Silent Illumination Retreat report, 5-25-2019 to 6-2-2019 at DDRC
I was in a bit of a funk when I arrived for this retreat. I had been practicing too hard in my daily life and had a bit of an eruption. Had to take a few steps back. As a result, I was the least excited about this retreat that I had ever been. I was just there to practice and see what happened I told myself.
The instructions given were similar but different to other retreats, even other Silent Illumination retreats. Yes, it was still brightly illuminate the mind, be aware of the body, environment, all of mind, but unlike the other retreats I had attended there was a component to explore thought. In every other retreat I felt that if I started to have thoughts I was somehow failing. If I caught myself thinking, the thought had to be brushed away. Even the tiniest little bubble of thought was a failure. Here, though I was encouraged to allow the thoughts to wander through the mind. So long as I did not forget where I was, losing the present moment, the thoughts were to be allowed to remain.
After a couple of days, the mind started to settle down a bit, but it was still thinking all the time. In the lectures, Simon told us to completely illuminate the thoughts. I was having all these thoughts about planning for the future, rehashing old arguments from the past. The vast majority of my mental commentary fit into these two categories. When I started to completely illuminate them, I had to start investigating where they came from, and I discovered much to my dismay that they came from pride, from thinking that I was more special than anybody else.
This was a bitter pill for me to swallow, but that’s what I came to the retreat for, so I just kept on practicing. Whenever a thought arose, I began jumping straight to the root. “Another thought based in pride, let it go.” “Planning for the future again? Let it go.” Mind began to gel, so that everything was flowing together. Yes, there were thoughts, yes there was wandering mind, but it was like the great ocean heaving quite naturally, nothing to fear. I was at peace with what was going on, until I started trying to sit double sessions and ran into the pain barrier.
I had an interview with Rebecca where we talked about this. She had me describe the entire process of my experience leading up to my breaking posture. How the pain would grow, how I would just try my best to hold on, widen the focus, let the pain be just a little part of the overall experience. How it would grow and grow until I had a little conversation with myself, convinced myself that it would be better to just give up, that there would just be more sitting, more pain to sit through afterwards. She asked me if there was any real life situation that mirrored this experience, and I described my most recent bout of home training difficulty. I talked about how I had a habit of walking away from things that were difficult, from situations or people that didn’t bring me the fulfillment that I wanted.
I had been living for some ideal future, practicing for some idea of fulfillment that actually had no basis in reality. It was all just a dream. I could see quite clearly how the meditative experience of Chan is a microcosmic reflection of every day life. The same problems and patterns that are present in mind out in the world will arise on retreat. I was told that the real work was to be done in my normal life, that if my meditation as ever to progress, I would need to deal with this pattern of disengagement in my own life. I generated the intention to live an ordinary life, and it was the hardest thing I have ever done. I generated the vow to put down all dreams and just live in the present moment.
After that interview, I went back to the entry hall and just wept. I cried grieving all of the dreams I was giving up, all of those dreams I had held close to my chest for so many years. Behind all of this pain, I glimpsed something extraordinary. What happens when dreaming is over? There is an awakening. I spent the rest of the retreat trying not to run away from this resolution. There was such a tremendous sense of, “Oh wait! No! Not yet! I could be more!” I did my very best, but I’m not there, not yet anyways.
Coming home was not what I expected it to be. I’d had all these thoughts of the big changes I was going to make in my quest to live an “ordinary life,” but have realized that those thoughts were kind of absurd. They were just another attempt of the ego to be special, just special in being the “most ordinary!” What is ordinary? I think that it’s just what is natural. What is it to live awake? To be aware of what is coming and going in mind. Putting these two together, what is an ordinary but awake life? To be free and natural to be what you are and not be confused about what is going on. This will be my operating basis for this next leg of practice.