This past weekend, I took a 3 day meditation retreat at the Baltimore Shambhala Center. It was one of my levels in the Shambhala training -- Level III, Warrior in the World. The title is a little off-putting, but it makes sense. The idea is that you have to not only practice to improve things for yourself, you have to get up off the cushion and live that practice in the world. To face the world as it is, without pretense or illusion, and to cultivate an open heart takes strength and courage -- the courage of a warrior
The basic structure of the retreats is the same. We meet on Friday night for a couple of hours. We meet each other -- usually 10-20 students, a handful of staff and a teacher. There is an introductory talk to frame the weekend, a new practice is introduced. some meditation, and we have a dharma talk. Then there are the housekeeping details -- who is staffing the weekend, what time we should be there in the morning, whether lunch is provided, what to expect the next day, etc
On Saturday we arrive in the morning and spend half an hour or so having breakfast and getting better acquainted. Then we go in for meditation, alternating sitting and walking. Then some instruction. Usually there is some breakout for discussion, an interview with the teacher or assistant teacher as a check-in, maybe an exercise to try. We might have a few minutes of yoga. Lunch is mostly eaten together, and depending on the retreat, it is offered as a social period or a silent period. Then more sitting, more walking meditation, a dharma talk and discussion.
We come back on Sunday and the day is more or less the same pattern. We go out to a restaurant for lunch, or you can lunch on your own if you prefer. We sit, walk, do interviews again, more breakout discussion, and end the weekend with a celebration.
That's the framework. What it's like is different. We start out as a group of mostly strangers. Some familiar faces, but often very few. We start out awkwardly, a little uncomfortable with each other. By the end of the weekend at least a few people will have cried, everyone will have laughed, and we will be very sad to say goodbye. There are a lot of hugs as we part company.
I think this transformation happens because we have to be so unguarded, so open with each other. It is hard to stay strangers when people are talking about their thoughts and feelings, their habits and stresses and challenges. We also are physically struggling. Mediating on a cushion on the floor, or even in a chair, becomes excruciating as the weekend wears on. Backs and knees and shoulders and ankles scream and creak with the effort. We sit together and fight to stay awake, to honor the practices, to not zone out or just quit. We support each other, encourage each other, and recognize that we are all going through something similar.
The staff also does wonders to make the weekend work for all of us. They are all volunteers, students like ourselves. They have all completed Level III, which is the point in the practice where you can being volunteering for any of the levels you have already taken. The volunteers sit as timekeepers, act as gatekeepers, facilitate discussion and interviews. They prepare our meals and wash our dishes. They ensure our comfort, ease our hurts, make sure everyone feels safe and secure and cared for. They are there for the entire retreat. In Shambhala, volunteering is both service and practice. They tell us they get at least as much out of the weekend as we do, if not more. I believe them.
This weekend was like the others. It was hard, it was exhausting. But it also had moments of absolute transcendent joy.
We had to go for a silent walk outside, each on our own. Our task was to stay in the moment, focusing on our senses. It was raining, and the park I walked in never looked so lush and beautiful. The smells and sounds were amazing. The colors were intense, brighter and richer. I noticed things I never noticed before.
We had to take another walk on Sunday. This time we were supposed to walk around the city, really seeing every person we pass. We could say hello or not, but it had to be a conscious choice. And we were supposed to try to stay present and open throughout the walk. I have rarely had so much fun on a walk. The sun was shining, the students were moving into their dorms, the streets were crowded. I didn't have a place to go, or a time to be there. So I walked. I talked with dozens of people. I met and petted a couple of sweet doggies. I had a nice talk with a traffic cop. Spent a few minutes talking with a mom waiting to move her son into a dorm. Met a parent from out of state at the meters and helped him figure out what he was doing. Stopped and gave a beggar a dollar. Had a smile for everyone I passed. I had a nice walk back with another student, finding tons of common ground. It felt terrific! I felt free and happy and weightless.
Sunday afternoon is usually the hardest in terms of sitting in meditation. You are so tired by then; it's a struggle to even keep your eyes open. Your mind keeps jumping around and you keep dragging yourself back to your focus. The windows were open, a slight breeze started up.And then music. Very clear, very loud. A car stereo outside is playing The Beatles Let It Be. If a room full of people sitting in silence could freeze, it did. Did we really hear what we thought we heard?? A few lines into the song,we're sure we did. Then the first person starts laughing, then another, then the whole room.
Sometimes the universe is NOT subtle.