For some time now, I’ve wanted to take a meditation retreat that would give me a break from my usual patterns of busyness and speediness and open up some space for me to ponder my next move, as I continue to process my exit from 30 years as a founding member with theTurtle Island Quartet. So, it was with equal parts a sense of adventure and deep terror that I embarked on a month long retreat in the wilds of Vermont this past January.
Getting to the retreat center known as Karmê Chöling was a bit of an ordeal: My wife drove me to the Marin Airporter for an hour ride to San Francisco International Airport, United flew me to Houston and then Boston, I took a Dartmouth Coach to the Hanover Inn, and finally was picked up by an rural transport driver (sort of the Uber of the region) and made it to Karmê Chöling.
The night I arrived, there was a palpable buzzing of energy. The retreat was fairly large to begin with: something like 60 people attended the first two weeks, along with a staff that included coordinators, meditation teachers, and the two teachers who led the retreat, or what is known in Shambhala Buddhism, a dathun. Dathuns traditionally last 28 days, and involve a fairly rigorous schedule of sitting and walking meditation, talks, work periods or rota as well as taking meals in the oryoki style.
Oryoki is a Japanese method of mindful eating that involves a set of small nesting bowls, special linens and a spoon and set of chopsticks. I could write a whole blog on oryoki. Suffice to say it was one of the more challenging things I ever experienced. We took three meals a day in the shrine room, sitting on cushions on the floor just as we had been doing in meditation. We sat at “tables” configured in either groups of 6 or 8 and served each other in silence. At the end of the meals, using a tool called a setsu, we cleaned our bowls in hot water, drank the water, wiped the bowls clean and used the largest linen to wrap up our oryoki set. Meals took over an hour at first but got progressively shorter as we gained skill with all the various steps of this contemplative way of eating.
It took me at least 2½ weeks to be at all comfortable with oryoki. My friend Phillip Ziegler had graciously given me a beautiful wooden oryoki set which made opening the set a pleasure. We were taught to treat our set with great care. The linens got pretty foul sometimes and needed frequent washing and ironing. Oryoki means “just enough” and not surprisingly, meals were much smaller than what most of us were used to eating. I lost a couple of belt loops, as did most people. The younger men in the dathun were seen scarfing down bowls of cereal and bread with butter or almond butter after the usual dinner of soup and salad. I tried very hard to stick to the food served, augmented by the fruit that was put out in the dining room. It wasn’t a hardship to eat less-it was a wonderful feeling to feel in touch with how much it really takes to satisfy my hunger. It turns out that it’s a lot less than I thought.
Sitting in meditation for days on end was physically difficult and boring for much of the dathun, but seemed a necessary part of the dathun for me. As I sat and marinated in the meditative experience, I began to settle in a way that allowed me to feel my feelings deeply. I began to grieve for some of the losses that have been imbedded in my heart, mind and soul. I cried and began to place my troubled mind in the cradle of loving kindness. It was a profound experience to spend a month learning to love myself.
My experience at Karmê Chöling has continued to unfold. My cello practicing has changed. I am enjoying wading into the unknown; the experience of practicing with attention, mindfulness and enthusiasm is exciting me. And I’ve been creating new solo cello music that fills me with joy and wonder. Where does my inspiration and creativity come from? Will it continue to be available to me? Where am I headed? My path is to be an open channel, and to let my muse carry me further along the path. It’s a sweet journey.