Got back on Friday from a two-week meditation retreat at the Insight Meditation Society’s Forest Refuge in Barre, MA. To you experienced meditators, two weeks may not sound like much, but it’s the longest retreat I’ve ever ventured and was it ever challenging!
I’d been there twice for week-longs –the last one in 2015, while I was still gainfully employed. I’d also been to the larger Retreat Center at IMS in 2017 for 9 days. I felt more relaxed and at home at the FR than ever before. It’s a beautiful setting in the wooded hills of north central Massachusetts. You get your own room, delicious vegetarian meals, and an opportunity to practice what’s become a buzz word: mindfulness.
Since 1976, IMS has been one of the main sources for educating and disseminating mindfulness practice, principally through vipassana or “insight” meditation. The idea is to sit, or walk, calm the mind, usually by focusing on the breath or another body sensation as an “anchor,” and then to observe the mind’s nature. Relax, be alert. Welcome whatever arises. If you start to get lost in thinking, caught up in the mind’s content, return gently to your anchor, realizing that you’ve just scored a small victory in terms of awareness. The general purpose is to see the mind’s process without going into the stories most of us tend to constantly fabricate.
Mindfulness is about clearly seeing the present moment, which is actually the only moment that is real. The past is memory, a mental construction. The future is planning or worry or just preocupation –also a mental construction. Thoughts are not to be supressed, but not indulged in. We’re trying to actually be present with the present.
Sound stupid? The value of mindfulness has been supported by research and by loads of testimonials. It’s moved into helping with chronic pain, end-of-life issues, addiction treatment, prison rehabilitation, business, sports, and even the military (See “The Latest in Military Strategy: Mindfulness,” by Matt Richtel, New York Times, April 5, 2019). All these applications carefully avoid the terms “Buddha” or “Buddhism” to make it more palatable to the majority of people. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s not hard to see the value of mindfulness in any situation, but in Buddhism it’s also linked to sila, the Pali word for ethics, which is centered on not doing harm to living beings. Our society tends to take anything and turns it into a commodity. Mindfulness can be “sold” that way and so can “retreats.”
But I digress. My retreat experience was a real roller-coaster, both physically and emotionally. Much of the time I was lost in thinking, in papanca, another Pali word, often translated as “mental proliferation.”
And how! At first, it was a continuous streaming of images, most of them, unsuprisingly, cartoon images. This always happens to me at the beginning of a retreat. It’s restlessness. It’s one thing to have a daily meditation practice for an hour every morning. It’s another to spend 4-5 hours a day meditating. The mind gets restless. It wants entertainment and the bewitching, ridiculous, often grotesque torrent of multiple images seems to offer a release from the monotony of simply sitting or walking without any added “doing.”
With patience, the torrent of images subsides although never quite disappearing for good. The next arising obstacle for avoiding the present moment was much more seductive to me: thoughts about making comic books!
I never had so many ideas come up in my life! This was the “firehose!” It’s been a problem in my daily practice too, but seemed managable. Last October, I talked with Taraniya, our first dharma teacher starting some 21 years ago, about a strategy for this problem. We decided that regular “brainstorming” sessions devoted to comic book projects might help quiet the mind during meditation periods. Sounds like a good strategy, but I never really implemented it. The consequence, evidently, was this unforseen deluge of creative ideas.
I love making comics! There is so much to learn about the craft and the art of it and it’s a kick to get storyline, dialog, and image ideas. So it’s a big temptation to wallow in these friendly waters instead of locating and living in the present. I got great encouragement and suggestions from an array of fine teachers at the FR: Rebecca Bradshaw, Alexis Santos, Annie Nugent, and Caroline Jones. With their help, I did manage to string together some moments of mindfulness.
So what’s the big deal with the present moment anyhow? If you’ve ever found yourself fully in present, moment-to-moment awareness, you’ll know what I mean. It’s as if blinders come off. Perceptual filters that you don’t know are even there fall off and a rich world of sensory data flows through you without any need to grab at it. This is the real world of fluid, changing phenomena, not the conceptually constructed one of objects and separate, isolated entities.
I think altogether I got maybe 3 hours of that kind of experience the whole two weeks. That’s the “squirt gun” part, but the benefit of that kind of whole awareness can’t really be quantified.
I confess I did spend a short time jotting down some rough notes corresponding to the deluge of comic book ideas. One of the teachers actually suggested it in order to clear some inner space. I had to restrain myself, but it helped.
Now I’m back in my studio and there’s no impediment to diving right into all that jumble of ideas (except for all the demands of managing a householder’s life of course). But something else I realized while on retreat has risen up too. I need to hold this preoccupation and passion for creating comics with a certain light touch. Life is an uncertain business at best. I don’t know how long I’ll be able to enjoy learning and practicing this art. I hope to be ready and willing to let go of it all when the time comes. If not, there’ll be a whole lot of sufferin’ goin’ on!
Next time: more of the “Renegade Refrigerator” and who knows what else. Until then, hope you and the present moment meet up with beneficial results.