We passed the halfway mark of the three-year, three-month, three-day retreat during the summer, and are now speeding down the hill toward our re-entry into the world we left behind in January 2008. It is hard to believe so much time has passed, and equally hard to believe the rest will be over just as quickly.
Halfway through, I feel I know about half as much as when I came in—and hopefully the second half will be enough time to clear out the rest.
What I see, or think I see, halfway through retreat, is that the point of our practice is not so much to accumulate more knowledge and techniques as it is to use every resource at our disposal to clear away the obstacles to seeing what we already have. In retreat we have indeed learned a lot of special practices, many of which are available to any practitioner outside retreat, others of which are generally available only in this context, when your mind has been thoroughly prepared to make use of them. But they all seem to be not ends in themselves but tools to help us do the real work of looking at our mind and seeing what it really is, unobscured by the cloud cover of all those fleeting thoughts, emotions, preconceptions, and habitual patterns: the same result we can eventually achieve by applying our trusty old calm abiding and insight meditation techniques.
It’s easy to feel that what we really need in order to progress along the path is the next teaching, the next book, the next empowerment, the next meditation technique, the next quantum leap in meditation cushion technology. And while it’s true that these things help move us along, what we need most is to sit on our ordinary cushion or chair and put into actual practice the simplest instructions we already have. Nothing new we receive will do us any good at the time of death, or the time of overpowering anger or depression, if we don’t put it into practice regularly.
To me, that is the greatest advantage of the three-year retreat—the time and lack of distraction to just look at the mind in the way Lama Norlha Rinpoche has urged me to since day one, back in 1980. I can’t say if I’ve made any progress. Maybe I’ll come out the same old raccoon! Rinpoche told us recently that how or if we have changed won’t be evident until our re-entry into the big, busy world. But, he said, it’s at least a good sign that we’ve made it this far.
I have noticed a few different stages in the way I relate to my mind since retreat began. For me, the first year was mostly about getting used to the routines and practices and trying to remember to look at the mind instead of at everything else around me. Sometimes thoughts and emotions got the better of me, and I had to just keep looking and not give up. (That still happens…but maybe not quite as often.)
Then, as my attention seemed to settle down a bit and turn inward, for a long time bits of seemingly random junk floated to the surface at odd moments, from Old Yeller to Sucrets (mysterious throat lozenges from my childhood) to every stupid thing I ever said or did. The challenge then was to avoid getting caught up anew in fascination or emotion toward these thoughts and memories, but instead to just watch them come up, let them go, and in between try to recognize that they are all made of the exact same thing—the essence of my mind. Painful or pleasant, trivial or earth-shattering, mundane or bizarre, they are all the same in essence, Rinpoche tells us again and again, and first-hand awareness of that is the only key to unlocking our inner nature that is peaceful, joyful and unassailable no matter what circumstances we find ourselves in.
I can’t say that phase is over either, as there still seems to be a large supply of junk in the mental basement (including the Sucrets), but it has quieted down to some extent for the time being, leaving more space to just rest the mind in that ever-present essence, to whatever extent I am able, which I hope is more and more as time goes on.
I will leave you with some advice from Tenga Rinpoche, one of the great contemporary Lamas of the Kagyu Lineage, in his book about dying and the intermediate state after death, Transition and Liberation:
“I constantly remind my students to meditate on shamatha [calm abiding] and the true nature of mind. Five minutes of daily practice brings within ten days the benefit of fifty minutes’ practice. Every one of us will meet death one day, maybe even tomorrow. Meditation in this life will then be of great value to us.”
No letter would be complete without that reminder of impermanence! Until it kicks in, I wish you all many happy hours of beneficial meditation, whether it’s five minutes at a time or an hour.
Till next time, best wishes to everyone,
Yeshe Chödron, aka Linda