Tuesday, July 27

Retreat Report

Where: Insight Meditation Society, Barre, Massachusetts, USA.
When: July 17-25, 2004.
Who: Christina Feldman and Rodney Smith.

What, Why, How: The retreat was billed as a vipassana retreat, and the standard instructions on mindfulness practice were given for sitting and walking. I had determined to do the retreat as a metta retreat, though. I used the phrases that have become customary for me: "May you be safe, may you be happy, may you be healthy, may you live with ease." Over the first few days, there was a great deal of rapture and happiness. Although these jhana factors were present, full jhanas did not coalesce, but strong khanika samadhi (moment-to-moment concentration) did arise quite often, which can be as powerful as jhana, and is similarly effective at temporarily freeing one from the hindrances.

On Tuesday, I had a group interview with Rodney Smith. I told him that I was doing the retreat as a metta retreat, all metta, all the time. I said that metta had been my main practice for nearly a year, and I knew that this was the right thing for me, but I was still nonetheless aware of wanting to get the teacher's permission, his approval. Rodney strongly encouraged me to trust in what I knew was correct for me, to never give my power away to a teacher, but to know for myself.

That evening, Christina's Dharma talk was on loving-kindness, and it was a real eye-opener. I had thought that metta was just something you sent to people, but in Christina's presentation, metta was pretty much indistinguishable from mindfulness. It's a matter of befriending whatever might arise in the present moment. Over and over, the question arose in my mind: "Can I befriend this?" Most encouraging of all, Christina confirmed what I suspected: that, if undertaken with Wise Intention, metta could lead all the way to liberation, as in the liberation of the heart through loving-kindness (ceto-vimutti). She affirmed that she no longer held this hierarchical view, with vipassana on top and metta as something supplementary...

Even when an unpleasant sense contact arose and a little feeling of anger would blossom, it was ok, because it was one flower of anger in the midst of a vast of field of thousands and thousands of flowers of loving-kindness. "Can I befriend this?"

In terms of technique, there was a significant development. They did guided loving-kindness meditations at the 2:15 sitting, and on Tuesday (just prior to my first interview), Rodney taught the expansion to the benefactor in a new way. First, he encouraged us to visualize the person sitting right directly in front of us, with our knees almost touching: really up close and intimate. I have always pictured the people I was sending to at some distance from me in my mind's eye. Then, instead of just sending metta to the benefactor, we were encouraged to send out metta on the exhalation, but on the inhalation, to imagine our benefactor sending metta to us. It was a powerful, profound experience. I'd never been able to feel like I could receive metta before: I was always a transmitter, even when I was sending it to myself... Later, when the expansion moved out to include more beings, Rodney said, "And because the world is round, all that metta you're sending out comes back to you..."

Metta now offers me a way of being much more intimate in being mindful of the present moment. As an aversive type, I tend to keep my distance from experience: to note something just long enough to make it go away. [laugh] But there has been a softening, a new willingness to befriend...

On Wednesday night, it reached an apotheosis of sorts: very still mind, breathing out love, breathing in love. It was so beautiful, so very very beautiful.

Thursday, there was a spontaneous shift from metta to karuna, and I started using the karuna phrase, "May you be free from suffering and its causes," sometimes truncating it to "May you be free from suffering" or just "May you be free." There's a depth to karuna, as though it were the same note as metta but played an octave (or 2 or 3) lower. In my Thursday afternoon interview with Christina, I said I was doing all metta (didn't ask permission and she didn't bat an eye) and described the beautiful consciousness, then reported how metta had shifted to karuna, and asked how to discern karuna and its near enemy. She said that karuna had this quality of steadfastness in the face of suffering, of willingness to be present for pain. Then she proceeded to offer me a teaching on how she does karuna: she starts with what she called "innocent suffering" and then expanded to karuna for people who are actually causing suffering, then to oneself, and outwards... She uses phrases like "May you find healing."

I continued with karuna for a while, using her phrase, but before long, I had returned to metta, and remained with that for the duration of the retreat.

This was probably the "easiest" retreat I've ever attended: may I live with ease, indeed. Usually there is a storm of emotional turmoil sometime in the middle of a retreat, but this one was notable by its absence. Also, I'm usually tortured by lust on retreat and have difficulty refraining from masturbating, but this time lust caused no suffering. "Can I befriend this?" There was also an insight into the nature of bodies: how, when all is said and done, they're all just bodies. Those bodies we call attractive still have to urinate and defecate and make gross noises and smells: that's just the nature of bodies. Disillusioning, in a good way.

I noticed that I have a very hard time remaining present in the bathroom: that I would fundamentally rather be elsewhere during those bodily functions. So I made a conscious intention to remain more present at those times, and there was some greater continuity of awareness after that.

At the end of the retreat, an unusually high number of people came up to me and just started talking. I was walking around, still beaming & doing metta, and people would come up and tell me how much I had inspired them, how much they had liked being around me, how tranquil the vibe around me was. "Must be all the metta," I said.

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