Returning from retreats are always interesting times; transitions from what was to what is; from the extraordinary to the ordinary. Relief to have made it; sadness to have left; reconnecting with loved ones and the familiar; overwhelm of returning to normality. A few friends have been in touch with me today, my first day back, asking “how was it?” – and all I can answer is “I don’t know” – which is really the short (and honest) answer to a multitude of feelings and thoughts which all depend on the exact moment I am asked that question. One moment I am okay, the next overwhelmed.
Since 2010, I have been on retreat a couple of times per year. My longest time away was the 4 week “Dathun” I attended last Spring, but normally I go away for a week to 10 days. That was the case this time around. Two reasons this retreat was different: it was my first solitary retreat, and the first time with the practices I am undertaking as a recent initiate of the Vajrayana (the third ‘vehicle’ of Tibetan Buddhism). The very foundation of the Buddhist path (and indeed of existential-based psychotherapy of which I am also a practitioner) is working with uncertainty, ambiguity and groundlessness. So of course, going in to such retreats with any kind of expectation is risky – and I really did do my best to stay open to what might be, what might not be. I examined my hopes and my fears ahead of the retreat, recognising the storylines I was creating of how it would be. I’ve shared with you before how my emotional ‘default’ if you like is an anxious presentation – so, I like to plan for every eventuality. Planning brings me control…and so the first lesson of the Vajrayana: that ain’t possible. And, I sit here now quite bruised and battered – physically: my body has taken a beating (6h of sitting a day, and taking on a new practice of prostrations), and emotionally: my ego did not like having the carpet pulled from underneath me.
The teachings on needing to be comfortable with uncertainty link to how the Buddha saw the manifestation of suffering – we experience dissatisfaction when we grasp at what we want, or we push away what we don’t want (this is what my planning aims to do, to get what I want – in order to feel safe and secure). But as we know (and don’t like to accept), life is a journey of ups and downs. And, as Robbie Williams would tell us “You gotta get high before you taste the lows”…or something like that. For happiness to exist, we must also know unhappiness – experience is always relative or in Buddhist parlance, interdependent. Our suffering comes when we resist this natural order and we always want the ‘highs’. Buddhism is not the only philosophical framework that offers this view. Western psychological frameworks also speak of our need to embrace the whole. As a Gestalt psychotherapist, I will often talk with clients about polarities and invite them to see the extreme of their current experiencing (eg. When calm, where is the anger? When indignant about being right, where might they be wrong?). We might say, to move along the continuum from dis-ease to ease requires us to be comfortable with extremes as both existing.
My experience on retreat was definitely one of visiting extremes of emotion; many seasons of mood in one day. Within the first 24 hours I had been through shame, fear, doubt, disappointment, confidence, despondency, resentment. And I was very aware of how I could solidify the experiences and make this how it would always be. Thankfully I had two resources on-hand to help me digest these volatile and painful moments: firstly, the dharma teachings – I took a few texts with me, many of them written by Chogyam Trungpa – the Tibetan teacher whose lineage I practice. In one talk transcript, which spoke specifically of the Ngöndro or preliminary practices (which I am now practicing as a Vajrayana student) CTR described rochik or “one-flavour”. Performing hundreds of prostrations can feel like punishment, but it can also feel like falling in love. But its not simply a both / and, its of “one flavour”. The Vajrayana doesn’t separate, all experience is not just inclusive, it is non-dual.
My second support was nature and the environment. Finishing my morning practice session, I would shower, have lunch and then get outside in the beauty of rural Normandy where I was based. I have holidayed in this part of France many times, and stayed on this site such that it feels like home. These aspects made a very big difference to me: the familiar providing a container in which the chaos of my emotional and physical experience could play out (with a degree of) feeling held. It was on one of my lunchtime walks that I came across a beautiful shiny conker, still encased in half of its shell. It was on the same day I had been reading about rochik; and its appearance called to me to accept both of that I was going through – the rough and the smooth, without even the ‘and’.
The Ngöndro practices are four in number; and all are designed to break down conceptualisation and invite instead a meeting of experience directly. Having a week to put aside and really immerse myself in all the newness of it all, well I am blessed and very fortunate that I can carve out such time. A week not having to think about teaching, seeing clients, doing household chores gave me the space to bed down and become familiar with the learning of new texts, chants, visualisations, prostrations (in other words, the synchronising of body, speech and mind). So much of my initial connecting to the practice reminded me of my days as a cyclist, particularly during the 2006 / 2007 seasons when I was venturing in to the world of track cycling and the individual pursuit event. Becoming an endurance athlete later on in life (I started cycling competitively aged 30) and that itself was a lot to take in; but training for track was another level up! Training sessions for track are really hard core – high power outputs to be hit, going against my natural physiology (which a former boyfriend once offered resembled a camel – that was a compliment, it meant I was very efficient and could endure, but just not very fast!). The multiple repetitions of prostrations left me aching and bruised – much like my track efforts used to have me feel. Reading instructions in the Ngöndro practice manual reminded me of receiving new training programmes from my track coach; and ideas of reps per hour reminded me of Watts to hit each interval. Targets create expectations (and as I started out explaining at the head of this post, expectations bring hope and fear). Reactions to missing targets hit hard; they always have. But the very fact I could observe this process, be aware of what was happening to me, to take on some of the wisdom of rochik, and to bring compassion rather than judgement. That is the path of smoothing of the edges of the rough diamond. By the way, I cannot tell you how much being a former physiologist and sports scientist (reference to my former career not a Buddhist pun about reincarnation) benefitted me and supported me during a crisis of confidence: Being able to go back to the drawing board, to see my aspirations for the week and to re-negotiate the progression to those targets – it certainly allowed me to honour my former selves and all the wisdom I have acquired which I sometimes disavow on my twisting and turning journey.
I’ll finish with a word or two on the ‘solitary’ aspect of the retreat. I am very interested in my work as a psychotherapist (especially as an existentially-based practitioner) on the ideas around being-as-self and being-with-other; much of my book shelf here at home consists of texts on the themes of solitude, loneliness, alone, belonging. This past week what struck me was how content I was in solitude. I found it incredibly nourishing to withdraw, to re-treat. And even though there was quite intense emotionality, it was only when I spoke with my meditation teacher on Skype half-way through the week that the rawness of my experience came to the fore. It is one thing to experience emotion, it is another to have it witnessed – of course, this is one of the healing aspects of therapy and the therapeutic relationship. It is in the mirror of the other that we come to truly know our emerging Self.
And it is on this edge that I currently sit. I notice I am generally okay when alone, but my estrangement from society and from others surfaces when out and about – and that is the transition and the task: how to come back in to normal life slowly, titrating being-for-self, being-with-other; not staying separated but integrating and engaging – as both my jobs demand that of me (as teacher, as therapist); and as Bodhisattva and student of the Vajrayana, also demanded of me is to be in the world wholeheartedly.