I had the good fortune to spend 18 days at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in the past few weeks. My partner and I attended two back-to-back nine-day retreats. The first nine days focused on the cultivation of kindness and compassion, and the second nine days focused on mindfulness practice. I feel immense gratitude for the teachings, the practice and the wisdom of the teachers.
When I tell people who haven't engaged in this type of practice that I’m off to attend a silent meditation retreat, most reactions fall into two categories: “I couldn’t be quiet for that long” or “That sounds really relaxing.” My responses: The silence is actually the easy part, and you appreciate it more as the days go by. Relaxing? Well … ultimately, it can be. But not in your day-at-the-beach sense.
It’s actually very hard work, and it’s very humbling. Unless you’ve tried it, it’s hard to fathom the challenges of being with your own wandering mind all your waking hours with no diversions. You see and become intimate with everything you’ve clung to in your life: your addictions, neuroses, habitual thought and belief patterns. And then there are the endless earworms, more often than not annoying songs—“Chicken Fat,” anyone?—and commercial jingles. As one of the teachers, Joseph Goldstein, said, “The mind has no pride.” You’re way ahead of the game if you can take the onslaught with a dose of humor at least some of the time.
The only diversions are your own memories, reveries and fantasies, most of which tend to fuel the fire rather than quell it. Deliverance comes in the form of kind acceptance and the gradually unfolding and often fleeting recognition that none of it—none of it—is permanent or personal.
Like most things of value, this does not happen instantly. It unfolds over years, with strong intention and dedicated practice. After 26 years of practice and many retreats, four of which lasted 30 days, I can say that the change in my way of being—my ability to accept things as they are and act from a place of clarity and kindness—has changed markedly. It’s certainly not “perfect,” whatever that is. There is still plenty to work on, but I like to think I’m less inclined to spend my energies creating new unhealthy mental habits than I did in the past. And discovering existing unhealthy mental habits certainly doesn’t upset me or cause the crippling self-judgment it used to.
One example: One of my family’s favorite communication styles was cynical speech. On some days, and with certain people, I’m damn good at formulating instantaneous smartass responses. Despite the fact that snark comes easily to me, since the advent of blogs and social media, I rein it in when I’m engaging in controversial discussions. Snark seems only to provoke ugliness. I never comment anonymously. I feel it’s important only to write in ways I feel comfortable claiming.
I’ve been consciously practicing this form of skillful speech for many years now—albeit not always successfully. Yet I was surprised and amused that whenever my mind felt a need to comment on my meditation practice in these past weeks, it came in the form of a silent, snarky comment. That habit is just really in there. The stuff we’ve practiced for decades has deep roots and lots of momentum. It takes a long time and a lot of vigilance to change the habits we’ve cultivated. This particular conditioning, one of many I’ve discovered over years of practice, was mostly entertaining to watch. Other habits of mind have not been so easy to accept.
The Highest Virtue
One of the retreat teachers, Kamala Masters, gave a beautiful talk one evening on patience. The Buddha said, “Patience is the highest virtue.” At a moment in my practice when impatience and expectation had been obscuring my ability to be present, her words had profound resonance. Her words caused me to reflect on the gradual unfolding of my practice over the years, and the fact that equanimity lives much closer to the surface of my being than it has in the past. It used to be a major event to experience equanimity. Now it is accessible much of the time.
As I sat on retreat wishing for whiz-bang insights and the infinite spaciousness I’ve experienced in the past, the quiet, spacious calm of equanimity was right there, available in that moment. The only thing keeping me from seeing it was my desire for something else I thought would be more exciting. It is patience, the ability to be with what is—even if what is present is impatience—that allows me to appreciate today’s practice and to open to equanimity.
Kamala said, “When the fruit is ripe, it will fall from the tree.” We can’t force our awakening, any more than we can force our bodies to practice fancy yoga poses or force other people to be anything other than who they are in this moment. But we can find satisfaction in patience, in being present for the gifts that are available to us now whether they are pleasant or unpleasant. Slowly but surely, with intention, practice, patience, acceptance and a healthy dose of humor, we can cultivate the habit of happiness.