A few months ago I applied to attend another 10-day meditation retreat at Dhamma Kunja, the Goenka center in Onalaska, Washington, in October. It was either a moment of weakness, or a moment of strength. Maybe some of both. Weakness, meaning I momentarily lost my resistance to these retreats, and strength meaning I had the guts to take on another one. They are particularly difficult. I was approved for the retreat, but number 21 on the waiting list. It didn't seem possible that I'd work my way to a seat from that point, and I almost took my name off the list. Kind of lost all interest in going, truthfully. The moment of weakness was gone!
Then, a few days ago, a notice that I've moved to number 6 on the list, asking me to let them know if I'm no longer able to attend. Somehow -- another moment of weakness/strength -- I felt as if I might feel like going now, so I haven't taken my name off the list and am, in fact, beginning to look forward to going. I have a strong emotional attachment to Dhamma Kunja. It's my place. This is where I went for my first ever meditation retreat, back in February of 2005, and where I returned a couple of months later for 2 weeks of service in the kitchen. I love it -- have missed it, living back east. There's something magical there, for me. Maybe it's the cool view of Mt. Rainier in the distance, or just the vibes in the beautiful meditation hall. Whatever, it's something I'm drawn to experience again. And, in the years since my last visit, they've built a new dorm for the women that's apparently pretty cool. No more dorm rooms full of cots. These are double rooms with attached baths. Unheard of!
Part of what makes these retreats so tough is the pain associated with sitting for many hours every day. Remember awhile back when I went to a local, 1-day sitting? Whined and moaned about that, the back pain, the mental difficulties. My first retreat was dominated by extreme, excruciating back pain, something that's hard for a beginner, in particular, to cope with. In later years I've spent many hours in various retreats, built up good 'meditation muscles' that keep the back happy during long hours of sitting. But the 1-day proved to me that those muscles are now seriously weak from lack of use.
Time for training! I have time -- about 3 weeks before the retreat begins -- so I've begun the process of getting those 'meditation muscles' back into shape. Yesterday, a mere 30 minutes made the back start to scream. This morning, another 30 minutes, and only twinges toward the end. The plan is to gradually increase both the amount of time at each sitting, and the number of sittings daily, because the fear of all that misery is just too strong. The meditation cushion will be used as a chair, for TV watching, during this time. I may not make the retreat, but getting the muscles back into shape can't hurt anything, and at least I'll be ready.
Will I be emotionally ready? That's tougher. It took me something like 8 years after that first experience back in 2005 to get the guts to try another. I went to many retreats during those 8 years, many of them really tough ones, but these 10-day Goenka retreats are by far the hardest. Thankfully, for the second retreat my muscles were well-conditioned and all I had to deal with was the mental aspect. That's often as hard or harder to cope with than the physical pain, because the back pain is easily alleviated temporarily by getting up and walking for awhile. But nothing gets you away from your own head! Strictly silent, with even looking at another meditator being frowned upon, there is no escape from whatever is going on inside the mind-body organism as it copes with the silence, the lack of escape, and all the rest of it.
So why do I go? Because I always learn a lot, gain a lot from the experience. Last time, in south Georgia, I spent the entire time frustrated and bored. Spent a lot of time mentally designing a kind of meditation cushion that would be comfortable for those long hours. Because even if the muscles are in good shape, and even if you have the most comfortable cushion available (mine is an air cushion, and I wouldn't trade it for any other kind), sitting on it for 8-10 hours a day results in a really sore butt. I also managed to reach a stage of deep concentration a couple of times, when I'd manage to let go of all the external stuff and simply practice the technique that is taught, and that's always a good thing.
It's all mental -- including coping with the pain and boredom and frustration. Those are all mental states that you can choose to ignore, or choose to think about. They're best ignored. Training the mind to remain equanimous in all situations is what the practice is all about. No highs and lows, no anger or sorrow. Merely a lovely state of equanimity, which is pretty darned cool. I much prefer it to the old days when I'd react strongly to life's events with anger or tears. It's not that I don't have emotions or feelings about things that happen, it's that I'm able to look at the emotions differently and realize that true happiness and contentment with life lie with the middle ground of equanimity. This is the way of life taught with Buddhist training. It's what following this Buddhist path is all about. I need some reminding, some deep practice, to help cope with this low-level depression and the frustrations and boredom of my current life. I react equanimously -- am well-trained to do so -- but I'm less successful with keeping the frustrations and boredom from affecting my days. Time for a reboot!
I'll miss two football games, but when I chose this particular retreat I was looking at the retreat schedule alongside a Ducks schedule and felt that these were two games I wouldn't mind missing -- both against teams in Washington, coincidentally enough. Speaking of football, there's a game coming up this morning, but it's rather a snooze. I'll watch, of course, but it's likely to be a rout, the underdog coming into Autzen Stadium and being walloped. Even with (probably) our back-up quarterback playing.
A work in progress
4 months ago