I just finished a silent meditation retreat that lasted for 6 days with all women meditators, and here are 5 things I have learned:
1. 10,000 sorrows and 10,000 joys are all okay when they are held in loving awareness.
I thought retreat would be a period of rest and rejuvenation, it was, but it was also a reminder of 10,000 sorrows and 10,000 joys in our life. Within 7 days, I went through dealing with allergies for the first time in my life, fatigue due to allergy, and a laptop broke down. Last but not least, during a yin yoga session with Anne Cushman, the magic of holding a meditative pose and breathing in silence broke my intense emotion of homesickness loose. The homesickness was not something I was expecting to deal with nor I was planning to deal with it. Tears came, and I was quietly yet intensely sobbing while holding the yin yoga pose, with my leg slightly elevated higher than my body. Anne kindly reminded all of us to extend compassion to people who are feeling just like we do, and that compassionate thought helped my emotion to land in the loving awareness of the entire sangha.
Every day during the check-in, we reflected on moments of pure bliss, moments of cannot connect to the practice at all, and so many aha moments as if we truly heard the teaching for the first time. I noticed that my inner state fluctuated a lot and so are other people’s inner states. During the same day, we can move through peace, doubt, restlessness, anger, grief, love, loneliness, and connection.
All of the 10,000 sorrows and 10,000 joys are witnessed and held in the loving awareness of the community and then we realized that everything is truly okay. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with our lives. Life contains suffering and joy. The moments of realization during the retreat help me to build that realization muscle outside of the retreat.
I thought retreat would be a period of rest and rejuvenation, it was, but it was also a reminder of ten thousand sorrow and ten thousand joy. Within 7 days, I went through dealing with allergies for the first time in my life, fatigue due to allergy, and a lap
2. Joy truly is magical + Sometimes you do not need to figure out why you are feeling a certain way, just hangout in the space/state you would rather be in
My intense homesickness morphed into two nightmares that night: one about my visa in the U.S, one about I have gone back home and cannot fly out again (yeah I know a special kind of nightmare combo for diasporas). Needless to say, when I woke up, I was tired, unhinged, and not ready to move on to the new topic of the day, joy. I complained in my head: just give me 45 more minutes until I do a serious tonglen practice, to transmute all the pain and suffering into light, then I might be ready to move on to joy. However, that was not the schedule so there I was sitting there and was skeptical/indifferenct about joy. Until we were in the breakout room, I heard about what brought other people joy, small and big things in their life as well as our relationship to joy. I started to think about the loaf of sourdough bread I baked during this retreat, my puppy Jade lying in the grass enjoying the sunshine, and the precious connections that are formed in real life on this retreat. Suddenly I felt as if there was sunlight finally reaching my heart after a cold winter, I felt lighter, warmer and better.
This moment is special for me as this is an real-life example for me of what Dawn shared ‘sometimes you don’t need to figure out why you are feeling a certain way, just hang out more in the space/state you would rather be in’. This is so against my natural way of dealing with emotions. If I feel an intense ‘negative’ emotion, I usually face it head-on, try to get to the roots of the emotion and work on this emotion somehow. However, here I was, not dealing with the homesickness somehow, but not bypassing it either, I was looking at what else was there and I saw clearly that joy was there along with the suffering in my life and in other people’s life. I leaned on joy and it was magical, contagious and it filled up my well.
3.My surprising connection to equanimity: spaciousness + rooted
If you have talked to me about equanimity before this year, I probably cannot connect to it at all. Peace, what is that, from me as a highly sensitive person with intense emotions sometimes feel like hurricanes. However, after going through a sudden family loss again at the end of last year, I realized the importance to treasure the moments of acceptance as much as possible. I felt so drawn to Anne Cushman’s teaching of equanimity this time: spaciousness like the sky and rooted like a mountain or a big tree. With the spaciousness and being rooted, we can mindfully face anything that life might bring us and yes I want that super power that spiritual warriors poses. One image I have been using to evoke the feeling of spaciousness and being rooted, is sitting down in a meditative posture on the top of a mountain overlooking the sky and trees (funny enough I do not hike seriously). One sentence/inquiry that has helped me to access equanimity is this moment is like this. It contains awareness and acceptance, as well as hope. This moment is like this, but that means the next moment may or may not look like this, and that is hope. After this moment is like this, we can gently inquire, what else is here, that usually gently encourage me to look at the okay parts of my life.
Equanimity is a huge practice when it comes to how I related to the retreat. As I mentioned before, we all went through some less than perfect retreat experiences. I was a lot more tired than I hoped, my laptop broke down and I had some of the worse nightmares. Accepting the retreat we are on, the settings we are in is the experience we are having, and practice with whatever comes up, like Anne shared whatever you think is in the way is the way.
4. Metta: center flowers as the most important things in this world, metta about creativity, some more doorways to metta
Metta, loving kindness, arguably is the most well known brahma viharas (heart qualities 四无量心). However again, metta is one quality that I have a hard time connecting to. After listening to Kate Johnson’s dharma talk, one thing that stood out to me metta is centering flowers as the most important thing in this world. Anne then taught about how metta is not about magically wishing everyone’s life has no suffering at all, but to condition our hearts, so that we can act out of love and kindness when people need more love and kindness.
The most important connection to metta for me happened during a silent sit, I suddenly realized that I need to have metta for my own creativity. I know what is good writing, what is good photography and I know my work is not here yet. Somehow I thought bashing myself, and criticizing myself is the way to get to where I want to be with my creativity, but in reality, the overly strict standard just stops me from daring to create and share my creativity with people. Do I dare to share a piece of my creativity when there might be some flowers in an overgrown yard but not all flowers? Do I dare to figure out why good art is good and try to absorb some of the nutrients in my work and have fun creating?
Dawn’s metta meditation is also impactful, having more silence in between metta phrases, add in as much as possible (for example, not wish you to be happy, but wish you be happy as possible), imagining other beings/guides sending me metta instead of trying so hard to sending metta to myself, loving even the part of me that are judgemental and not willing to love myself, all helped me to get more of a taste of metta. Dawn saying that metta practice is her primary practice for almost a decade also was revolutionary for me: oh I do not need to know every practice in this world and even one meditation practice can lead me closer to awakening.
5. Compassion: quivering heart + skillful action; just like me
Compassion, is a heart quality that is so similar to metta, that I still cannot distinguish them clearly, but hey let’s not get lost in the philosophical distinction. Compassion as Leslie Booker explained starts with a quivering heart and leads to skillful action. That quivering heart resonated with me so much. As someone in diaspora, my heart quivers for so many places constantly and skillful actions are not always available for me. It is so easy to give in to compassion’s enemy: overwhelm. For example, my parents are under a covid lockdown and we do not know how long that lock down will last. There is very little I can do across an ocean. Learning when to stop looking at the news, when to do self care, and when to take skillful action is a mindful and rich practice for me. I also need to remind myself that skillful actions to help others do not need to look like grandiose heroic actions, sometimes sharing something as ‘small’ as a flower is enough and is a great first step.
Even when our heart quiver, and when tangible actions are not available, we can still send our compassion: just like me, this person likely has suffered today, even might felt some of the same feelings I felt, I wish you peace and less suffering.
Here is just part 1 of what I learned from the retreat more related to the main teachings. There are a lot of my thoughts and aha moments that will be included in part 2.