5 Days Silent-Peeling the Egg

On retreat they served some sort of hot cereal each morning and then hard-boiled eggs. I took one every day in order to be sure to get adequate protein during the all-vegetarian 5 days. Often I wasn’t really hungry after finishing the porridge, but we had a long breakfast period, nowhere to go, no one to talk to, reading and writing discouraged so I would just wait a while and then slowly and carefully start to peel the egg. I was in no hurry and it’s a good thing. Eggs take a long time to peel. The shell sticks to the inside, it only peels away in tiny pieces and it takes a lot of patience to wind up with a nice clean egg. Now imagine doing that with one arm.

A fellow yogi did just that, or rather he most often didn’t do that because a neighbor looked up and noticed him and took the task on or maybe he tapped them and asked for help—I’m not sure.

One night after the final sit I went to the dining hall for a snack. The one-armed guy was there spreading sun butter on toast. I figured I would offer help but I looked over at the perfect spreading job and backed away. I got my snack and went and sat down in a far corner.

Apparently the left over morning eggs are available in the fridge at night, because when I passed by later the one-armed guy had two eggs in front of him. And at his elbow was a guy named Asher to whom I had taken an instant dislike. He’s more Buddhist than Buddha in that way that only converts seem to be—shiksas who marry Jews, Jews who become Buddhists, born-again Christians—you know the type. Asher has taken mindful walking to new heights. He moves like a Tai Chi master and he’s, like, maybe all of 25 years-old. He prostrates himself 3 times in the meditation hall and even though others do too, his is bigger, showier, more annoying. Mind you we are on SILENT retreat so I have spoken not one word to this young man but have still stored him right smack on the annoying as hell shelf in my brain.

But when I look over, he has crouched next to one-arm guy and gently touched the eggs with a questioning look, received a nod and starts carefully peeling—one tiny shell piece at a time. He is kindness and patience personified. I am a horrible, mean-spirited, judgmental person and will be doomed to many eternities of suffering.

I have judged and mis-judged this young man. I’d tell him I’m sorry but he never even knew and besides we can’t talk. So instead I decide to forgive myself and set an intention to do better. Thanks, Asher. Buddhist master indeed. Well done.

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5 Days Silent- Washing Dishes

I sign up for dish washing as my chore.

It is straight forward, satisfying, involves water.

At training the cook says lunch dishes (my shift) are the longest and hardest job.

I puff with pride (yes, competitive even on retreat) to think I have chosen so well and will maybe receive the paper plate award for hardest/best chore doer.

There will not, of course, be any paper plate awards.

The reward is the feeling of service, of contribution to this place, to this time together, to our oneness in the experience of work, such a welcome respite of doing in the midst of intense being.

I hold each plate, each cup and take care to scrub it well, imagining my own gratitude when taking a shiny plate off the stack at mealtime. The silverware I fish for in the sink, scrub each piece with care, remembering Head Cold Guy, Scary Cough girl and the importance of vigilance.

My work mate, Georgie, rinses and sanitizes in the bleach bath, arranges on the drying rack.

We take turns fetching new loads from the dining hall bins and then finally all the serving pans come, unwieldy but foreshadowing the end.

Never has work felt so honest, so simple, so good.

A small offering in the rich stew of receiving.

Metta—even in the kitchen.

5 Days Silent-Alex

He is young

With a shaved bald head

And, I suspect, a slight accent

He is in my group and shares that he has come here to find his own voice

For in listening to the louder voices of others

He finds himself in a life where he is “deeply unhappy”

He is seated next to me

And those words make me want to hug him.

I resist.

On break-silence day I tell him with a laugh that I have coveted the granola bars in his cubby.

He hands me one but I am gloved for dishwashing and cannot accept

He asks (in his slight accent) which cubby is mine and he puts it in there

Generosity and kindness

His own voice will be enough.

The Dialogue

Yogi Me:     Go sit.

Me:               I don’t want to.

YM:               Go sit.

Me:                Maybe later

YM:                Go sit.

Me:                 It’s not the same here. It’s cold. There’s no hall. I miss my friends. And that                              awesome little bench thing.

YM:                 I know but go sit anyway.

Me:                  Where would I do it?

YM:                 Anywhere

Me:                  I still don’t want to

Nike Me:        JUST DO IT

Me:                  OK! Geesh!!

 

 

 

5 Days Silent-Kimberly

She is the Teacher’s Pet and so I hate her.  Yes, this is aversion—the first obstacle to mindfulness. I don’t care.  I so want to be the teacher’s pet but I lack the Buddhist chops. The last I knew Buddha was a fat, bald, jolly guy. Now he is thin and in some headdress thing. It seems wrong to waste precious teacher Q & A time on “What happened to fat Buddha?” though I really want to.

Kimberly wears Temple Grandin and Math Whiz-Kid Competition T-shirts.  She is a statistician, like the teacher. She pops up like a jack-in-the-box at the teacher’s every need—Adjust lights? Ring bell? Lead sit?—Kimberly is your girl.

She chokes up asking a question about how to send metta (loving-kindness) to ROAD KILL. I have to bite my cheek hard to stifle the giggle but then am ashamed when the teacher tells a beautiful story of a dying fawn in Burma.

At final sharing Kimberly tells of picking thimble berries on the trail and wanting to bring them to Kate like a kid taking an apple to the teacher. Her knowing she is a suck-up makes me like her more and at lunch my feelings grow when I joke that I have never seen 44 people eat fewer brownies in all my life and she admits to having three.

We all want to please our teacher. We can’t help it. Her smile is more precious than gold. We want to bathe in it and then crawl inside and BE her—all that gentle wisdom, kindness beaming like sunlight, but also wry humor that makes her one of us, just a person on the path—-way, way, down the path, but still.

I divide the yogis into two categories—-people I would want to have a beer with (ok, in this crowd probably a chai tea) and not so much. I still don’t think I’d be drinking beer with Kimberly but I can now let her have Teacher’s Pet honors and send a little metta her way too. She’ll need it. There’s a lot of roadkill to get past!

5 Days Silent-Chapter One

I just attended a 5-day silent retreat in the wilds of SW Washington state. There was a lot to process. There will be a series of posts about various aspects of the experience.

Notes from the Cushion

My kids are right. I have a flat butt. Although big booties are in fashion, I am not bothered. I have enough curves in other places. But today, today I covet the bubble butts of several of the young yogis in the hall. Because I cannot get comfortable. I am Goldilocks. The big cushion is too high. The little cushion is too low. The chair thing I use at Teri’s is somehow here a disaster—three prongs I fail to get in the right place. We sit for 45 minutes a pop, EIGHT times a day. Finding a modicum of comfort is essential. In desperation I try the little stool thing I see several men using. It sits about 6 inches off the floor, has a padded sloping seat and most people put their feet and legs under it, like being in Hero pose in yoga with no weight at all on your legs. This thing is THE BOMB! I could sit here all day. Tom could’ve built a gajillion of these and upholstered them and had a cottage industry. Then I notice my left bicep has gone numb. Wait! What does that mean? Is it left side pain that is the harbinger of heart attack? Am I really going to be the first person in the history of the universe to die of a heart attack in a MEDITATION hall?!? I rub and wiggle a little. It is still a strange sensation but not really pain, either shooting or dull, and the lower body comfort is so great that I decide the tradeoff is worth it. This becomes my seat and I am happy.

But there are other body issues. Like bathrooms. The lack there of. I have a thimble-sized bladder and like to know where my closest bathroom is at all times.  There are 44 yogis here plus maybe 10 staff. As near as I can tell there are FOUR single seat toilets, not counting the one in my dorm which you can forget about because it is shared by 10 people. I am panicked about this. For the first two days I use every toilet I walk by whether I need to or not. My hands are raw from the washing, drying and hand sanitizing. Some of this is because of Head Cold Guy and Scary Cough Girl. Since we don’t speak we don’t know each other’s names and there are no stick on “Hello My Name is…..” nametags. Damn Buddhists. So I just nickname everyone in my head. Head Cold Guy starts hacking and wheezing right out of the gate. He sits near me in the hall and one day I am appalled to find him coming out of the bathroom on my dorm floor. I am sharing a bathroom with Head Cold Guy?!?! Me, the germaphobe of all time?!!? (I swear it is the only thing Donald Trump and I have in common.) My washing and sanitizing goes into even higher gear. By Day Three I have found my favorite centrally located bathroom which is, shockingly, very often vacant when I need it. By Day Four I only go when I have to.

But since we are on bodily functions we might as well move to farting. Considering there were 44 people sitting cheek by jowl on cushions and stools for hours on end and eating a vegetarian diet that one day included Brussel sprouts, broccoli and split pea soup, it is a miracle there isn’t a gas cloud the size of Manhattan in the hall. But there is some farting. Actually just one audible one. I’m not sure who, but it was near me. Ok it was me. I couldn’t help it. These being kind-hearted yogis, no one laughed and Jeff from Oklahoma who sat right behind me never said a twangy word. He couldn’t. We were silent. Whew!

My salvation in terms of body comfort was Mist Haven—the yoga studio at the very tippy top of the property. It was a fortuitous location as even directionally-challenged I couldn’t miss it. Just keep heading up the mountain and it will be there. I went twice a day for 5 days and swear I never got there the same way twice. There was a carpeted room and then a deck. Every day was great in its own way, but one afternoon before dinner I practiced on the deck with Yoga Girl (one of the Bubble Butts) and Great Haircut Woman who I later learned were Erin and Karen. We three moved independently on our mats, looking out at the trees, up at the sky, listening to the birds. It was magical. The energy was beautiful and it was one of the happiest yoga practices of my life.

Once I got my body settled down it freed my mind to join the party. Because our teacher, Kate, had advised no reading or writing during retreat, I was composing imaginary blog posts in my mind during most sits and some walks. Oh right, did I mention the schedule? Sit, walk, eat, sit, walk, sit, walk, eat, sit, walk, sit, walk, eat, sit, walk, Dharma talk, sit, walk, sit, chant, sleep. When I first saw this schedule I nearly cried. WHAT?!?!?! Where was the free time? Where were the fun nightly group activities—mahjong on the deck, camp songs and s’mores by the fire, wine tasting? My heart lifted when I saw “shops” listed by one of the buildings on the map. I was excited to go buy some Buddhists chotkes—a book, a crystal, a fat Buddha on clearance—but it turns out they meant shops as in Tom’s kind of shop as in a place where woodworking and other useful tasks take place. Damn.

But back to my mind. At home I usually make grocery lists during meditation, but here once the blog posts were framed there wasn’t a good topic, so I tried the actual assignment—be mindful. Just notice what’s happening. Especially sounds—bird, cough, breeze—over and over in a repeating loop. This hyper focus may one day lead to attunement where you feel one with all that is happening and the separation between you and the world disappears. I got better at it but still said a silent ‘Thank you, Jesus” every single time the bowl was tapped, signifying the end of the sit. Except once. Monday, June 20, 2 p.m. sit. During that sit my mind went to “I have a deep pool of peace and stillness within. I can access it always. Surrender.” That day the bowl tap caught me off guard and not quite ready. I waited for the deep understanding to go away, for the sense of grounding that Kate called my floor to disappear like the mist on the mountain but it never did. The sits still seemed long but the floor never gave way. I now wanted to sit. I wanted to be in the place where that deep assurance circled me. Then I worried that wanting was one of the 5 hindrances to mindfulness—smacking of attachment and greed— “I like this! Give me more more more of it” mind set, but Kate said there is a difference between the longing for something profound and true like mindfulness and the garden variety desire we all feel so often.

Day Three and Four were great and when Kate said she would make time for some individual interviews I hot-footed it over to sign up, thinking I might have to take out a couple of yogis to get on the list, but strangely there weren’t that many who wanted private interviews. In group she had looked hard at me and asked if we had met. I said no but had the deep sense of knowing her, of her familiarity. She describes the Buddhist concept of metta (loving-kindness) as akin to the movement of heart experienced upon seeing a dear friend and I felt it for her from the get go. At the one-on-one I told her and said I was incapable of even seeing her without crying—but happy tears. I said I had decided we were related in another life and later signed a poem I wrote her “your baby sister”. Here it is:

Teacher

She shines her loving gaze on each of us and our hearts cannot help but soften, blossoming into wisdom.

Her lessons in kindness are wrapped in a smile so radiant we step into its warmth, inclining toward understanding.

Her wise words fall on us like soft rain, sinking in deeper each night as we take rest.

We laugh, we cry, we sit, we walk.

We seek no remedy and yet are transformed.

What a gift!

We are blessed beyond measure

To call her

Teacher.

 

That’s all I can say. Just go there. Cloud Mountain Retreat Center, Castle Rock, WA. Oh, and the food was phenomenal, farting aside. And Matt, the cook, was a cutie patoutie. Not that I was lusting or anything. All recipes at cloudmountaincookbook.wordpress.com.