Every couple of weeks we'll feature a new post by Michael Sigman, sangha member and blogger extraordinaire. Read on for Michael's second "dharmablog" entry about his first residential retreat experience. Click here to read his first post, about his initial introduction to meditation practice.
"Oh, when there's too much of nothing,
No one has control"
Twas the night before retreat/And all through my head/Drops of excitement/Met oceans of dread
As I packed comfortable sweats, running shoes and anti-anxiety meds on the eve of my first extended meditation retreat, I checked voice- and email more than once, holding on to the slim hope the whole thing would be cancelled so I could enjoy a real vacation with a clear conscience. No such luck.
I’d been practicing meditation on my own for several years, but was terrified about the prospect of sitting eight to 10 hours per day for five consecutive days. Worse, for the duration of what the folks in charge dubbed, without irony, a “short” retreat, there would be no reading, writing, TV, cell phones or music. The kicker? No talking. They called it “silence,” but to me it loomed more like high school detention.
Arriving to the awesome beauty of Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, CA — the majestic woods, gentle deer, preening wild turkeys and sunbathing lizards — only made things more tortuous. I figured if I couldn’t appreciate it, surely (a) it was my fault and therefore (b) I was a terrible candidate for spiritual growth. I’m a mechanical moron, so when I was assigned a “yogi job” operating a dishwashing machine I had visions of losing a digit or two. The urge to grab my car keys and beeline it back home was thwarted only because admitting defeat would have been too humiliating.
The rundown of our schedule posted at the entrance to Sprit Rock’s magnificent meditation hall was similar to that for summer camp minus the swimming, softball and DDT anti-mosquito attacks. Sitting still and doing nothing was the main activity. Going nowhere — walking back and forth across a room — was also prominently featured. Sleeping, at least for me, would make only a cameo appearance, leaving that much more time for doing nothing.
The simple but far from easy instruction from the three smart, generous teachers — watch my mind, and when it wandered, go back and watch it some more — was awful, harrowing and thrilling. Awful because it seemed that every negative thought and gut-wrenching emotion I’d ever had returned for long visits before yielding to another parcel of misery. Harrowing because five days of silence felt as daunting as scaling mountains, camping in remote deserts, rafting down rapids or plumbing the depths of the sea. And thrilling because, with the help of dharma talks and other advice from the teachers and the silent solidarity of 75 or so other retreatants, I experienced a cumulative sense of accomplishment, nourishment and, yes, small “e” enlightenment.
For a while, I thought I was going nuts. I spent a whole day obsessing over a nasty thing a former boss had said years before. But eventually, I came to understood that my sanity-challenged thoughts arose unbidden and needn’t represent anything more than ambient noise.
And who gets to decide who’s nuts, anyway? As the great and hilarious Spirit Rock teacher Wes Nisker points out, what we’d call schizophrenia today was normal an evolutionary blink of an eye ago, when it was a given that people’s thoughts weren’t their own but arrived via special delivery directly from the gods.
Getting into the car with a couple of other retreatants for the ride back to the SF airport, I felt a surge of joy. I’d completed my first marathon, learned more about myself than I ever thought possible sans psychedelics and felt so stoned I was awestruck by the selection of apples in the mammoth supermarket where we stopped for a snack. My sense of satisfaction grew when my carmates shared that they had bent the rules: One snuck in a block of chocolate, another read a mystery novel. When I admitted I’d checked messages — but only twice! — I thought Nirvana might be within reach.
Returning home to life’s inevitable setbacks, of course, was far from exhilarating. It took several years before I grokked that exhilaration is the near enemy of true joy.
At the end of the retreat, I asked a teacher how I might pursue the Spirit Rock teachings in L.A. She recommended “this amazing person in Santa Monica, Trudy Goodman,” and Trudy’s fledgling InsightLA organization.
Next time: Finding sangha with Trudy and InsightLA. The power of the group: neurons — and people — that fire together, wire together.
Michael Sigman, who hosts the InsightLA Tuesday night sitting group, is a writer, editor, publisher, media consultant and president of Major Songs, a music publishing company. He was publisher of both the OC and LA Weekly, a music journalist and editor-in-chief of Record World, and he supervised LA Weekly Books, a St. Martin’s Press imprint. He is the author of the biography of his father, songwriter, Carl Sigman, and is currently working on a biopic about music legend, John Hammond. Michael writes a weekly blog on the Huffington Post. Michael Sigman graduated Phi Beta Kappa and Magna Cum Laude, with a BA in Philosophy, from Bucknell University in 1971.