March 14, 2022
I just got home from 12 glorious days at Forest Refuge and feel much revived and restored. It was the first time back in almost exactly two years when I was one of the last yogis there before the beginning of the pandemic shut the world down. Rebecca Bradshaw was teaching again, and it was also her first time back since March of 2020. At my interview with her the day after I arrived, she said “so, we return to the scene of the crime!” Yikes. The preparation for being away on retreat is always quite involved, but this time was especially stressful due to the strict testing protocols necessary to even enter the IMS buildings let along stay for 12 days.
COVID cases in December and January were higher than ever before due to the omicron variant. New Jersey was like a war zone and I basically went into lockdown again. I taught a lot of “early lessons” on zoom throughout January before the students came back to campus for the second semester. Then, after we were back to in person classes, and the numbers in the general community seemed to be coming down, the University relaxed some of the restrictions around social gatherings. After one weekend of parties, the number of positive cases among the undergraduates soared and was much higher than even in December. Everyone knew, or was exposed to someone who was positive – my students, members of the Glee Club, members of the orchestra. There was no response from the University. Three weeks in a row of hundreds of sick students and nothing changed; so confusing compared to the panicked response in December. I decided to teach on zoom for the 10 days before my retreat. Michael and I even started wearing masks in the house and eating in separate rooms after he interacted with members of the orchestra who then tested positive. Poor Michael! He missed me even before I was gone.
Upon arrival at Forest Refuge, I had to show a recent negative PCR test and take a rapid test before they would even let me in. I had to take another rapid test four days later and wear a medical grade mask at all times in public spaces. It was a strict set of rules, but the result was that we all felt very safe and could actually relax. Sitting in the hall wearing a mask was interesting and challenging at first: waves of claustrophobia came and went, hot flashes as well. After years of focusing on the rising and falling of the diaphragm, it was impossible not to notice the warm and cool air coming in and out of the nostrils, and what was that terrible smell???? The digestion machine in my gut I suppose. Ah, body awareness. I tried brushing my teeth before I sat in the hall – it helped some. I did a lot of sitting and walking in my room to avoid wearing a mask – it helped a lot. Dealing with hats and scarfs and glasses and masks coming in from outside was complicated and I forgot my mask in the pocket of my coat several times. Of course, eventually I got used to it all, even the achy hip sensations that came and went.
Caroline Jones gave a wonderful dharma talk the first week about contentment. Rebecca added to it, “can you be content even with a headache?” Overall, I was extremely content for most of the time, even with minor unpleasantness. It was wonderful to practice with other people in person, and it felt more like the beginning of a retreat since 14 new people all arrived on March 1. I settled into the routine happily and got quite concentrated pretty quickly. Six inches of snow covered the ground from a recent storm and the weather was cold and bright for the first 5 days. Then one morning we woke to beautiful fog, and warm windy air melted most of the snow within the next two days. Snow fell again for the next 24 hours restoring a winter wonderland, only to disappear by the next afternoon. Ah, the changeable and impermanent spring weather in New England! Yogi jobs were voluntary, and I signed up to lead the metta chant at the sitting before breakfast – continuing where I left off in March of 2020. I also remembered loving the job of sweeping the decks, so I helped out the woman who was doing it all day during the snow storm. No sooner had we mindfully swept a section of deck than it was covered with snow again, so sweet.
I could tell that I was on the lookout for something “special” to happen. I know that in the past, when I have gotten concentrated, and calm and joyful and mindful etc. some interesting clear seeing would usually emerge. But if I was looking for it or waiting for it, all bets were off. Caroline had suggested that I let go of the instructions completely. I had to let go of any expectations completely as well. After being 90% contented, as I told Caroline in my interview, I had one day where my hip pain started to get to me. Yes, I would really prefer it not hurt! I didn’t sleep well and woke up disgruntled. As I knelt to do my bows before taking my seat in the hall for the morning sit, I sighed to myself “Ok, let’s try this again today.” The Buddha statue at the front of the hall then clearly responded to me, “You don’t need to try. You are already here.” Woooooa.
In the sitting that followed my body expanded and then dispersed like a wispy cloud in a vast blue sky. Mmmmmm, lovely. I had a meeting with Rebecca later that morning and when I described this she said “wow, you are lucky that you have such natural concentration. But you need some grounded energy to balance you. Go walk in the woods and don’t be too concentrated.” Great, I love walking in the woods! This feeling of expanding and dissolving phased in and out over the next two days and I had some small moments of non-dual seeing. This was interesting and delightful, not scary as in years before. When I saw Caroline, the day before I was to leave, I asked “so, it is wonderful to come on retreat and get concentrated and have these cool experiences, but how does that help me be patient and warm and forgiving with my husband when I get home?” She thought for a long moment and then finally said “don’t cling.” Yes, and pause, before responding, as she did!