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.

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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