At the end of this month, I will move to Palpung Thubten Choling Monastery in New York to enter the traditional Kagyu Tibetan Buddhist three-year, three-month seminary retreat, which will begin around the end of the year. I’ve been planning for this moment for more than twenty years, and it’s exactly what I want to do.
But right now (the very hour when I will start the first meditation session of each day in retreat), I am lying awake immersed in the grief of leaving family and friends. I won’t see my daughter or my best friend for more than three years; I am unlikely to see my father or my dog again in this life.
As I have slowly prepared for retreat over the past two years, I have often felt that the process is like preparing to die. If we know we are going to die, then we feel deep grief at the realization that we must leave behind our family, friends, pets and most treasured possessions. Unless we are completely grounded in our practice, we become more and more agitated at these impending losses as the moment of death inexorably approaches.
In preparing to enter a life of seclusion for three years, I too am leaving everything (almost) behind, but in this case, it is my choice; I have some control over the timing; and with any luck, I will re-emerge in early 2011 and be reunited with most, if not all, of my loved ones.
As a remedy for my sadness, I try to follow the instructions for basic calm abiding meditation: I can focus my attention on my breathing or just on empty space, without trying to manipulate the feeling, and allow it to subside in its own time. Or I can use the feeling itself as the focus for meditation, letting my attention rest in its weight and texture, and witnessing, if I am very attentive, the process of its disappearance. Strong emotions can be overwhelming in the moment, but one thing you learn from regular meditation is that all thoughts and feelings are fleeting—even the ones that seem to linger for months. (It’s like snow; you can break your back shoveling it in January, or you can just wait for April. OK, maybe you have to shovel the driveway to get to work…but it’s still a fact that if you don’t bother, it’s going to melt anyway.)
I also bring to mind the instructions of the great nineteenth-century Kagyu teacher, Jamgon Kongtrul, in The Lamp of the Definitive Meaning, in the chapter on the inevitability of suffering in life as we know it: “Sever the root of entanglement! Demolish the foundation of desire! Reflect extensively on the advantages of liberation…and apply yourself diligently to the methods for attaining enlightenment. You must do this!”
Ultimately, there is nothing to be gained by clinging to what we are attached to in this life. If not now, we are bound to lose it later, and the Buddha taught that our suffering at that time will be exactly proportional to our attachment. On top of that, we will continue to go around and around and around lifetime after lifetime, experiencing this same grief again and again, until we do something to halt the entire process. Lama Norlha Rinpoche recently used the following analogy in a teaching: After we do our laundry, we are so happy to have clean clothes, but then they get dirty and we have to wash them again…and again…and again. Similarly, we cycle endlessly through lifetimes of suffering, being born and suffering and dying again and again; but once we recognize the nature of our mind and attain freedom, as he put it, “the laundry is finished forever.”
And it’s not just my laundry. The Buddha taught that when you attain freedom for yourself, you can see clearly how to help others get out of the cycle as well. So, even though I will miss my family and friends for the next three years, this is something I need to do for them, too.