Between retreat. 

Moving from field to field

It is a week since we packed up and left Croydon Hall in Somerset. That was the location of Reggie and Caroline’s UK retreat for Dharma Ocean. A 10-day experience of blistering intensity and also beauty. It was called “Fields of enlightenment”. 

The day after tomorrow I head up to Holy Island for the 7-day Mindsprings retreat “Being still – Still Being’  which is at this moment a field of emptiness and potential. 

I would like to write something about what occurs between two big retreats but – as always – words can become a bit redundant. 

However, there is one lesson that is resonating still from Fields of Enlightenment and will doubtless inform the unfolding of Being Still – Still Being. And that’s the nature of pain. 

Upright, unmoving, silent for 8 days

The Croydon Hall retreat was unexpectedly tough. Many of the people there were relative beginners in meditation. They had perhaps done the Dharma Ocean ‘ground yana’ which involves a lot of lying down and relaxing. Communing with the Earth and gently sensing out the soft edges of the body. 

What Reggie and Caroline created was a minature dathün – the intense and relentless sitting retreat that takes place every Winter in Crestone, Colorado. People sat for almost 8 hours a day, in strict shikantaze posture – upright, unmoving, silent.  Despite the dropping gentleness of the Quantocks Hills and leafy profusion of the Somerset countryside, the practice cooked people. As did Reggie’s fiercely vajrayana teaching:  sharp and uncompromising. 

The painful acorn from which Buddhism grows

So there was a lot of physical pain – sore knees, aching bones, screaming backs. And there was a lot of emotional pain too: claustrophobia, anger and resentment, paranoia. And without the usual escape hatches of chit-chat, social diversion, tv, reading, thinking. The point of the Dathün is to place you face-to-face with the first Noble Truth of Buddhism: Human Life is Painful. 

This first Noble Truth is the acorn out of which all other Buddhist teaching emerges. It was in the historical Buddha’s first recorded teaching to his five renunciant colleagues at the Deer Park at Sarnath. The very first truth out of his enlightened mouth: human life is painful and there is suffering invoved in being alive. 

When you think about as a beginner meditator, then it’s quite outrageous. Every spiritual manoeuvre we undertake is premised on the idea of escaping human pain. Whether its the solace of a blessed afterlife or the promises of blissful escape from the realm of samsara, the underlying impetus of almost all our life’s efforts is: I don’t want to be in pain. I want to be comfortable. 

All our compulsive distraction turns to jelly

Yet this is what the Buddha says,  as uncompromising as Winter: “It’s never going to be comfortable.  Having a body is painful. Being incarnate in this world involves pain. Not exclusively pain – but enough. And the pain is likely to get worse as we get older and more broken. And the most important piece of spirtual work we can do is turn towards that bruising fact and embrace it.” 

Life is painful. 

Weirdly when we embrace that fact, something shifts. We stop fighting.  All our million and one daily efforts to avoid pain become redundant. Our obsessive sleeping, our coffee in the morning, our news consumption, our busyness, our social media consumption, our alcohol consumption, our consumer fantasies of perfect clothes, perfect holiday, perfect homes, perfect bodies. The motor of captitalist consumer society starts to shudder to a stop: no more shopping, no more preening, no more dating, no more dreaming. The whole edifice of our compulsive distraction becomes jelly.

Life reveals itself and it’s not as scary as we think

If pain is inevitable and we turn towards it, then suddenly, there is no need for denial. Suddenly we have no need for dissociation, no need for projection, no need for compulsive thinking, no need for addiction. 

If we turn towards pain and breath into it, life reveals itself. And it is nowhere near as scary as we think. 

This is what sitting hour on hour in a room with a hundred other silent people does. It forces us to give up and turn towards our pain instead of indulging all the million and one ways we distract ourselves from it. As if that million-fold expenditure of energy was worth it! As if the discomfort of having a human body was so utterly intolerable that no human could bear it without heroin, red wine or continuous affirmation from Facebook friends. 

Opening a maths book to find the taste of raspberries

What I discovered on this retreat was the bare-faced simplicity of the Buddhist technique of doing this. Sit still and bear with it. There is a technical trick that those clever meditators came up with for accessing the body without pinging off into distracting neurosis – and that’s called ‘sitting meditation’. You can learn it quite easily. And what struck me – like a lightning bolt – was that it really is like magic. 

We think and think and imagine that somehow ‘Life’ will be revealed by more elaborate or subtle thinking. But the rude truth is that thinking will never reveal any form of Life. It’s not where life hangs out. It’s like looking in the attic for a meadow of wild flowers . Or opening a maths book to find the taste of raspberries. We’re barking up the wrong tree. 

It’s not thinking’s fault. Thinking is marvellous – as are attics, as is maths – but it’s not Life. Life is and is only in the body.  Your body and other people’s bodies. And in the body of the World.  And that’s not mystical mumble. If you sit still, and follow the 16 points of posture in the sitting practice, you will come into the life of your body. And it will be painful. But it will be real  and alive. 

Pins and needles on Holy Island 

So this is what I’m taking into the Holy Island retreat. A fresh understanding of the first Noble Truth and an increased wariness of the dangers of what Trungpa calls “spiritual materialism”. That alluring siren song of ‘spirituality’ that lulls us into believing that being holy involves being free-from-pain. 

Meditation hurts. But it’s the pain of a leg that’s been numb with pins and needles coming back to life. It’s the pain of a healing wound. It’s the pain of an infant gasping its harsh first breath after a life of suspended animation. It’s the pain that brings us back to Life. 

(Thinking about it, t’s a good job that everyone has already booked and signed up for this course. They’d probably run a mile if they read this blog before arriving. But you should stay tuned for the post-retreat report. It will probably be much less scary…)

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1 Comment

  • John davey says:

    Fascinating.
    At first glance, I thought it sounded like my idea of hell. But, it occurred to me that I do a similar thing in a yoga practice. Instead of seeking a place of comfort, (as with many perceived forms of ‘check-out’ yoga) a physical practice is one which seeks-out discomfort. Often it’s the grappling with tissue and sensation which reveals the truth of a practice and where you learn most about yourself.

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