FR: wind, rain, fog and the groundless ground

March 16, 2024

I am just back from a wonderful reunion with the sweet New England woods in central MA and two weeks on retreat at Forest Refuge. As usual, the early spring weather in March was wildly variable with cold, windy rain, fog and even a dusting of snow one morning, as well as a few days of warm sun, singing birds and budding flowers. The more muted environment was a welcome antidote to the overwhelm of Paradise in Hawaii last winter. Rebecca Bradshaw was teaching again as always in March. Her teaching partner was Devon Hase, one of the new generation of recently launched IMS teachers whom I didn’t know at all. I trust Rebecca and have tremendous respect for her guidance without any sticky attachment. In contrast, I could feel myself falling in love with Devon almost immediately. She was warm and heartful, while also brilliant and nerdy in her presentation of the suttas, translation of Pali terms, and discussion of different lineages and teaching styles across varied Buddhist schools. She was only a few years older than Emily, also an only child, also married to a zen student, also with a father 13 years older than her mother, a writer and an athlete, so many common threads. She had spent many long stretches on retreat, including time on Maui with Steve and Kamala, and was extremely skillful at helping me understand some of the strange experiences I have had on recent retreats. I knew it would be a mistake to try to look for that experience of nothing I had had last year. Devon agreed and encouraged me to notice what was absent and be playful with awareness.

As usual, in the early days of the retreat, I didn’t sleep well and had some vivid and crazy dreams. At my first meeting with Rebecca, I recounted a dream in which I was a passenger in several strange vehicles that were not proceeding easily along their paths. Then, I was chased by a group of tiger cubs who I think wanted to play with me. We decided that I was having some doubt about my practice and needed to relax and play more. Yes, that’s what Devon had said. Rebecca recommended dropping all labels and commentary. Don’t chase after objects, just rest in receptive awareness. When I met with Devon a few days later, I described a lot of calm stillness and quiet. I asked her about the difference between equanimity and dullness in my regular life. She said what I was describing didn’t sound like dullness to her, but a more quiet, easeful joy and appreciation of life – better than intense passion. I agreed. She said I could check to see that the enlightenment factors were balanced, and maybe bring in a bit more energy or investigation. Wow, I had been doing this for a number of years, but this was the first time a teacher had articulated it to me.

After that meeting I actually decided that I would be totally OK to spend the retreat resting in the calm, quiet equanimity I was feeling. What a relief not to be checking the enlightenment factors, or maintaining continuity of awareness, or on the lookout for some special experience. Devon gave an incredibly inspiring talk that night and I slept really well for the first time in a week. The next morning as I came into the hall early to sit and lead the metta chant, I could tell the sky was clear for the first time and we might actually have a sunrise. I rang the bell at 6:20 and as I got up to turn on the lights, I saw the sun just peaking through the trees in the east. The early morning crowd in the hall did a great job chanting and my heart felt happy and full as I walked back to my room before breakfast. As I opened the blinds, I saw a shaft of sunlight coming through the trees and falling on the frosty grass in the meadow. A voice in my head said, “oh, the groundless ground,” the phrase Devon had said at the end of her talk. I could clearly see the ground deconstruct and there was nowhere for the shaft of sun to land. Yet it was also completely there, just as it looked. Humm, form is emptiness, emptiness form. No big deal. I made my bed and did my yoga stretches. As I came into the dining room, there were shafts of sunlight falling everywhere and I saw the groundless ground again and again. My heart started to swell. The lady who always scuffed her slippers on the floor even walked by quietly and my heart soared. Ahhh, I saw it, this practice is amazing and really works, wowwwww. I have to tell Devon!!!

I was floating and flying and so joyful. It was a beautiful day and I enjoyed playing outside after lunch and taking a long walk in the woods on all my favorite trails. At some point, however, I started to notice that the joyful, flying feeling was actually starting to feel sticky and agitated. My thoughts were racing with plans for the future and inviting Devon to Princeton. Woa there, this is clinging and actually causing more suffering than that quiet calm I was feeling yesterday. Interesting. I had signed up for an extra interview for the next day. By the time I arrived, the revved-up state had started to wind down and I could describe the insight, and the high, and seeing the clinging. Devon said that was more important than seeing the groundless ground. One of the last fetters to release is the sense of self, the one who has the insight. So interesting to work with.

The next few days were pretty ordinary: some quiet, some thinking, some music, some hip aching, clouds, rain, fog. The next time I met with Rebecca I described the whole up and down and told her I felt like I wasn’t really doing anything. And you’re not supposed to hold onto special experiences or pleasant meditative states, but those things are good, right? She nodded and said meditative insight comes from not doing. You just put your body in the form and let the practice run the course and unfold on its own. OK, sure. A few days later, someone left me a note on the bulletin board. Her plans had changed and she was leaving Friday, the same day I was, and heading to Boston and could I give her a ride to Worcester. Yes, it’s good to have an opportunity to help, I could probably give you a ride to Worcester, but I really don’t want to think about this yet. More notes, maybe Springfield would be easier for you….so many words. OK, I will get out my phone and look at the directions to Worcester so I can give you a short definite answer. After all that commotion, I sat in the hall Wednesday afternoon and felt stirred up. When I get home, what will my practice be? What is my intention? What am I doing????? And the voice said: “there is no one; not doing anything at all.” Really??? and the sun came out from behind a cloud and filled the hall with a warm glowing light. 

The rest of the day and the next, I had periods of knowing that there was no one doing nothing at all and it didn’t feel unsettling or scary, just quiet and still, but ordinary, like a tree standing in the woods. There were also periods of me doing my practice, resting in the sound of silence and some peaceful stillness. I met with Devon again and she said that when I was home I could orient towards that stillness which is always available. I’ll try to not try to not do that…. I invited her to come to Princeton. We’ll see how that intention unfolds.

Retreat in Paradise: A Month on Maui

December 18, 2022 – January 15, 2023

I am writing this a number of months later, so the experiences have settled and softened. I have practiced with meditation teachers Steve Armstrong and Kamala Masters for almost 20 years and have always wanted to visit their retreat center on Maui. With all of Michael’s health issues, it has been challenging to find a time when I could be away for a month, but December/January looked like it would work so I made the reservation last June and hoped for the best. As the holidays approached, everyone was healthy, including Steve, who was doing miraculously well five years after a glioblastoma diagnosis. Michael, Emily and I planned a family vacation for 4 days before my retreat. We arrived on Maui in a terrible rain-storm that diverted planes and cancelled flights. Luckily, we landed safely and stayed in a beautiful condo near the beach in Kihei. We only had one good swimming day after the storm, but we did a lot of driving around the Island and visited our old Princeton friend Maida Pollock. She had retired to her son’s farm in Kula, which was, amazingly, right down the dirt road from the retreat center! Michael and Emily went on to spend Christmas on the Big Island at Volcano National Park, and I started a monthlong retreat in Paradise.

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FR – Return to the Scene of the Crime

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.

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Retreat Get-a-way on Cape May

January 16, 2021

I took the plunge and reserved 9 days at a cottage I found on AirBnB a few blocks from the Delaware Bay beach in North Cape May. I wanted to go there alone and do a self-meditation retreat for a week. Michael would come down for a few days at the end. It sounded like it would work, but I spent most of December planning what food and cleaning supplies I would bring with me to make it feel safe in the midst of COVID. Finally, the day of departure arrived and I went to the market first thing and grabbed a weeks-worth of simple meals, loaded up the car, and drove the easy two and a quarter hour trip to Cape May. The host had told me that the house would be cleaned on Monday and then sit empty for three days before I arrived on Friday. That seemed pretty safe. Even so, I wiped down all door handles and light switches with Lysol and washed my hands before I unpacked and settled in. The cottage was adorable, with surf and sand decorations including crabs and octopi. The kitchen was perfectly functional and the sun coming in the windows filled my heart with warmth and joy. The neighborhood was very quiet and peaceful and the beach, really only two blocks away, was magnificent.

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FR: Coronavirus, Go Home!

March 17, 2020

Just as I was pulling out of my driveway for the five-hour trip to Barre, MA and ten days at Forest Refuge, the oil change light blinked on my dashboard. Oh, no… I remembered there was some warning light flashing as I drove to FR in January of 2015 just when my mom found out that she had leukemia and her doctor suggested hospice. That was certainly a strange time to be on retreat. This time I knew I could easily take care of the oil change when I came home, but I had a sinking feeling that the warning light did not bode well. 

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No now, now, and the Super Moon

March 25, 2019


It was spring break at Princeton and I had arranged to spend 10 days at Forest Refuge in Barre. Michael was back to teaching and conducting in the second semester. He had also been in sinus rhythm for several weeks after his third cardioversion, and was significantly happier than he had been all fall. He is still not back to full energy or physical mobility, and he still enjoys his afternoon naps. This may well be the new normal for him at almost 70 years old. He assured me he would be able to handle things at home with Louie while I was gone. Continue reading

Walking with the Monk at FR

March 25, 2018

Last September I had to cancel ten days at Forest Refuge so I could be with Michael as we waited for more test results. Luckily the MRI showed that a suspicious something was nothing, and I rebooked my retreat for spring break. Too bad that was exactly when Michael would receive his honorary membership at the Royal Conservatory of Music in London from their president, HRH the Prince of Wales. Continue reading

The Cancer Summer – Again

So after a few weeks of good health for all, and the promise of a relaxing summer, it all started again. Michael had an appointment the first week of June with his breast surgeon for a 12-month check-up. The day before he went, he felt a teeny, tiny something in the area of his mastectomy. But there was no more breast tissue there. What could it be? Probably nothing, said Rachel, the breast specialist, but we’ll do a sonogram just to be sure. Humm, the sonogram looked a bit suspicious, so we should do a biopsy, just to rule out, you know, anything bad. Continue reading

IMS: Heart’s Release or Heart Attack?

I just got back from the cardiologist and passed my echo and stress test with flying colors. So this tale has a happy ending – now for the story itself: I had signed up for the April monastic retreat at IMS, but was on a long waiting list after the lottery. I also signed up for the May retreat with Kamala Masters, Debra Ratner and Mark Nunberg and figured if I got into the earlier one I could transfer my registration. Continue reading

Well Being Study in Madison, Wisconsin

Sunday, March 26, 2017

It was shortly after the election last November when I was reading Buddha Dharma Magazine that I saw an add for a Meditation and Well Being Study at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. My initial intention was to do something positive that would be of help to others in the face of the devastation and helplessness everyone was feeling in reaction to the election. So I embarked on a very long process of application and vetting for the study. Continue reading