This weekend Thom and I attended our first Dzogchen Buddhist Retreat. As seminar junkies, we’ve taken tons of spiritual classes and workshops of an hour or two here or there that focused on Buddhism or meditation. But this was our first official “retreat.” And while an evening and one day may not appear to be much of a retreat, it certainly served to get us out and away from our usual lives. More importantly, it pulled the focus of our attention away from our usual thoughts and concerns, and placed it instead on the experience of “mindfulness” or inner awareness and spiritual compassion. That switch of focus is a SMART thing to do every now and then, regardless of who you are or what you call it.
The retreat was held in Costa Mesa, CA and lead by a man called Lama Surya Das, who is described by Wikipedia as, “a poet, chantmaster, spiritual activist and author of many popular works on Buddhism.” One of his recent books, “Buddha Standard Time” inspired us to attend. As an “authorized” Lama, Surya Das is a Spiritual Master or Tibetan teacher, even though he was born on Long Island in New York. After studying Zen, vipassana, yoga and Tibetan Buddhism for over forty years, he now writes and travels around the country teaching and conducting retreats in the Dzogchen line of Buddhism. But more than just having the credentials to lead a group, it is his down-to-earth practical nature and generosity of spirit that makes him such an engaging teacher.
So for approximately two hours on Friday night and then about six hours on Saturday, we sat mindfully with Surya Das and about 75 other people. And while the retreat was advertised as “silent,” we actually spent only two and a half to three hours total in complete silence. The rest was either chanting rather energetically or listening to the Lama speak on several subjects. Not only is Surya Das very humorous, and at time surprisingly coarse, he also chants in a way that I would describe as “rap-chanting.” Maybe because Thom and I have been meditating every day for over a year, even the times of silence passed quickly.
So, what does one take away from an eight hour “retreat.”? On one hand, I’m certain that every single one of us had a different experience. I specifically recall two very strong messages from what the Lama said. One thing he repeated several times was, “If you can’t be here ‘now’—you can’t be here ‘then’”. In other words, if we put off being mindful in the present moment—right NOW—then chances are we are only fooling ourselves if we think we’ll get around to it later. In fact, if we think we’ll be “anything” later—like happy, peaceful, compassionate, loving, kind, etc.—then we are fooling ourselves. We have to start being those things here and right now.
The other thing that I heard very loudly was that most of our frustration, pain and suffering in life comes when we are either trying to hang on to something—I WANT this! —or we are trying to push something away—I DON’T WANT this! Think about it. If you are trying to keep a job or a person in your life that doesn’t fit—you can make yourself crazy hanging on to it. If you want money, or a house, or a car of whatever—and don’t have it, then you can make yourself deeply unhappy with your wanting. Or, if you are fighting with a situation you don’t want—be it the loss of a relationship, politics, your finances or just about anything else you can’t let go of—then you are resisting something happening and that will equally make you nuts. The constant pull of I want—I don’t want, I want—I don’t want, amplifies our frustration in the world. It’s fairly easy to see it when you look at others who are in pain. It’s much more difficult to see when looking at ourselves.
I was also struck by the degree of respect for both the teaching and the teacher. As I mentioned, I’ve been to scores of spiritual classes and workshops and I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed the genuine respect I saw demonstrated in this simple retreat. Although Lama Surya Das is informal and relaxed by nature, the attention given by the students to both the teacher and themselves enhanced the experience for us all. Clearly, an awareness of experience was a focus.
But perhaps best of all was the feeling, after the retreat was over, that I had spent the eight or so hours feeling content with myself. During those hours I sat mindfully at peace without needing to do something, be somewhere (else) or get or become anything at all. It was all just perfect, just as it was. As it turns out, Surya Das is said to transmit the teachings of Dzogchen—or the “Great Perfection” –and that indescribable experience may be part of the peace that followed me home.
Of course, a huge part of any “retreat” is coming home with the feeling that you experienced something special—and bringing home a few tidbits that will increase the quality of your days ahead. Regardless of your spiritual or religious background, I strongly recommend taking a retreat next time you hear about one in your area. What you’ll find is very likely yourself.
“There is no need for temples, no need for complicated philosophies. My brain and my heart are my temples; my philosophy is kindness. “ ~Dalai Lama
“Other people can’t cause us to be impatient unless we let them do so. In other words, others don’t make us impatient. We make ourselves impatient, through our expectations and demands, fixated attachments and stuckness.” ~Surya Das