In the past, attending retreats has been both challenging and very rewarding. My anxieties and habits reliably seem to show themselves at retreats, and this time was no different. Throughout the day on Saturday, I realized that something was bothering me. It was only later that I realized that I was holding on to the expectation that on this retreat, I should be “over” these anxieties because I had already dealt with them. I was expecting myself to be better at being present, and was judging myself for struggling with the method. This was that old familiar perfectionism or high expectations creeping in again. Having to do things right. Having to succeed. Getting stuck on mistakes. Feeling guilty and beating up on myself. What made it hard to detect is that it wasn’t quite clear to me at first. It was more of a subtle creeping up of it. But then of course once I realized what was going on, it was so clear. And even clearer right now while writing this and reflecting back. So this retreat was helpful in getting to see this pattern emerge again and hopefully be able to recognize it sooner going forward. I don’t have expectations of it going away, but I do see my work as to continue to be more aware of it.
Saturday evening’s Dharma talk was particularly helpful in identifying particular habits or patterns that come up while on retreat or applying the method. Habits that reflect ways of creating suffering for myself. It’s funny because these are all things I already knew about myself, but yet there is a new quality to them that I experienced during the retreat. On paper, it’s like…of course! But I guess it’s more accurate to say that the particular qualities or experience of their emergence this weekend was new. I’ll expand on how I applied these habits to myself:
Perfectionism/Guilt/Self-criticism: It’s this hard to explain feeling that I screwed up. I’m bad. I blew it. I had an opportunity and I screwed it up. It’s part of the perfectionism thing, where I feel that I have to do it perfectly, completely or thoroughly. It has that compulsion-like quality to it. Because when I do it perfectly, it’s clear and obvious that I’m doing it. When mistakes happen, it becomes more ambiguous and less clear. So the need for order comes from a difficulty with facing the ambiguity. And that all leads to me blaming myself, being hard on myself, kind of like turning against myself. It’s a tense, aggressive, forceful stance. I feel it in my chest and back. Like this retreat, very often it’s there and I don’t know why. It’s so habitual. I hope I can get to know it better so I can recognize it more often.
Something is wrong: Often I have this sense that something is wrong and I don’t know why. This occurs especially during vacations, retreats, or times that are devoted towards leisure, relaxation, or enjoyment. Then it becomes work, because I’m “supposed to be enjoying myself” and it’s like I won’t let myself do that. I feel weird and like an outcast. Who is this weirdo that can’t enjoy a vacation? Why is he so uptight? Maybe part of it is that I don’t think I deserve it. Or it’s a form of self-handicapping… I’ll screw this up before it gets screwed up itself. It is related to perfectionism and putting pressure on myself. But this is an old familiar feeling. I’ve had it since a kid. I’m feeling just a bit off when there is no clear reason why. And then I judge myself for having the feeling, which only makes it worse.
Looking for an experience: Perhaps because I initially became interested in Buddhism because of my past experiences with psychedelics and “peak” experiences, I may have a tendency towards expecting similar experiences in the future. I definitely have made progress with this over the years, learning more to let go of searching for experiences over and over again. In terms of my meditation, I did catch myself comparing my current experience to those of retreats in the past. Longing for experiences, or more accurately, longing for idealized versions (memories) of how I thought I experienced things. Once I was able to identify that I was doing this, it was helpful to accept the present moment, even if that present moment included fuzziness or haziness.
It was helpful to appreciate the miracle of the retreat and all of the causes and conditions that have to come together to make it happen. I was able to experience in a non-pressure way… not like “Enjoy this retreat! Do you know how much work it takes to put this show on??” More like, “Wow…this is really a gift.” I haven’t been to retreat in about 3 years due to various reasons. It was very validating to hear that this is normal and that causes and conditions sometimes aren’t right and people don’t get to go to retreat for some time. But that I had enough wisdom to bring me back and return to the practice.
The method: always there. I can always remember to come back. Remember to return to the breath, or the present moment. It’s a process of remembering. You get better at remembering to come back.
Progress in meditation (careful with this one….don’t want to set too many expectations): being able to catch thoughts more quickly as they emerge. Not waiting until they go off too far before realizing that you are in a thought. Seeing thoughts emerge and catching them sooner.
Framing meditation as ending suffering. Medicine. Do you think you don’t need to take this medicine? It’s more helpful for me to think of my daily practice in this way, rather than a “should” or “have to”. In that way, it becomes more likely to get tangled in my pattern of perfectionism, not doing it perfectly.
I’ve been keeping up with regular practice and have started to notice some new benefits building upon these initial reflections. For one, I’ve been able to increasingly notice these different patterns of my mind. It’s hard to put down into words what I mean by this, but it’s a new sense of perspective on these habits of my mind. It’s like, “there’s that things I do” and “hmm that’s a thing too!”. It’s like these patterns (not sure what to call them) are kind of like a combination of thoughts, emotions, reactions, habits, etc. What feels new about this is that it’s a different perspective on these experiences and, perhaps more importantly, allows me to let go of them and see more clearly what I am adding to situations. In other words, seeing more clearly my biases, not taking them as seriously, and coming back to the present moment if I choose to.
Since the retreat and with more regular practice than I’ve done in awhile, I’ve also noticed a greater sense of stability that is there in me. A sense that things are going to be ok. A feeling of being able to enjoy being present, and that I can be satisfied with my present moment experience without needing to add to it with worries, plans, etc. So it’s a good thing!