A Straight Shot of Politics

A blog from a gentleman of the Liberal political persuasion dedicated to right reason, clear thinking, cogent argument, and the public good.

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Location: Columbus, Ohio, United States

I have returned from darkness and quiet. I used to style myself as "Joe Claus", Santa Claus’ younger brother because that is what I still look like. I wrote my heart out about liberal politics until June of 2006, when all that could be said had been said. I wrote until I could write no more and I wrote what I best liked to read when I was young and hopeful: the short familiar essays in Engish and American periodicals of 50 to 100 years ago. The archetype of them were those of G.K. Chesterton, written in newspapers and gathered into numerous small books. I am ready to write them again. I am ready to write about life as seen by the impoverished, by the mentally ill, by the thirty years and more of American Buddhist converts, and by the sharp eyed people [so few now in number] with the watcher's disease, the people who watch and watch and watch. I am all of these.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

There are Cyber-Retreats and then there are Cyber-Retreats

The Anchoress suggested in a comment below that I check out her post on a "cyber-retreat," an article about guest opportunities in a Catholic monastery and how the authors responded to their retreat experiences. I would have commented directly on her post, but I found the contrast so striking to the customary experience one has visiting my Buddhist monastery, that a full-dress post of my own would not be out of place.

The article advises checking ahead at the retreat center you choose because, "you may not get the experience you envision." My experience with Buddhist retreat centers, both Zen and Tibetan, is that not getting what you expect is the whole point of going. The Trappist experience described in the article is that of a retreat to a calm place of natural beauty with unstructured time to improve one's receptivity to spiritual things, or, to simply decompress from an overstimulated life. The whole tone is one of time slowed down.

My monastery has an equally isolated and idyllic setting. But going there is usually an exposure to time speeded up! Physically, it is as quiet as the ever-present mountain wind. Psychologically, it can be like rush hour in midtown Manhattan.

The people in a Buddhist retreat center are doing things, and usually doing them very intensely. Come to any Buddhist group meditation where everyone is sitting quietly, concentrating on the breath going through the nostrils or the hara below the bellybutton, and it is as if you walked into a power station with a smartly humming dynamo. Attend a dharma teaching by a well-qualified lama and you will find the students at a pitch of attention which, anywhere else, would only be elicited by the solemn words, "This will be on the final exam." In one of the major initiations or regular rituals you may notice that the whole atmosphere is quite crowded, as if half the company consisted of invisible people sitting a little above your head.

Confidentially, when you happen to feel this way, you are probably right. There are usually more guests at the Monastery than appear on the desk register.

In addition, my teachers tell me that intense meditation, powerful ritual, or deep Dharma teachings tend to throw everybody's karmic processes into Fast Forward. So many varieties of neurotic feelings and behaviors can emerge from both you and your fellow students. The point of what is called "meditation in action" is getting your hands dirty, and relating properly to such exaggerated feelings and actions, which are well beyond your comfort zone.

All sorts of strange people show up at a Buddhist retreat center and all sorts of perfectly ordinary people occasionally behave in strange and unexpected ways.

It isn't just the people who can be crazy. A typical, and very spiritually fruitful, visit of mine to my Monastery occurred the day after a major coastal hurricane had passed through. I was trying to keep an appointment for an important private interview with my lama, who is the Monastery Abbot, and his translator. I made several abortive automobile forays up the mountain, only to find the roads blocked by fallen trees, and I made many frantic attempts to call the Monastery office on a cell phone while constantly losing the signal before getting through.

I finally had to drive completely around to the opposite side of the mountain, about 20 miles out of my way, and come up the back road. My lama was kind enough to grant me a late interview, but the whole process provoked every imaginable permutation of anxiety and frustration. And dealing with this properly was, as always, the spiritual point:

"Whether what happens is an obstacle or a stepping stone for further realization depends on the meditator....They are just another play of illusion. If a person understands and relates in this way, whatever drama appears in meditation could be tremendously uplifting....The demon of your confusion does not cling to you; you cling to it. From that point of view, such an event becomes a kind of special treat and a technique that brings more enrichment than the ordinary process. What is really important is how a person is able to work with what happens, so strictly speaking, these neither are obstacles or are not obstacles."--Ven. Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche


So, overall, a visit to a Buddhist retreat center is not precisely like the Anchoress' cyber-retreat. What it is like cannot be wholly put into words. But if you imagine a beautiful and isolated mountain top, with stunning vistas, where you re-stage the movie Animal Crackers, with half the characters completely invisible to the other half, and throw in some fickle mountain weather, you are very close to the flavor of it all. The spiritual part is learning to relate to such an outrageous scenario mindfully and effectively.

And you really can learn to do that there.

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