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.
Here we all are, amidst an extraordinary situation. Even as the Covid-19 virus hit China at the end of last year; even as it started to make bigger and bigger headlines in January, I think very few of us would believe we would be in the situation as we are now. For a few days in mid-March, conversations with friends, family and colleagues disclosed the sense of being in a scene from a science fiction film. Surreal, weird, unbelievable. As it became more believable, my own emotional response revved up. My default, when stressed, is to go towards anxiety - as the situation gathered momentum and as we waited to see what happened next, I felt as if a net was tightening; a wave we knew was about to hit the shore yet didn’t know when. I did what I could to prepare, but even then I was aware of my body and mind going in to survival mode: to prepare for my client work, to assist in the preparations at the University to move to online teaching, preparations to prepare my parents and ensure they had everything they needed. Anything other than that felt too much - I could’t read much, I couldn’t keep my mind in my practice, and I didn’t feel a motivation for writing…especially to write about the experience I was going through. Too close, too much. It's interesting how the survival mechanism shuts us down, has us withdraw, blunts creativity. It is our body's wisdom, to remain vigilant in the face of threat.
It might not be a surprise that I have been reflecting on anger given last week’s disclosure of recent losses in my life. Anger is considered a normal reaction to loss and part of the ‘moving through’ process of grief. Anger is a territory that I don’t know well; certainly not like I know the terrain of anxiety and fear. My ongoing reaction to loss is always on the move, changing shape and form: sadness, anger, depression, despondency, resolve, sentimentality, fear…back to sadness again. I wouldn’t say I have a favourite, but there is something about the ‘sadness’ element that feels the cleanest (although incredibly painful).
And as I have explained, the practices of Ngondro seem to be magnifying the effects; and certainly the physical element of the practice is changing how I experience all the emotions in my body. It emphasises the waves, the intensity of each, and how it lands in a particular area of my body and ‘locks’ me. Each time the loss comes back in to my awareness during everyday life, I have been experiencing a “whoosh”, up my spine in to my neck and temples. I don’t see this at all as a bad thing. It feels it is exactly what I need to pay my respects to the experience(s) I am having. Each time I feel the ‘lock’, it gets witnessed, it gets room, it gets the much needed nurturing needed to transmute and move through. Equally, I don’t look forward to my morning alarm call right now - there is a palpable sense of apprehension: because it isn’t nice to feel all these things in such a concentrated way.
I am grateful that I have this practice to support the composting of this emotional experience…
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