A real treat of re-treat

I’ve sat down to write with no real idea of what I am going to write. I am reminded of a quote I read in a Linda Finlay article on her experience of Covid-19 as I travelled her on the ferry. “To write means to write myself, not in a narcissistic sense but in a deep collective sense. To write phenomenologically is the untiring effort to author a sensitive grasp of being itself” (van Manen, 2016). In part, I am writing now to find myself in my retreat experience. Having just closed my shrine after a week of intensive practice, things are too fresh to articulate. Writing, I hope and suspect, will help things begin to settle and make sense. It precedes the knowing of a new self, one who has explored various terrain in the 7 days before.

For perhaps the first time since starting Ngondro three years ago, this is the first retreat experience that has not left me feeling raw. Nothing unexpected, no enormous personal process. Maybe there isn’t much left to surprise me (I really doubt that!), maybe my relationship to experience has started to shift (which is the one of the main sells in Vajrayana Buddhism), maybe I’m not seeing something, or maybe I just got lucky 🙂

Maybe it was something to do with the style of retreat I decided upon this year? I have been coming to Normandy, my beloved second home, to do an autumn solitary for a few years now. This is the first time I had a dual objective: intense Ngondro practice AND time to work on my book manuscript ahead of submission in the New Year. Furthermore, this is the first time I brought my bike along. Normally while here I satisfy my need for outdoor time with lunchtime walks. But this summer my normal biking time on holiday was cut back because of some health concerns. This week therefore dangled the carrot to get my quota of biking in France back to acceptable levels. I sit here satisfied, job done.

In fact, on all fronts job done. My daily routine stayed the same for the whole 7 days. A Ngondro practice session between 7 and 11am; an hour or so on my bike; after lunch 4 hours on the book; and then a second shorter 2 hour Ngondro session after dinner. “Job done” was finishing all the edits I had targeted for the week (yay), and “job exceeded” was taking myself through 100k* of mantra repetitions (super yay). I sit here fulfilled.

Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of this week was feeling I have turned a corner with my health and the anxiety it was provoking. I experienced some chest pain while on holiday in September (cause still unknown), and coming here, back to France with its different health care system, the language barrier, and being alone (it is a solitary retreat after all) has had me concerned. But in fact the anxiety has been a part of the chest pain experience since day 1. It is still unknown if the anxiety was the cause or consequence of the pain, but nonetheless, it has been there for the past 2 months. 

These pandemic / Ngondro years have pointed out to me that anxiety is in fact my path. Ever since I heard an interview with non-dual teacher John Prendergast where he floated the question “What if this experience was going to be here forever, how would you relationship with it change?”, I have become more compassionate to the presence of anxiety…as if forging a more intimate relationship. I write extensively about this is the book: anxiety is the ally that tells me when I need to address something; the messenger to consider the karma of body, speech, and mind. Seen in this way, anxiety keeps me on track. 

The anxiety of late has been on a different scale and of a different texture however – again I go back to Finlay’s article where she shares this idea of “bodily doubt”: the sense of radical uncertainty about whether the body can be trusted to keep functioning as before, in contrast to the previous taken-for-granted “bodily certainty” **. This week therefore has been an opportunity to know it (like a week’s break to get to become intimate with a special Other). Back in September, sitting meditation was an ordeal. I remember one morning needing to reach out to my wife (who was sitting alongside me) and grab her hand. I was falling, such was the anxiety / panic in response to the seismic tremors in my heart area. Normally when I am fired up in the anxiety, I go to my breath and the body for anchoring. This hasn’t been an option of late.

A sangha member shared with me before coming away a quote by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche “If you go along with the panic and become the panic, there is a lot of room in the panic.” This has been helpful, if not very hard to put into practice! Without another hand to grab for, how would I find support to go along with the panic if it arose? It takes a certain amount of trust and surrender to allow the panic and step into it. By “stepping in” / becoming the panic, the instruction points to turning one’s awareness to the knowing of the panic. That knowing isn’t itself panicking. The more I have been able to rest there, the more my system has calmed.

I realise I started out on this blog not knowing what I was going to write, nor was I expressing any big surprises or personal process. Reading those last few paragraphs are therefore perhaps contradictory! It HAS been quite a deal: but I came here with the “ailment” and discovered its medicine while here. The most unexpected was not expecting this.

I am incredibly sad to be going home tomorrow. I have found the solitary life just what I needed, and I am ambivalent about the return. But when I think of home, my loved ones, and the life I have created, I am content. This goes with the introvert’s territory I guess. To gain energy requires re-treat; to feel alive requires others.


* Each of the four Ngondro practices has 108k repetitions to complete: having completed my prostrations last year, I am nearly finished with the Vajrasattva visualisation and mantra. I imagine I will be starting the third, mandala practice, in the New Year. It will probably be another 4 or 5 years until I complete the fourth, Guru yoga. 

** I will undoubtedly come back to “bodily doubt” another week – as an Enneagram Six, I think I experience bodily doubt as part of my type’s character fixation. 

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