As I sit here at my desk, I realise how fortunate I am to be in a position of ‘retreating’. As a nation, as a global community we face a huge and unprecedented situation; and I am still able to put aside time and space for myself to practice and to do some writing. I truly am in a bubble; somewhat like a normal retreat - given I am not in touch with the ‘real world’; yet unusually, there are moments of recognition that NONE of us are in touch with the real world…or at least as we have come to know it.
As I write, I am in Day 2 of my staycation / stay-treat. In preparation, I created a daily schedule for myself understanding that we best relax and open within a strong container. I know from participating in organised retreats, the ‘best’ (most revealing) experiences have been when the organising committee and teachers have held the space with firm boundaries. Meditation sessions begin and end on time, retreatants know what is expected of them and when (periods of silence, work rota, lights out), and the schedule is one where a daily rhythm is held. Right now, I am holding myself to a schedule - and I notice how the easing in is unfolding.
I wake, cuddle cat, have breakfast, read, start my ngondro practices, coffee and journal, have lunch, go for a walk (respecting the one hour limit!), give time to my writing project, cuddle cat, have “intentional dialogue” with my wife, aperitif, meal, film or jigsaw puzzle. It is more leisurely than a normal retreat (more cat cuddling for one), but there is still presence of a ritual. This is not for everyone: when I shared my intention with my wife last week she expressed the boredom she said she would have if she followed the same routine day after day - for me, I find it comforting, luxurious - stick to this rhythm and I can trust my intentions for the fortnight will be met.
Most retreats I have been on, and certainly the ‘best’ ones, have given much thought to the transition in to the container. The container can be like a swimming pool with a shallow end, where the demands on retreatants are often ramped up - this is often the way of the longer retreats (like the four week dathun). However, I have also appreciated the ‘deep end’ approach - where you start with 2 or 3 days of silence and long sitting periods: this is not easy but one does arrive in a deeper place more quickly - 7 to 10 day retreats often take this approach so to offer more ‘bang for their buck’. Yet both approaches really ask the retreatant to feel in to their experience and ensure we listen to our responses. It is more important to be receptive than prescriptive.
And this is something I am working with on this current stay-treat.
In terms of my Ngondro practice, I have a set timeframe (2.5h) yet what I achieve in that period is dependent on what arises in my experience of the liturgy, the prostrations, the meditation, the chants. I am using the fixed time period as the strong container for the dance of the felt sense within. I have no goal for my progression: my intention is the immersion (being with what arises) not the completion (getting it done). Taking off this pressure is allowing a more relaxed, open presence. This is important in my life right now: engaging with the feminine principle of receptivity and surrender to what is (rather than my history of the masculine drive and rules dominating).
Something similar is true for my writing practice too. I keep a journal alongside my “blog to book” project and I realised my last entry was over a month ago - the beginning of March, and 2 weeks B.C.V*. Because of teaching commitments, I knew I wouldn’t get much time to work on the book before our (originally planned) trip to Normandy, but the chaos that COVID-19 has brought meant my energies have been elsewhere. And as I shared last week, I didn’t have the motivation to connect with this project that has previously been quite a passion.
When I spoke with my meditation mentor ahead of this stay-treat we also talked about my writing (she is an writer too) and how disconnected from the book I had felt. She encouraged me to take my time, to not hold myself to any focused writing but rather get “re-aquainted”. So Day 1, I surrounded myself with my writing materials (as she suggested), lit a candle at the start of my session and just ‘mused’. I dipped in to table of contents of resources I had, drank coffee, cuddled the cat (I know, off schedule), and then I decided I’d like to read what I have already written. This was such an important moment for me - because I realised a) how far I have come along this path b) how strong a pull I have to share my experience in the hope of helping others; and c) I do have a valid contribution to make to the field of Buddhism-informed psychotherapy. Reminders of my courage, my aspiration, my voice.
And how all of this feeds a purpose and making a meaning for my life work.
I don’t think it is a coincidence that this reconnection has happened so quickly. I have deliberately placed my Ngondro practice in the morning and my writing in the afternoon (even if Iknow myself to be more mentally agile in the mornings). The practice of Ngondro opens me up, softens me and makes more of my ‘self’ available to the writing task. In fact there are parallels with the next writing focus for me: Chapter 6 of my book is on the “Role of meditation practices” in a Buddhism-informed psychotherapy. A therapist that meditates will be more available for their client; a client that meditates will be more available for their unfolding process. This is my experience (of being both) anyhow.
There is a backdrop to my experience these opening days, one of sadness. Sad not to have been on a ferry to my beloved Normandy yesterday; and sad today because I have been thinking of my dear friend Jamie who died seven weeks ago today. In my Buddhist tradition, the 49th day after death is marked with a ritual called sukhavati - and this evening my wife and I will perform the short ceremony “for the benefit of helping the deceased transition through the Bardo by lessening suffering, fear and loss and offering focus and clarity”. Sad, yet happy to have known him, happy to remember him.
These are times all of us have an opportunity to contemplate the preciousness of life and the fragility of our existence. I do hope you and yours are well and stay safe.
* Before CoronaVirus, maybe our new way of demarcating eras?