We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.
I’ve been back in Seattle for 2 weeks now, having been away on sabbatical for almost a year. The past year seems like a dream. Seattle seems the same with a few minor differences; the Space Needle’s orange paint job, a ferris wheel on the waterfront, various new buildings, friends with new children or grown up ones, people with long hair when it used to be shaved. But definitely at the forefront of my consciousness is the fact that I have changed, so slowly I didn’t notice, but upon return to the familiarity of Seattle it is obvious.
My sabbatical (pilgrimage perhaps is a better word) involved 105 days on silent Buddhist meditation retreat and adventures and meditation/yoga practice in India, Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia. So much has happened it would be ridiculous to try to fit it all into one blog post, so this is the first part of a series.
My reasons for going were many and varied. A call to adventure, a Saturn Returns crisis perhaps, a need to visit the places and cultures that birthed yoga and Buddhism, practices I have dedicated the majority of my life to. Also in the back of my mind was the romantic idea that I’d meet an enlightened master who would really blow my mind. As reality would have it, the places and cultures themselves were the greatest teachers.
My fiancé Eliza, ever the adventurous soul, accompanied me on this entire voyage. We had a garage sale, sold all of our stuff save for a car load, and caught a plane to Barre, Massachusetts, home of the Insight Meditation Society, for the first leg of our adventure; a 6 week silent Buddhist meditation retreat.
A day on retreat is very simple from an outside perspective. A bell rings at 5am calling yogis to the meditation hall for the first seated meditation of the day, followed by bells ringing all day long to signal the meals, walking meditation periods, and Dharma talks. When the bell finally comes to rest at 10pm, twelve or more hours have been spent in formal meditation practice, and this goes on and on, day after day, with no breaks for 6 weeks. 6 weeks with no television, internet, email, movies, news, contact with the outside world, sex, drugs, or rock and roll. This retreat format is as old as meditation, with its roots stretching all the way back to the life of the Buddha, 2500 years. It is said that the Buddha and his monks would spend the rainy season of Northern India on retreat, a period of 3 months. Instead of walking around they would stay in one place and practice intensively.
Retreat is an ingenious way of getting to know ourselves very deeply. All of the distractions and addictions of life are put on hold, and there is not much to do but to look at the mind, learn how it operates, how we cause ourselves suffering, and what leads to the end of suffering. When a difficult emotion comes up in retreat, there is time and space to be with the emotion, to learn from it, to notice its patterns and contours, and in doing so gain some freedom from it. In our daily lives if we feel a difficult emotion we much too often turn on the television, surf the internet, or eat ice cream. And after doing this practice for a while now, I rarely if ever get bored on retreat.
When I tell people I actually pay thousands of dollars to do these retreats, they often question my sanity. But in my opinion, living in this way, at least for a little while, is a great way to reclaim our sanity, our basic humanity, our connection with nature, the earth, and the living beings around us. In the stillness and simplicity of retreat, the mundane comes alive. The senses sharpen and a casual stroll through the forest can become a walk through a wonderland. Gazing at a flower or the stars from a still place is all the entertainment one needs. Someone once asked Carlo Valtrain, famous for his still life paintings of fruit, if he ever needed to take a vacation for a little excitement. He replied “I get all the excitement I can stand moving my easel 6 inches to the left”. And out of this simplicity and wonder, a deep happiness can arise, what they call in Buddhism “happy for no reason.” Most of the happiest days of my life have been spent on silent retreat, far away from what American advertising is suggesting will bring me happiness, be it their new product or pill or degree or possession.
Coming out of a long retreat is often a difficult and sobering experience. The collective insanity of the world is all the more apparent; the continuing warfare, racism, hatred, and greed; the cultural addiction to speed and busy-ness. When we are caught in the cycles of distraction and addiction we don’t stop to feel the fact that there are granaries full of food here, and starving children there. The heart is often wide open to the sorrows of the world after a long retreat, which can be overwhelming at times. The strange paradox of meditation practice is that it opens us more and more to the sorrows of this world as well as the joy, but it also increases our capacity to hold that sorrow with equanimity.
Eliza and I left the retreat and got right on a plane, and with the miracle that is modern day travel we landed in Bangkok, Thailand, 18 hours later. Bangkok is a bustling, noisy, sticky city of 11 million people, a little different than our quiet forest retreat center in rural Massachusetts. Our plane disembarked on the runway and I thought we must be standing in the wake of the jet engines of the plane, I couldn’t believe it was so hot. We weren’t. So began our time in Asia. To be continued.
Posted by: Brent Morton
Brent resumes teaching yoga classes at 8 Limbs with the Fall Schedule: Tuesdays and Thursdays at 6:30am, Saturdays at 4:30pm and a Mindfulness Meditation Series on Wednesday nights at 8 Limbs Phinney Ridge and Thursdays at 7:15pm and Fridays at 9:30am at 8 Limbs Wedgwood. Come soak in his teaching.