Three-year retreat is the best possible place to be; and most of the time it feels like the best possible work to be doing, and I am very mindful of how lucky I am to have this rare opportunity.
But it also has its challenges.
Right now, in late June, it’s very hot. It’s hard to get up before 4:00 a.m., and sometimes it’s hard to stay in the same seat doing the same practice hour upon hour, day after day. At this point, nearing the end of our first six months, the initial novelty has worn off and we are facing many more months of hard work without a lot of the comforts and escapes we used to take for granted. I sometimes feel like I’m “in the weeds,” my friend Anne’s term for being in the middle of a tough project with no end yet in sight.
The biggest challenge so far: retreat is pretty much designed to paint your ego into a corner. On a daily basis, I fail to live up to my own standards, in terms of both practice and interpersonal relations. As each day connects a few more dots in my devious ego’s outline, sometimes I feel temporarily discouraged, and there are days when I want to run and hide in a closet. (Not that we have any closets.)
A few inspiring books have helped me through the difficult moments, e.g., the chapter on patience in The Jewel Ornament of Liberation by Gampopa, Shantideva’s The Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, Ngulchu Thokme’s 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva, Thubten Chödron’s excellent book Working with Anger (which draws upon some of these very sources, and puts them into a Western perspective), and Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche’s brief account in his book, The Joy of Living, of his difficult first year of retreat, and how he overcame his own personal challenges through intensive application of the very meditation methods he was being taught.
When Lama Norlha Rinpoche was here to teach a couple of weeks ago, as he was leaving the shrine room, he stopped to look at a beautiful calligraphy by Tai Situ Rinpoche that hangs above the stairwell. Someone asked Rinpoche what it says, and he answered, “Ro nyam.” Asked what that means, he said, “Equal taste.” Asked to explain equal taste, he said: “Happiness and suffering are the same.”
He told us that in Tibet, practitioners would rub something soft, such as an offering scarf, against one cheek, while simultaneously rubbing something abrasive, like sandpaper, against the other, to try to get a first-hand glimpse of ro nyam.
Rinpoche often instructs us to examine our mind when we are very happy or very unhappy, and locate the part of the mind that feels the same no matter what, that is unaffected by passing emotions. I have found that instruction very helpful, both before retreat and in it. It’s an experiment anyone can do. If we just put to use the parade of emotions that march through our minds all day long, maybe we can skip the sandpaper!