I arrive early in the evening to the place where I will spend a week in retreat. I feel stiff and uncomfortable not knowing what to expect or where the next six days will lead. I hold on to familiar ideas and experiences from past work periods. I think that it will be the same. I have brought the city with me and my old familiar self. There is tremendous resistance and immediately the old self tries to solidify itself, to cling to the old ideas, the old expectations, and the old exercises. I am encased in armor, a shell made of lead and I drag this around. I am closed and afraid. I am afraid of people, afraid to be seen. I wander around the property smoking cigarettes and I feel like a stranger in my own skin. I come up against the people I have traveled here with. I hold on to my habit of smoking like a crutch. I know that I can slip away at any time and have something to do. It anchors me, in a way, to my old self that does not want to be seen.
Someone asks if I could do some work in cleaning up the property and immediately the inner commentary starts, “Who does he think he is, telling me what to do? He can go to hell.” I’ve said it to myself but I’m sure it is written all over my face. I want him to know I am angry even though I have repressed it. I am caught in 10 000 things, a massive army of attacking thoughts, feelings and associations. The vastness of the land, the wide open vistas and the countless stars are all beautiful here but I am only thinking that it is. I am closed and therefore I am not aware of my surroundings nor do I feel them. I am locked away and unable to separate from my ordinary self with all of its barriers of feelings and associations.
I go to bed around 11 the first evening and I begin to try to work. I try to have a sense of my body, its weight on the mattress. I try that for a long time but I cannot seem to separate from my wandering thoughts. Eventually I fall asleep. I awaken several times in the night unsure of where I am. I miss my usual life. My thoughts wander off and I fall back to sleep. Finally, in the morning I am awakened by the roosters on the farm. I know that I have to get up to go to the sitting. I am afraid. I don’t feel ready. I wander outside, sleepy, into the fresh morning air. I light a cigarette and I can feel myself wishing that I had not come. I feel incredibly uncomfortable like I have forgotten everything, even how to speak. But, even though I feel naked and vulnerable and my instincts are to hide from everyone or to fortify myself there is a tiny part of me, a quiet and delicate inner voice that wishes to be here and to work. There is a direction, however slight that is opening itself.
The next morning, there is no coffee. The sitting is difficult and my body aches all over, especially my ankles from sitting poorly. Inside, an endless chain of complaint runs through me. I feel like a negative ball of twine unraveling out in all directions. The gong rings out a note that ends our sitting that sustains into Forever. It’s a wonderful sound and I like it especially since it announces that the sitting is over. I am stiff but a little quieter inside. The inner voice that wishes to work is a little louder, just above a whisper now although I lose the thread of it very easily. I spend the day working externally and trying to work internally.
There are people everywhere, spilling out all over the lawn and they can be seen mingling and wandering around or working. There is no escape. I still feel uncertain and I am afraid. I don’t know what to do with myself. In a way, it all is very unfamiliar. There is restlessness that betrays my inner state. As the minutes, hours and seconds go by over the next two days I, somewhat reluctantly, settle into these conditions and begin to make vast efforts to “work”. Strange things are happening with my usual sense of time. Everything seems to take an eternity.
On the third day I feel a chaos in my emotions. I am not sure whether to laugh or cry. I experience the urge to do both, sometimes at the same time. I am sensitive to everything. I have to struggle to suppress tears when I speak candidly. I have no idea what’s going on. Everyone appears to be easily susceptible to negativity. There is chaos all around me. People are complaining about each other whether they are there or not. It’s like walking on eggshells. The kitchen is the worst. The stress of a deadline for lunch and dinner allows a lot of space for habitual negativity. There is much arguing from those who supposedly know how to do it right. There is a thick heaviness present in the air.
In the evening I was absolutely exhausted and yet I could feel that there was energy available. I decided to try, “adding tired to tired.” After everyone had gone to bed I tried meditating. Why not just try, I thought. If I happen to fall asleep it will be fine, there’s no one to reprimand me. I entered the hall quietly and sat for a half hour. After the sitting I experienced a replenished energy. I was no longer exhausted as I had been before.
On the fourth day of the retreat I began to notice a peculiar sensation of energy coursing throughout my body. It had several levels or degrees of intensity. At times, when I was caught in my head, thinking or wishing to be some place other than where I was at the moment, it would cease to exist completely. It was during our daily small group exchanges that occurred at seven in the evening where I experienced it very directly. I observed through sensation and feeling that my body hummed with a flow of electricity that was concentrated in the solar plexus. It felt like a tuning fork that vibrated after it was struck and it sent ripples of energy throughout my entire body; from the crown of my head down through the tips of my toes. I also noticed that when people spoke sincerely this energy intensified. After I spoke about my experience, the energy increased to a feverous pitch. I felt reluctant to speak about what was happening to me. All I had heard was how most people were struggling and suffering, unable to work or lost in comparing the current retreat with the one last year. I felt that they may take my comments as bragging. I was also very exhausted and prone to negativity but I seemed to be able to use it some how. I was capable, at the time, of transforming it.
I was tired and my thinking faculty lacked the energy to wander aimlessly. If I found my mind wandering it was not difficult to make a gentle return to the body, to the breath. It was an easy shift. There I was simply inside the task of cleaning or cooking, present to the act.
At the end of the retreat there was a picnic to a waterfall. On the way there, in the car I began to feel very light, almost transparent. I was sitting in the back seat and as we drove through the green valleys of farms and sleepy villages I began to feel surges of energy throughout my body. I sensed currents circulating throughout my body that had a strong relationship to my breath. A vast silence filled the car. No one spoke. The silence fed this energy somehow and it continued to grow stronger. It was a revelation. I could easily place all my attention on my breath. I became acutely aware of everyone in the car; there was no thought, just recognition of all their emotions running through me. I became aware of an energy that seemed to be circulating around us. When I looked out the window I saw the miracle of life. I was filled with an indescribable wonder. All of my senses were finely tuned and vibrating. The sounds around me which, ordinarily I do not hear, penetrated my entire being. There was a fresh vividness all around the landscape. I feasted on the impressions like I had been starving. It was as if something that I had been carrying that was so stiff and rigid suddenly broke inside me and tremendous light was passing through.
I felt compelled to tell the elders how I was feeling, that I did not know what to do with this higher energy that I was experiencing. I was told to, “just stay with it and accept it. Try to contain it.” She seemed to be acutely aware of what was occurring within me. I kept my attention gathered on the breath and on the electricity in the body. I witnessed the temptation to construct vast imaginary stories about what was taking place but I resisted the urge to spill out into that. The car ride seemed to last for several hours when in fact it was only about 15 minutes. It was the most amazing car ride I have ever taken in my life.
While at the waterfall I was absolutely fearless. I found myself staring at the magnificent rush of water pouring into the basin of the falls. I was a part of everything; the water, the rocks, the trees, the sky, the birds. I was completely mystified by the birds. I could see the geometry embedded in their flight patterns. I understood that they were calling us to God, reminding us to remember our origins.
I discovered that it is possible to become aligned and more normalized and essentially more human: the way human beings should really exist. We can be opened to a new life where none of our old habitual attitudes and feelings weighs us down. If we experience this, we must be vigilant and try to contain this energy and to not allow it to go out into imagination and fantasy. It is very powerful and delicate and it needs to be guarded in a way so that it would not become destructive by allowing it to seep out through our ordinary functioning.
It occurs to me that most of the time we do not see what is directly in front of us. We do not take in impressions; the rich food that is all around us. There is too much in the way; our thoughts, our emotions, worrying about the past or the future, etc. We are asleep in life. We are dead. We can read in Ouspensky about the idea that man lives under a certain amount of laws. When one has a taste of presence one can understand what he meant by the term “laws.” We are no longer under the law of accident. There is an inner space. We are no longer easily taken by our reactions or our associative thoughts. We still have them but we are freed from our attachment to them. In presence, we find ourselves smiling, not only on the outside but also on the inside.