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:
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
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.