Hello at Last: excerpts

from chapter 1,
The Silent Sangha

. . . Each of us took refuge in reflective listening, repeating back what the other had said, rather than expressing our own opinions. That way the other could hear the words afresh, rather than needing to defend them. (It really does work like magic.) We were focused, we were kind, and we were open, to a degree far beyond my expectation. We may have come to our cushions with various anxieties, but by the end of each session we were sitting there in full respect and trust and love.

I remember thinking, This is how I want to be with people, a thought that has often arisen in my experiences with spiritual friendship.

from chapter 6,
In the Forest, in the Rain

Mindfulness slips silently, invisibly, into the corners and crevices of my days, blending into ordinary life without my noticing. It often takes a teacher, or a spiritual friend, to point out places where the sense of separation has softened, when moments are experienced in mindfulness, when my being opens to the joy of simply being. And it took a spiritual friendship to spark a simple but extraordinary idea: two of us intentionally blending practice with daily life by holding our own retreats, at home. Neither of us remembers exactly how the idea arose, but I think the seed was planted years ago.

Sandra and I had met at a Zen retreat. I noticed her right away: whereas most retreatants showed up in outdoor or even athletic wear, Sandras look  clothes in deep luminous colors and rich textures, with handsome jewelry and strappy sandals  marked her (in my mind, anyway) as a more arty type, my type. There was something regal in her bearing, and when she spoke in group discussions, her probing intelligence and her skill with language were a joy to me. At the end of the retreat, we rode home together, beginning a long if intermittent friendship, conducted largely during rides to and from Zen retreats.

On our occasional visits, as on those rides, when Sandra and I got together, it was to talk. Mostly we talked about books and art and spiritual life. Our talks ran wide and deep, branching unpredictably in a myriad directions. At times it would feel as if I were standing at the edge of an ocean of allusions and connections and insights, like darkly gleaming gems, undulating, surging against each other, striking occasional bursts of diamond brilliance, stretching into dimensions I cannot name.

Theoretically, any conversation occurs in partnership, but I attribute that oceanic quality of mind to Sandra, seeing myself primarily as a spectator. I suspect it is something innate in her that has developed through her frequent engagement with other peoples creative intelligence. She is a playwright, and she takes for granted that a script is subject to a multitude of forces, from feedback at preliminary read-throughs, to interpretations by directors and actors, and reactions from an audience. She relishes that process, finds that synergy stimulating and satisfying. To me writing seems essentially solitary, and collaboration is inconceivable, scary to contemplate, in fact. I have marveled at Sandras taste for collaborative work, assuming that it simply was not for me.

Sandra and I had been among a group of Zen students who, when our teacher could not come to a sesshin at the last minute, held it anyway. We students took turns ringing bells and leading walking meditation, and guidelines were established so that no one would need to communicate with anyone else. Everyone was on time for every meditation period, from early morning until late night, and everyone followed the guidelines. Four days of silence. No writing notes, no writing of any kind, no eye contact. The supportive strength of sangha in that situation could hardly be exaggerated. The others showing up, keeping the schedule, sitting still, and staying silent was a powerful incentive for me to do the same, to do my best.

Until that time, I had perceived the teacher as a restraining force against which I could rebel, secure in knowing that I couldnt stray far, since the teacher was there to shoo me back into line. But at the teacherless sesshin, each of us had to find our own discipline internally. That was the first time I looked to myself for what the teacher had always provided. Taking responsibility had always sounded tiresome, something to be avoided, but what I discovered then was how much easier it is than being dependent (seemingly dependent, for this is an illusion) on someone else. Thinking the teacher was in charge of my behavior involved an undercurrent of struggle, whereas once I saw that self-discipline was up to me, what had to be done was accomplished effortlessly. It felt great  so great, so grown up, that I initially suspected my teacher of engineering the whole experience, just for my benefit. It seems to me that consciously accepting responsibility for our experience is a crucial shift. I have to make that choice again and again, but over time, trust builds that everything we truly need is within us.

Throughout that sesshin, the silence was almost palpable, a presence in itself. Leaving the retreat together, Sandra and I did not speak for a long time. When we did, we agreed that we wanted more of that silence in our lives. Years passed before it occurred to us that we didnt have to wait for somebody else to impose silence and structure. As that seed of trust opened in us, we saw that we could offer that to ourselves, through our own retreats.

Our retreats reflect our wish to live in a more conscious balance of flow and order. Unlike other retreats, ours do not mean leaving behind the comfort and convenience of home, and, most important, our work; the original impetus was wanting to be together in a way that allowed silent time for writing. As the idea took form in our minds, we saw that all our daily activities  not only working but preparing food, eating together, cleaning up, exercising, relaxing  would be opportunities for mindfulness. Of course weve heard that for years  when we were away on retreat. Now, instead of leaving our normal routines to seek spiritual experience, we bring the two together.

A key element in our retreats is meditative dialog. Sandra teaches a writing awareness practice and studies the A. H. Almaas inquiry method, which shares key features with Gregory Kramers insight dialog. For our retreats, we let go our usual way of talking in favor of something we deem more precious, silence and mindful communication. Those retreats, I realize now, are a form of collaboration  in our spiritual practice

Typically our retreats are two or three days, spent mostly in silence. Our schedule includes several hours of work in the morning and again in the afternoon, and because we both write, we use those work periods for writing. Along with sitting meditation, we practice meditative dialog. We dont plan our retreats very far in advance; they just seem to come around, like the seasons.

We meet at Sandras weekend house in the mountains, not far from where I live. The house is in a forest, surrounded by hemlocks and rhododendrons, facing a rocky stream and a waterfall. At this moment in late April, dogwood has sprouted its first tiny leaves, paired upward-pointing hearts in the freshest newborn chartreuse. They remind me of the heartshaped leaves of the Bo tree, which sheltered the Buddha as he sat it out all the way to enlightenment. Today venerable Bo trees shelter countless shrines in Asia. Sandra and I do not worship, we have no shrines, and yet the air of this forest carries a delicate suggestion of a holy place, like the faintest trace of incense. No, not a place, but a holy time  the time we have dedicated to this purpose.

As in the Zen retreats we attended together, our schedule is drawn up anew each time. This is significant: the schedule is not imposed mechanically but arises in fresh response to our needs and the situation. Unlike Zen retreats, there is no wake-up schedule. We rise and have breakfast, separately and in silence, and then our schedule begins.

  • 9:00 am: We sit on facing cushions and meditate for half an hour.
  • 9:30 am: We raise our eyes and begin our practice of meditative dialog, which may involve long periods of silence.
  • 10:00 am: We return to silence and write.
  • 12:30 pm: One of us fixes lunch while the other continues to work, and we remain silent during that time.
  • 1:00 pm: Lunch; we talk quietly while we eat and then take a walk.
  • 2:00 pm: We return to silence and writing.
  • 5:00 pm: Still silent, we have free time for yoga, reading, sitting outside.
  • 6:00 pm: The silence ends, and we fix supper, eat, and clean up.
  • 8:00 pm: Sitting meditation for half an hour, followed by open-ended dialog that often continues until we go to bed, in silence.

We may have sat together before breakfast on our first retreat; I dont remember. Sometimes we have had a sitting period before or after lunch, sometimes not. Whatever schedule we adopt, we do not always adhere to it perfectly. We no longer see the schedule as a restraining force, in loco parentis, as it were, just as we no longer see the teacher that way. Sitting meditation, dialog, and writing are what we want to spend our time on, and pursuing those activities within the structure provided by the schedule makes them all the more focused, meaningful, true. The schedule serves our most cherished purposes. Why wouldnt we want to follow it? Well, conditioned minds have their reasons. We might want to talk or have a snack or take a nap, and we might do those things. But the presence of the other person is a reminder of our purpose in being together in that particular way, a way different from ordinary life in which we unconsciously succumb to  indeed, are almost entirely driven by  the siren songs of ego.

Nor is our environment as controlled as it would be at a retreat center. Sandras elderly cocker spaniel spends most of the time asleep, until we begin to meditate. Then he wakes up, walks back and forth between us, clicks his toenails on the floor, paws obsessively at an old towel he plays with, snuffles, and  most distracting of all  stands close in front of me, looking up into my lowered eyes.

A childhood memory arises: looking into the eyes of my kitten, this creature I love so utterly, and wondering, Who are you? What are you? It is the question we ask ourselves, in one way or another. The question with no answer. The question at the heart of spiritual practice.

When I sink into doubt and despair, my teacher advises me to ask the classic questions, Who experiences doubt, who is in despair? Recently she suggested something different  that in low moments, I say to myself, I am a person on the path to awakening.

I look into the mirror and face the being I know so intimately, yet do not know.

Sandra and I have practiced meditation more or less regularly  dutifully, even  for many years. Gradually the balance of our attention has shifted away from sitting meditation and toward maintaining mindfulness in ordinary activity. At times each of us has considered giving up sitting practice, and yet we never do.

We wonder if once people set foot on the spiritual path, they are on it forever, regardless of how long it takes to get there.

Get where?

Weve both been reading books by Advaita masters about enlightenment, the once-and-for-all, ever-after kind, not the momentary glimpses that leave us tangled in longing. Are we going for ever-after enlightenment, we ask each other? My teacher says that one result of dharma practice is that we grow up, we become adults. Jiyu Kennett called Buddhism an adult religion. Vipassana teacher Matt Flickstein says its easy to find people who have had enlightenment experiences, but rare to find people who are fully mature human beings. Sandra and I decide that our aim is adulthood. If enlightenment lies further along that same axis, so much the better.

During one dialog session, when I lower my eyes, the shape of Sandras head glows in afterimage against her body, like an inner being deep inside her, the same size but without surface features. I sense a similar being within myself. We speak through our personalities, but does something in that speaking come from these deeper aspects? The words that emerge in this meditative communication are so simple, so direct, so clear, so compassionate  even as they take us into strange territory, where we encounter unexpected subtleties and unspeakable complexities, pain and fear, awe and ease and joy. That is the fruit of giving full attention to what we say. After the dialog, I think, This is how I want to be with people.

On a walk we stop at the edge of a lake. Fish turn to face us in the clear shallow water. They seem to be looking at us, as Sandras dog looks at us, oblivious to our personalities, asking the wordless question, Who are you? What are you?

That evening rain drowns out the sound of the waterfall. We sit in meditation with the rain. When it is time for dialog, there is a sense of, why speak at all?

We do speak a little, quietly, embraced in the sounds of the forest, and then our speaking dies down. The rain stops. We continue to sit, our schedule abandoned. We sit in the hum of fridge, the chant of frogs, the murmur of the waterfall. Fridge hum stops. Frog sounds fill the world. Are the frogs speaking to us? Or are we, in our listening, asking them the same question the fish and the dog ask in their looking at us?

Frog chant fades into a few solo voices, falls off into single notes, then silence. Still we sit. At some point it seems clear that the last frog has spoken. We rise without speaking, go out onto the porch, stand in the dark facing the waterfall, the only sound.

The next morning in meditation, my lowered gaze is filled with Sandras motionless form  the horizontal base, knee to knee, and the upright torso with hands forming a circle, the cosmic mudra familiar from Buddha figures. A Buddha before me. Buddha-shaped, anyway. I am aware of myself as Buddha-shaped.

In the final writing period before the end of our retreat, I come to a stopping place, put away my notebook and pencil, and gaze out into the treetops. Soon, summer will screen the view of the waterfall with foliage. But not the sound. It will vary, from a burble to a soft roar of white noise, but the sound of falling water is heard year-round.

Now in late April, the forest itself is revealed in all its ongoingness. Trees toppled in a winter ice storm pierce the space with fractured trunks, and the ground is littered with limbs. A few dogwood blossoms still fleck the woods with brilliant white, but most are past their peak. Against the dark evergreen background, the pink-yellow fuzz and slick maroon of new oak and maple leaves suggest a tapestry, woven on trunks and branches splotched with moss and lichen, pale green in the damp. This forest lives much of its life veiled in rain and mist.

I think about forest monks in the Buddhist tradition, their rainy season retreats, their Bo trees. We are a world away from that; renunciants we are not. And yet there is a thread of intent linking them and us. Who are we? We are on the path to awakening.

from chapter 7,
When the Student Is Ready, the Sangha Appears

Someone asked me how I have been affected by these spiritual friendship practices. I hadnt thought about it; they are so varied and spread out in time and place that I tend to see each experience as discrete, encapsulated almost. But the question lingered, and into my mind floated instances of shifts, small and large, in the general realm of how I relate to other people.

Foremost in my awareness is this: the importance of solitude and silence. To propose solitude in the context of spiritual friendship may seem contradictory. But it is clearer to me than ever that solitude is the ground against which companionship blooms most beautifully. Likewise, it is silence that gives rise to the truest, most loving speech. Those qualities are analogous to the stillness of meditation in which we encounter the fullness of the world. Just as our relationship with ourselves is enriched by mindful attention and simplicity, so is friendship.

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