto
Like many poems, the meaning is open for endless debate.
Some have suggested that the poet was actually waiting for a courtesan named Kyoto. I couldn’t say. But I do know that I’ve learned, through direct felt experience, that it’s possible to miss the events of our lives through our own misguided attempts to hang on to them too tightly.
Indeed, for many of us this habit is at least as powerful as the opposing tendency to push away, and avoid, what’s uncomfortable.
Ultimately, both habits are recipes for suffering.
No wonder the Buddha received the name “Awakened One.”
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Assistant Editor: Laura Ashworth/ Editor: Bryonie Wise
Photo: Josh Bartok