CENTER COMMUNITY NEWS
Newsletter of the Center for Sacred Sciences
Vol. 33, No. 3 • Summer 2020
Zooming Through the Pandemic
Three months ago, CSS closed its doors at 5440 Saratoga Street to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Since then, our Sunday meetings, practitioners meetings, and workshops have transitioned to Zoom video conferencing format, maintaining connection and flow of teachings in our community. The 2020 Spring retreat, which was originally scheduled as a residential retreat at Collins Retreat Center in Eagle Creek, Oregon, was canceled, but then was revived as a successful Zoom retreat. While Zoom meetings are no substitute for a warm hug, it has opened up our meetings to friends across the continent and around the world. The Zoom format also allows participation by locals who need to stay home to supervise children or find it burdensome to travel across town. It also prevents the burning of fossil fuels used to drive to our meetings. So, we have been grateful for these benefits, even while we look forward to meeting in person once again.
"Open Mind Surgery" by Nancy Miller
If you could open her mind, what would you find?
Thoughts darting here and there, uncontrolled, related, unrelated
Flashes of red or blue or green with rose thrown in
You would find emptiness where all the thoughts were at play
You would find great trees, rocks, rivers and mountains, birds and flowers of all manner
You would find earth
You would find body
You would find sadness, hope, fear, anger, joy, peace
You would find in her mind love and gratitude that had seeped up from her heart.
Adding quality, but not shape.
But if you held her mind,
it would slip through your fingers, lighter than air.
Spring Retreat: “Awakening from Delusion”
It is by descending into the depths of his own self that man wanders through all the dimensions of the world; in his own self he lifts the barriers which separate one sphere from the other; in his own self, finally, he transcends the limits of natural existence and at the end of his way, without, as it were, a single step beyond himself, he discovers that God is “all in all” and there is “nothing but Him.”
—Gershom Scholem (Jewish)
The Spring 2020 retreat was the first CSS retreat to be held via video conference. The retreat, which took place from June 4-8, was led by Todd, assisted by Mora. Below are reports of the retreat from both Todd and Mora, as well as reports from several participants.
Thirty-three attended this gem of a retreat. As the retreat coordinator, I had my doubts about whether the Zoom platform could really enable the inner silence, sense of community and meditation structure we know and love from previous CSS retreats – but if the final-day sharings are at all indicative, the verdict was a resounding YES. As Robin commented, it was a revelation we could go this deep with Zoom. I will attempt here to give an overview of the retreat, knowing that some of the other participants will be submitting more thorough accounts of their experiences.
We all stayed within our Zoom frames during sessions except for short periods of walking meditation. And we even had yoga; Sally Snyder offered Zoom sessions on 3 of the mornings, which were gratefully received.
We did learn some things about hosting a retreat on Zoom. First, it takes a village. People have various levels of computer savvy, Zoom experience, and internet connectivity. We had issues with feedback from audio systems, computer crashes, and a muting/unmuting learning curve, and those who knew how to rectify these problems shared their knowledge. Fortunately these were not time-consuming. Our onsite retreat manager, Rick Ahrens, was unable to log into Zoom from the get-go, so joined us by phone – which, he said later, he does not recommend. Sounds like the video aspect is important! And Mark Hurwit managed to get a great screen shot of the whole group, with the help of Photoshop. Since we were all in individual environments, there were lighting and other adjustments to be made.
Maura Scanlon, Mark Hurwit, Sheila Craven, Kimberly Carson, Sharry Lachman, Marijke and Jay McCandless, Christine Lakshmi Ratchinsky, Nancy Miller, Sally Snyder, Shirley Chase, Donald, Jude Kieda, Amos Burr, Mora Fields, Barbara Dewey, Robin Bundy, Raymond Blalock, Clivonne Corbett, Debra Meadow, Deanna Cordes, Rich and Brigitte, Steven Pologe, Mike Craven, Laura Betty, Cindy Zarzycki, Todd Corbett, Kirsten Gregg, Hillery, Margaret Prentice, Pamela Smith
Many people felt they had really “gotten” new aspects of the teachings from Todd’s clear presentation. Probably the most frequent comment at the end was how much people appreciated the undistracted non-meditation practice on Sunday. As Hillery commented, “the veils are becoming more transparent”. Several people this time really grokked the difference between intellectual understanding and experiential insight. The teachings on self-will, that there is no “decider”, hit home for some. Mora’s presentation on looking into self-image was helpful to various people. Kimberly expressed astonishment at really seeing how attention to phenomena actually brings them into being; similarly Sally was struck by “everything arises as the knowing of it.” Lakshmi was glad to hear that we cannot stop seeking, so that she can stop struggling with the directive not to seek. Many got a deeper understanding of how thoroughly we are conditioned.
A great benefit here was that out-of-towners and those with health issues were easily able to attend. Amos Burr gets the long-distance award for joining us from Perth, Australia and spending late night/early morning hours in session with us. People reported that the feeling of sangha was not impaired by Zoom, and was in some ways enhanced, as it was possible to see people clearly, especially with the “speaker view” setting enabled. Maura noted that after months of Covid-19 isolation, this connection was most welcome. Another benefit of Zoom reported by many is that, having spent the retreat in their own home, that area then felt consecrated, sacred. Clivonne felt that experiencing the retreat at home would make it easier to incorporate the practices into everyday life. I used the CSS library for my retreat (as my home internet connectivity is poor) and the library has taken on a whole new dimension for me. The love and care that Jennifer has bestowed upon it could not be missed, and inspired great gratitude in me. Thank you so much, Jennifer!
The Zoom retreat was quite enjoyable and quite profound for many of the practitioners in attendance. Aside from occasional technical issues, everything went along quite smoothly and we all became much more familiar with the platform. Of course, it would have been quite nice to be with everyone in 'a physical location,' but most retreatants discovered a special intimacy in bringing sangha into their homes, and felt it imbued their homes with a sense of the sacred as well.
We held a modified form of our opening and closing ceremonies at the beginning and end of the retreat, and were able to easily follow our standard residential retreat schedule. Regarding the opening ceremony, we began consecrating the sacred space by recognizing that each of us shares not only virtual space, but this same indivisible physical space as well; indivisible, despite our ideas of boundaries and places. Then, we had everyone demarcate the area in which they/we would be practicing, and following CSS tradition, circumambulated the space as best we could, with everyone unmuted; producing as much racket as possible (making allowances, of course, for the sleeping baby that might be in the next room). In the closing ceremony, instead of de-consecrating the space in everyone's homes, we opened the boundary to allow the sacredness of the space to extend equally throughout all apparent physical space.
It’s just amazing how full this four days was! Shorter retreats tend by definition to be a bit more limited, but Todd, the master and on a roll, succeeded in exhausting our minds and bringing us right to the edge of this very moment, and then right on through to the heart of it. For such a journey to combine so much information and stillness at the same time… well, all I can say is that it seemed very much a teaching, in and of itself.
Even though so much has been said before (here at the Center), Todd managed to make it sharp and fresh enough to be captivating. I personally prefer meetings in a room with the sangha actually together, but all these teachings —with unity as their message— were so powerful and to the point that the Zoom format didn’t seem to matter. Many people reported liking gathering this way, mostly in terms of convenience, but I’m convinced it’s because Todd created such a deep and stable container for us all.
I took a full ten pages of notes, and it would be hard to know where to start with details. I came into the retreat still reeling from a line by Zen master Shohaku Okumura in a piece we’re reading for Todd’s practitioners class: “The function of our brain is to secrete thoughts.” I found this really important as a way of depersonalizing and accepting the seemingly unavoidable, ever-presence of thoughts. Well, as it turns out, this was just a warm-up, because a major component of this retreat was hearing, again and again in different ways, that we are not trying to get anywhere or attain anything (like a silent mind). Through our meditations and inquiry, removing time as a construct in how we experience the world, we were left with the strong presence of just this moment, this Now, always new. Not getting here from some time or place before, and not on our way to another something-better.
Despite the resistance of the self (mechanical as it is, and really nothing more than a secretion), the power of the teachings had the effect, seemingly for many of us, of reducing our tendency to think about things… and the stillness that followed enabled a movement from simple concentration practice all the way through to Spacious Awareness in what, for me, was a remarkably short time.
Todd’s continual reminders that the self is just naturally, innocently, trying to protect itself (from our realization that it doesn’t really exist) enabled a growing compassion and forgiveness in us, and a greater peace which infused and grew in our meditations. The whole thing just… settled in.
For me, it was a much deeper and more profound retreat than I expected, and my expectations now for what is possible, in even just a few days, has been recalibrated. I am super grateful to Todd, the individuals who helped put (and keep) the retreat together, and to the sangha itself. It is truly a precious thing.
I appreciated the up-close and personal effect of seeing each person’s face. It was amazing how much community feeling there was, and how people from far away were able to participate. I would do it that way again without question. Todd was his eloquent self, leading us into discovering and experiencing Truth and Awareness. Mora Fields gave a brilliant presentation on self image. I couldn’t attend Sally Snyder’s Yoga class, but comments made showed much appreciation.
Shift. Control. I am Now.
I was on the virtual “at-home” retreat this weekend with The Center for Sacred Sciences. I have been going on silent retreats with CSS for the last eleven years. This year due to Covid-19 the in-person spring retreat was cancelled and replaced with a Zoom retreat.
So, there I was in a room in my house meditating in front of my computer. We were investigating the nature of delusion and the persistent “sense of self” that seems to be perpetually dictating the show: "my life.”
As part of the teaching, Todd showed us a picture from gestalt therapy. The picture can either be seen as an old lady or a young woman. It’s startling when one or the other suddenly jumps out at you. What happens is a “gestalt” shift—a change in the experience itself rather than the mental processes about that experience.
“This is what the path of self-discovery is like,” he said. “We do the practices and one day something totally different jumps out at us that had been there all along. We just hadn’t seen it. We overlooked it.”
I was doing concentration meditation, focusing on the breath. As I was meditating, I was keeping my eyes open, but moving them occasionally to experience the subtle difference in laxity vs. excitement.
Meanwhile thoughts were simmering in the background always wanting to inform my mind either of what had already happened or might soon be happening.
Coming from a long-standing mantra practice, I had discovered on the last retreat a tendency to subtly “control” the breath when I did breath meditation. As soon as I brought my attention to the breath, which happens automatically through the brainstem, I unconsciously triggered the voluntary breathing control center, located in the cerebral cortex. In other words, instead of purely watching, my mind was engaged and thinking. I was subtly efforting, approaching breath meditation as something “to do.”
As I paid close attention, I realized that my attention was continually slightly being pulled into the future. I was grasping—just a little. So, inspired by the retreat’s title, “Following Love’s Camels,” again and again I started over, slowing down, and practiced following rather than leading the breath.
I began to employ my own technique.
I remembered a time when my beloved husband had been quite sick. I rested with him and as a way of being as present and close to him as possible. I watched his breath and matched my own to his. I had to stay completely present, just watching, in order to match his breath, having no knowledge or expectation as to when his next breath was coming. In order to match his, I couldn’t be even a little ahead.
On the “Following Love’s Camel’s” retreat it dawned on me to do this with myself. I imagined that I was my own lover and that I was following my lover’s breath. This had an immediate and noticeable effect. Grasping dissolved. If I was truly just watching the breath of my Beloved as it breathed itself, control was not even possible. The voluntary breathing mechanism located in the cerebrum was not triggered. Breathing just happened. I followed. The result was astounding, as I and the Beloved breathed as one.
On this retreat, I received an added insight from an unusual source.
As I was practicing my new breath meditation technique and raising and lowering my eyes, two of the computer keyboard keys (a highly unlikely sight during a normal meditation retreat) suddenly came into focus:
The focus on just those two words acted like a gestalt switch.
For at the same time came the understanding that the sense of control is the sense of self. The sense of self is tied to thinking that control is needed, using the mind to perpetually anticipate and store knowledge about life.
Breath happens on its own.
I can directly experience this, but only right Now—and only if I am following it without any knowing or expectation.
And then, the unbidden clear insight:
The Beloved is Now.
I am the Beloved
The Beloved is Now
I am Now.
If a sign was posted outside the entry to The Path warning that meditation could be self-destructive, it would likely deter some people from starting their journey. Whereas, suggesting that this path can lead to the end of suffering is much more enticing.
We become aware that suffering ends by attaining Self-Awareness, Self-Realization, Enlightenment, or Awakening to the True Nature of Self. Yet we are also told that there is nothing to attain, that we are already Enlightened —we just don't know it. The true nature of Self is that this self to which we have been referring doesn't really exist. It is nothing— zero, zip , zilch, nada —we have identified with this imaginary self-constructed ego-self. We made it all up. To further complicate things, the teachings say that the ego-self is the source of our suffering—the target to which the painful arrows stick. And, our ego-self must dissolve itself—or technically, we must allow it to dissolve. This is difficult in that we naturally resist self-destruction. Words. I'm confused!
This is the problem with words. All teachings consist of words. In the early stages they inform and inspire us to stay on the path. Yet it is not the words themselves, but direct experiences gained from practices that can bring us to the end of the path. Words cannot describe the wetness of water. At some point, too much attention to the words by the thinking mind gets in the way.
All of this brings me to share my retreat experience. Thirty-three of us attended a four-day retreat remotely via Zoom from the comfortable Covid-resistant safety of our homes. Todd Corbett led this retreat and I really appreciated his teachings. Although he basically told us the same thing that Joel has been saying, it was interesting to hear different words from another perspective.
When Todd talked about grasping and pushing away, he pointed out that in finally getting what we want, the happiness we experience doesn't come from the acquired object itself, but from the satisfaction in attaining our goal. I guess this makes Mick Jagger some kind of musical mystic when he sings, “I can’t get no satisfaction,” if he is really pointing to a prime cause of suffering.
It was through these words that I was able to shift my point of view. When I am satisfied and content with what I have and with the state of my circumstances, maybe I can notice that the Little Ego Self (lesser self, or LES as I now call him) is gone for that Selfless moment. I remember something a friend told me years ago, “If you wish to be happy, want what you have and don't want what you don't have.”
Sengstan, the third patriarch of Zen Buddhism states at the end of the Hsing Hsing Ming:
The Way is beyond language,
for in it there is no yesterday,
"Gong Fades to Nothing" by Sheila Craven
Gong fades to nothing
Outbreath fades to nothing
Thought fades to nothing
There is nothing but space
A moment of pure awareness
And I gasp.
The grounds around the CSS building at Saratoga have flourished under the dedicated care of a selfless garden yogi.
The care of the Earth is our most ancient and most worthy, and after all our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it and to foster its renewal is our only hope … if we apply our minds directly and competently to the needs of the earth, then we will have begun to make fundamental and necessary changes in our minds. We will begin to understand and to mistrust and to change our wasteful economy, which markets not just the produce of earth, but also the earth’s ability to produce.
"Waiting" by Donna L. Atkinson
So quiet, so simple, slowed-down existence, a virus bringing a nation down to its knees
the world is confined by its invisible borders
I feel something deep
Here I am
sitting on a bench
facing the cedar trees
listening to the black crow caw
the sun beating down on my face
warm at 58 degrees
the clouds hanging above
I can hear the freeway noise
not many cars.
I am calmly serenely waiting.
keeping social distance
always have been socially distant over the years.
Now there is a name, a reason, an excuse
yet there are warm smiles, head nods, a few words said
everyone retreating into their own silence, quiet, aloneness
waiting, no expectations but a wondering how it will all end.
Is this the End?
At ease in the cocoon of my individual solitude
something I yearned for many years
a slow-down of people’s busy-ness, distractions, over-activity.
It felt like too much to be part of a cityscape.
Here I am
feeling the warm sun on my face
witnessing the quiet, the peace, the sweetness before the storm.
Quietly observing other people, slowed down, kinder than usual, more attuned
I buy heritage seeds for the garden
thinking of the future need for viable seeds.
Is there a future?
I am quietly waiting, peaceful in my own company, my own thoughts, my own beautiful life
so grateful for the river a few steps away, the road lined with trees
the orchards almost in bloom, the colors of spring
and the sun warming my body as I take steps into a vast unknown state of future
understanding that only now is certain.
don’t know what I am waiting for but am sitting within the beauty, peace and serenity of my own presence
Mission and Programs of the Center for Sacred Sciences
The Center for Sacred Sciences is dedicated to the study, practice, and dissemination of the spiritual teachings of the mystics, saints, and sages of the major religious traditions. The Center endeavors to present these teachings in forms appropriate to our contemporary scientific culture. The Center also works to create and disseminate a sacred worldview which expresses the compatibility between universal mystical truths and the evidence of modern science.
Among the Center’s ongoing events are Sunday public services with meditations and talks given by the Center’s spiritual teachers; monthly Sunday video presentations; and — for committed spiritual seekers — weekly practitioners groups and periodic meditation retreats. The Center is accessible. We are a welcoming and inclusive community.
The Center maintains an extensive lending library of books, audios, videos, and periodicals covering spiritual, psychological, philosophical, and scientific subjects. In addition, the Center provides a website containing information and resources related to the teachings of the world’s mystics, the universality of mystical truth, and the relationship between science and mysticism. The Center also publishes this newsletter.
The Center for Sacred Sciences is a non-profit, tax-exempt church based in Eugene, Oregon, USA. We rely chiefly on volunteer staff to support our programs, and on donations to meet our operating expenses. Our spiritual teachers give their teachings freely as a labor of love, and receive no financial compensation from the Center.
About the Center Community News
The Center Community News is published on the CSS website several times a year. Its primary purpose is to help foster a community of spiritual practitioners by sharing original teachings, experiences, reflections, artistic expressions, and reports among members of our community.
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