This is the final month of our first year of three-year retreat. On January 5, 2009, year two begins.
Lama Norlha Rinpoche used to say that during the first year of retreat, everyone always thinks they made a big mistake, but for the last two years, they never want to leave. He also says the first year can seem a little slow, but the second year is really fast, and the third year speeds by before you know it. I imagine that third year will be a bit like an Amtrak through train whizzing by the Metro-North platform in New Hamburg. I’ve seen six previous retreats begin and end, and I know that no matter what you’re doing, three years are gone in a flash, like a dream. One is gone already!
From my perspective at the end of the first year, I can say that, though it has been hard in some ways, the practices are completely compelling and absolutely worth the effort. I’ve definitely learned a few things. But I would say that the main thing I have accomplished in my first year of retreat is perhaps to have a little more awareness of the work that lies ahead. Two more years doesn’t seem half enough!
I wrote in an early post that retreat reminded me of the movie Groundhog Day. I had no idea how relentlessly that analogy would play out. Being in an isolated, enclosed environment and following the exact same routines day after day, week after week, month after month, highlights many patterns. In particular, it brings one’s own habitual ego-driven patterns into such strong relief that they become inescapable, like being trapped in a house of mirrors with infinite regress in every direction. This can be a cause of despair from time to time, but then the recollection kicks in that this is the very work I signed up to do, and the most effective place to do it. There’s no way to avoid situations you don’t want to deal with; every day brings you face to face with the same raw material, with no handy distractions or escapes.
A year into retreat, I wake up every morning and think, sometimes cheerfully and sometimes not, “Today, I get to do it all over again!” And every morning I aspire to do it a little better, not to waste any time, not to let anything bother me, not to react from my devious ego. As Battlestar Galactica put it, “All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.” Whatever we don’t resolve in this life, we will take with us to Groundhog Day: The Next Life. May as well work on it now!
In my solitary room practice, every time I finish counting 108 prayer beads, I start again. Every time I finish a thousand, or ten thousand, I start another. But each repetition is subtly different, just as I’m not exactly the same person from day to day in my routines and interactions. If I practice sincerely and diligently, gradual awakening is happening, even though it may not be evident in the short term. Three years is a generous amount of time to devote to this process. I feel very fortunate.
Over the course of the past year, from the vantage point of my window looking out on the Hudson River, I’ve watched the days grow gradually longer, then gradually shorter, and later this month they will start to lengthen again. The sunset has migrated to the north and migrated to the south, and soon it will be center stage across from my window again for a month or two. Squirrels, groundhogs, Carolina wrens, catbirds and geese have come and gone. There are no more walnuts. Impermanence and change are evident everywhere, even in the most ordinary and subtle phenomena. Nothing stays the same.
Shortly after Christmas we will begin our first “major” practice. It will last about six months and require complete silence; we aren’t even allowed to talk to ourselves! The purpose is to reduce interactions and thinking so that our habitual conceptual patterns can subside and we can cultivate continual awareness of what is real and constant and generally obscured by all that activity.
I will be opting out of most extracurricular activities during that time, such as elective correspondence and these web posts. I feel less and less like I have anything useful to say anyway. My hope is that some of Lama Norlha Rinpoche’s words have come through over the past year and illuminated your way, as they have mine for the last 28 years.
Till next time,
Linda / Yeshe Chödron