Lessons from a retreat at home


“Please let me in, please let me in” mewed the thin cat outside my door. Three times I’d sent him away already. I had foster parakeets, parrots and dogs of my own. “You know it’s getting cold and the cat is homeless”, my neighbor reminded me whenever I saw her. It was mid-October, the leaves were turning, and I was a week into a retreat. I had taken off ten days from work and was spending six to eight hours a day meditating. How long could a de-clawed cat survive in cold weather? What would my spiritual teachers advise me to do?

I decided to do a retreat as a way of concluding my third year as the Center’s Spiritual Program Coordinator. A retreat seemed like a perfect way to integrate what I’d learned over the years and to practice purification. My prior retreat experience was limited. I’d always thought that completing a retreat required traveling to remote places such as India or Bhutan for long periods of time. I was encouraged when Gyumed Khensur Rinpoche said that isn’t necessarily true. Ideally a retreat is done in a place where Dharma masters have meditated, if, however, this is not possible, it’s fine to do a retreat in a quiet location such as your own home if certain conditions are met.

With Tenzin Bhuchung’s assistance, I was able to ask Rinpoche all my questions about how to do the retreat.  I was concerned about the tormas because I had never even seen them being made. Rinpoche just smiled, handed me a bag of tsampa, and gave me some practical tips suitable for a beginner. Geshe la quickly emailed me drawings of the tormas and answered more questions. By the end of all of this, I was keenly aware of just how dependent we are on the kindness of others, particularly our spiritual teachers.

Before starting the retreat, I took care of as many errands as possible – returning library books, paying bills, creating a vacation message for my email accounts, and arranging child care…a bewildering tangle of household related activities. Ideally, someone will prepare meals for a retreatant because there’s no time to cook. Since I didn’t want my 8 year old son to cook for me (no thanks, maybe next time),  I cooked a few dishes and stashed them away in the freezer and stocked up with extra supplies in order to minimize trips to the store. I was glad I did  because meditating made me surprisingly hungry! I declined invitations from friends and family and put on hold all non-essential activities.

Fall and winter are considered to be the best time for retreat. Late October turned out to be great because of Halloween – I offered dozens and dozens of colorfully wrapped candy first to the Buddhas and then to the trick o’ treaters. The skeleton and zombie chocolates were my favorites because they reminded me of death and the protector deities.

“Please let me stay with you, I’ll love you forever,” purred Palden as he sat curled up in my lap in the prayer room. He followed me around the house, warmed my bed at night, and thankfully gazed at the parrots with complete disinterest. During the long prayer sessions, the heaviness and warmth of his body grounded me, helping me keep my balance and preventing me from (as a friend once put it) getting lost in the mandala. During the breaks, I took naps, and read books by His Holiness. His Holiness reminded me of both the importance and urgency of cutting through our ignorance and giving up our attachments. I had his picture  along with Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s and Gyumed Khensur Rinpoche’s on my altar so I could receive their guidance and support more easily. Throughout the retreat, I felt their presence.

After the first week, I realized that the retreat was going to take considerably longer than I had anticipated. There was no alternative but to return to work and to reduce the number of daily retreat sessions by half. The fourteen days of full retreat gave me a small but stable foundation. My job is not stressful, so going to work did not weaken the spirit of the retreat too much. I did a short session in the morning before work and then two to three hours in the evening. I found that by doing so, the day was still imbued to a large extent with the magic of the retreat. Given the limited amount of time I had to finish, I was aware that I might become too concerned with the number of mantra recitations and lose sight of the true purpose of the retreat. So I took off a few more days from work, put Veterans Day to good use, and sent my son to his Dad’s house on the weekends. By doing so, I was able to relax and enjoy the retreat sessions.

A few days into the retreat, I came down with a bad cold and broke out into a terrible rash. From what I’ve heard, it’s quite common for people to have such experiences during retreat, so it’s just something to be prepared for and to rejoice in. I coughed, lathered on lots of hydrocortisone cream and chuckled when I found this passage in Shantideva’s chapter on patience,

“There is nothing whatsoever
That is not made easier through acquaintance.
So, through becoming acquainted with small harms
I should learn to patiently accept greater harms.

Who has not seen this to be so with trifling sufferings
Such as the bites of snakes and insects,
Feelings of hunger and thirst
And with such minor things as rashes?”

Several days before Thanksgiving, I arranged the altar for the last time, and when the bell’s ringing gave way to silence, the retreat was finished. The trees were bare, the leaves piled thick on the cold, damp ground. Then in no time at all, it was back to playing Lego Star Wars and Pokemon with my son, discussing Santa Claus and Christmas gifts, and visiting family in busy New York city.

And what happened to my dear friend Palden the Magnificent? Two days after Thanksgiving, with help from the Homestretch Animal Rescue group, I found him a loving, permanent home with a wonderful couple. All is well.

P.S.  I hope that by sharing my experience with you, that you will be encouraged to do a retreat. It doesn’t have to be long. A half day Lam Rim retreat is often recommended as a good start, but please ask your spiritual teacher for advice. Kyabje Lama Zopa’s general retreat advice can be found here:http://www.lamayeshe.com/index.php?sect=article&id=326. For those of you who have done retreats, please feel free to pass along any lessons or advice so we can all benefit. As for me, I’m looking forward to my next one.

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