May 26, 2018
Don’t Try This At Home… Go Somewhere!
(And 10 Take-Aways you can have for free, without going anywhere)
For the CSS Sunday talk on May 20, I did a presentation about my year away, and even with Joel graciously allowing me to go past my allotted hour, I didn’t quite get to everything I wanted to. So this massively abbreviated summary will only begin to answer the question I’ve been asked about 50 times since getting back: How was it for you? (Or perhaps under that: What did you learn from the experience?) So I’ll just say up front that these pithy take-aways cannot and do not express my full experience, but… it’s what I can do with the allotted space.
Looking back, I can now see that more than half of my intentions for this “retreat” were unconscious. (Takeaway #1) My thinking was that perhaps, with “nothing but time,” I could finally complete virtually everything I’d ever started but not finished, or encountered and not delved deeply enough into, in my whole life! I brought a ton of stuff with me… books, many boxes of papers, CDs and DVDs, and a computer packed densely with all kinds of information. All of it good; and pretty much all of it, I dare say now, unnecessary. I now understand the karma of dilettantism — all the worse for a perfectionist. (Takeaway #2)
I flew down to Florida to say goodbye to my family for the year, then up to Hartford where I picked up a car and headed for my new homestead… my parents’ summer home in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts (not far from the Tanglewood Music Center). The house — which no one in my family had never occupied during the winter — was to remain my sole residence for the year… well, that was my plan. (But God had other plans. Takeaway #3)
I really enjoyed taking over the place, setting it up for myself with a dedicated meditation space in the living room, looking out over the forested hill behind the house, an office customized for creating music, and a kitchen where I could work my magic… and did. It was great, and I didn’t feel lonely at all. I loved the spaciousness and cold winter stillness, and really grokked for the first time why people would choose to live out in the country and cold.
Once the required “doings” of setting up the house was mostly complete — which took over a month — I really believed I would just enter a real “retreat” atmosphere (albeit with the added intention of mastering the necessary software, and then focusing on composing music). I was meditating three times a day, not going out much, nor consuming alcohol, caffeine, wheat, sugar, television, movies, newspapers — basically, I was pretty outside of “worldly life” and really liked the simplicity. And though I had an internet connection (and some other distractions borne of a lot of deferred maintenance I ended up doing on the house), I seemed to be settling in fairly deeply. Little did I know my unconscious impulses would soon make their presence known.
I’d created a really packed schedule for myself (mostly, but not exclusively, relating to basic activities, like sitting, cooking, writing music, working out, dream journaling, etc.), but after 4+ months of trying to skillfully get it all in (with a 10-month completion plan for… my whole life), I just started falling apart. I got really forgetful, and just couldn’t keep stuff together. I’m not prone to depression, but my emotional space was also becoming erratic. Over time it became clear that there was simply no way I was going to complete the list I’d created for myself. And because of the natural way things unfolded (or unravelled), what was underneath the whole enterprise began to reveal itself. — It’s not that I figured anything out… it all just became obvious how impossible the kinds of efforts I was making were… and how unnecessary.
The question of “why” just arose and — though it took a long time (many months), even for a “fast” guy like me — the reality of my own particular brand of dukka became undeniable. I used to relate to “unsatisfactoriness” as mostly about external circumstances (like mosquitos in a tent, or an ogre for a boss); but once I had my scene completely together and just-the-way-I-liked-it, it became clear that there is a second, more pernicious kind of dukka… Internal Dissatisfaction. Of course, we’re all familiar with this, too, but I learned that this one is really the biggy. (Takeaway #4)
After an insight I received at the CSS Fall 2015 retreat, I thought what was at the bottom of mine was a deep sense of Not Good Enough. And that certainly is there some… but I came to realize that what I really felt even more was Not Prepared Enough — I’d been attacked when quite young, and it left what I feel now quite distinctly as an energetic trace of that fear event. And even though I don’t usually experience the fear directly anymore, I realized that it’s been driving more of my behavior than I was aware of… like trying to learn and retain an incredible amount of information on a lot of things, and getting good at (or, gads, trying to perfect) them! All of it good stuff, and most of it, at bottom, a misdirected effort at quelling that deep tension, over-amped-ness, and ongoing tightened quality of self-protection. (Takeaway #5)
I’ve also learned that spending too much time in front of the computer, or hurrying unnecessarily for any reason, or not doing some kind of energetic physical movement with some frequency, is a great recipe for feeding this constrictive energetic pattern, while simultaneously starving that deeper, settled connection to All-That-Is. (Takeaway #6)
And so, in an effort to have my experience be helpful to others, I will stress here that while I have this particular flavor or texture of dukka, I suspect that all these predilections (and many more, like eating sugar, expressing emotions unskillfully, over-indulging in drugs, alcohol and escapist entertainments, etc.) are things we all need to be really serious about and watchful of. Physicality in general — and specific, time-tested methods for getting into our bodies in a sensitive, healthy and energizing way (especially practices like Aikido, Qigong, Taiji, Yoga, or even Systema) — are great ways to experience and internalize “reality” in a deeper way. And in my experience, meditation does not proceed as well without some kind of deep anchoring to the body!
As you might imagine, the year offered a great many wonderful experiences, serious challenges, and opportunities for insight. I loved the sheer beauty of the world around me; I loved discovering that I could (eventually) get some of the music in my mind out — though the creative process is quite a painstaking and lesson-filled one; and I loved, at least for a time, living alone… everything about it. (Linked here, for anyone interested, is my last completed piece, "New Year Resolution" — not the one played during my talk. Listen if you can on good speakers or through headphones.) But there was also God’s 2017 Plan and the dramas that ensued, including plagues of termites and hurricanes He smote my family in Florida with (resulting in my parents having to move out of their house of almost 60 years, their eventual arrival up in Lenox for over 2 months, and multiple trips I ended up taking down there). So when people say “godawful,” what they mean is: “He don’t mess around!” (Takeaway #7)
Mostly, though, what I feel I got from my solitary time away has to do with Remembering — I read a novel, over several consecutive nights, and saw, even in just that short time, how the desire for input, that being catapulted into a new place, a new state of mind, is itself of a form of escaping that can easily become addictive. I’ve been amazed since my return at just how fast things move (back here in “civilization”), and how easy it is to get thrown off track or to become so busy we justify not doing our meditations or the other practices that we know are what we need, to get where we’re going (i.e., where we Are). (Takeaway #8)
I was once told that it’s not hard to remember; it’s hard to remember to remember. What my experiences last year showed me is that one of the reasons it’s hard to remember is that… we don’t really want to; or part of us doesn’t. That deep ego structure — built around an ever-nagging awareness as to its existentially-insubstantial selfness — doesn’t want to remember, because we have a real intuition about what that would mean. And all our preferences are just that gripped body-mind saying no. This was better said by Hafiz, who wrote:
God is trying to sell you something,
But you don’t want to buy.
That is what your suffering is:
Your fantastic haggling,
Your manic screaming over the price!
So that’s where I noticed the struggle… right there — not really in the efforts to remember (because that’s not something I can really do), but in the resistance to remembering (which that inner haggler clearly IS able to do)! So I’ve come to the conclusion that remembering — who and what we are, what we’re doing, and the path we’re on — is more something we allow to happen. Or perhaps it would be better to say that we surrender into remembering. And that comes from seeing… just seeing. (Takeaway #9)
So my final insight (Takeaway #10) is a kind of cumulative one, born of spending so much time trying to quell that deep discomfort and feeling of unreadiness, via external efforts to fill/complete my life, and create some permanent (hah!) sense of closure — all of it’s designed to solve “this problem of being,” of separateness from source. But learning more or being better or more prepared or having more of anything… none of these things can work! All there is to do is to see it; and, as it’s said, until it’s seen all the way through, it’s still there… a hair’s width the same as a mile.
On the one hand, time passed so quickly there. (I’ve been back less than three months and the memory of my retreat already seems like years ago.) But this painful in-between sense of succeeding and failing at the same time — succeeding at seeing, but not at realizing — can apparently go on for a long time, and also I learned that sangha can be very helpful in enduring this prolonged feeling of incompleteness… this experience of the difficulty in remembering.
So, for only those who’ve made it this far, I’ll share one final insight… that there is always more to do! It just keeps coming, and waiting around to connect with ourselves until life is done placing its demands on us is a luxury that simply does not exist. I now believe that time exists, in fact, as a facet or quality of experience for us to learn from… by seeing through it in the same way we do all other phenomena. Tensions in the body and mind as a result of thoughts about the future or past… what gifts! But only if we treat them as the precious opportunities for spiritual practice that they are.