Life as Practice, Practice as Life

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear.
– Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Early in September, I sat a ten-day, online silent meditation retreat at home. It really was silent. No one in the retreat spoke, not the Barre Center support staff, not even the teacher. Everything about the format had been arranged and communicated through email. Now we would be quiet together. The teacher, the Venerable Bhikkhu Analayo, had begun a one-year, silent self-retreat a month earlier. He sat in meditation with us over long stretches of time in a virtual dharma hall, which was open twenty-four seven, and he never moved––he never said a word. Nor did we, those of us sitting with him.

About ten of us participated. We were from a larger cohort of people who had studied Early Buddhist practices with Bhikkhu Analayo in the form of three structured ten-day retreats during the previous year. This retreat was not structured. We were encouraged to manage our own schedule for periods of sitting meditation, walking, eating, sleeping, working, and study/review. We were on our own, balancing our activities around the central support of our shared silent presence, coming and going, in the virtual Dharma hall.

In the BCBS welcoming email, Analayo encouraged and empowered us with these words from the Buddha:

What a teacher does for his disciples out of great compassion, with kind thoughts of empathy, seeking their benefit and welfare, seeking their peace and happiness, that I have now done. You should further act yourselves. Go to a secluded place, to the foot of a tree in a forest, to an empty quiet place to sit in meditation and reflection. Do not be negligent, be diligent and increase your effort, [so that you] do not later have regrets––this is my teaching, this is my instruction.

For this retreat, I used the finished room in the barn behind my house as the meditation hall. I left my computer out there and used it only for access to the virtual hall and to review appropriate teachings from the other three retreats. I left my cell phone in the house turned off; I scanned it once daily to check for emergency calls. Most people knew I was on retreat––though for a few acquaintances, I had referred to what I was doing as an online workshop, a term I knew they would easily understand and respect. I used my house for eating and sleeping. I did walking-meditation practice in my yard––and sometimes in the neighborhood or on the nearby bike path, at a “normal” and mindful pace. I nodded to neighbors when our paths crossed and sometimes spoke simple greetings. Short daily work periods took place in my house or yard. Daily study and review of past retreat material took place in the barn, where I sat in meditation for eight or nine hours a day. The retreat was simple, quiet, and wonderful: a contemplative life.

There were some interesting interactions between “life inside the retreat” and “life outside the retreat,” and mostly what happened was that any sense of these being different lives or incompatible lives easily and seamlessly disappeared. For example, on what was the beginning of the sixth day of the retreat, when I checked messages, there was one from a dear friend who was in great distress over a major life crisis that had just happened. I was very moved by the sound of her voice. She was asking me to come to her home to help her. She wanted to talk with me––having no idea that I was on retreat. I could hear the mental anguish. So I went and I had the joy of feeling her nervous system settling––as she spoke and I listened, comforting and reassuring. “Yes, this is challenging; yes, you can do this.”

I did feel oddly vulnerable and a bit exposed while there; but the journey home took me past the Lebanon Coop Food Store, and somewhat against what might have been my “better” judgment, I decided to stop there and pick up a few supplies. This was a different experience, not so smooth. I was startled by the busyness and the loudness. I could feel agitation and a bit of fear rising in my chest: ”unpleasant.” But as I became fully mindful of these feelings, I could also feel a gradual return of equipoise. I noticed anxiety begin to fade away, within a spacious kindness. But still, I did not linger. I bought the desired tofu and quickly left.

Another potential distraction was more predictable. A few days before the retreat was to start, the owner of the house next door informed me that his roof, which is about three feet from my driveway and not far from the barn, was going to be redone on the final Friday of my retreat––the eighth of the ten days. They would be hanging tarps from the roof into the driveway and throwing half of the old roof down into that area. The crew would need access. This man and I are friendly and often have long conversations. He is one of the people whom I told that I was doing an online workshop on Zoom in the barn; l felt that this would explain why I would not be talking with him and also that it would lessen any guilt or concerns he might have about interrupting the silence of a retreat. I wondered how this roof construction would be for me. It was wonderful.

The work actually took two full days, Friday from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Saturday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. It was done by a crew of eight skilled and diligent workers from South America––six men and two women. They spoke only Spanish, no English, and they worked with steadiness and good spiritedness––silently––even in the ripping off of the old roof and the hammering on of the new. It was beautiful, really. In my meditations, I was supported by their energy, by the felt-sense of adhittana, a steady, diligent resolve, and metta. They were radiating this, filling the neighborhood’s atmosphere––boundless space––with it. The work actually had palpable value in the final days of practice when my own energy might have started to wane. I felt a solidarity with these steady workers and a great joy. It was as if we were working together. We would smile and wave as our paths crossed. There was a comfortable experience of belonging.

“This is our field of practice––the whole world.”
– Hopi woman elder, “Planetary”

This and other experiences on the retreat––and since the retreat––are helping me to feel my way towards the possibility of living a seamless life, one where the internal experiences and the external experiences are not separate. I listened to an interview on the Mind-Life podcast recently with scholar and Zen teacher Joan Halifax. She recounted that the poet Gary Snyder once said to her: “Death is safe.” She had responded, “Well then, life is safe.”

A friend of mine who has sat many months-long meditation retreats once told me that it always takes him twice as long as the retreat has been to reintegrate into daily life. For me, this time, that would mean twenty days. I was feeling some tiredness and some lack of quickness in responding to others in that first week––a bit wobbly in making the return from my long, open days of seclusion and check-ins with my virtual, silent friends in the Dharma Hall. But at the same time, I was being buoyed up by the joy of returning to the daily Refuge and Precepts practice with sangha, and by sitting with the familiar Thursday Sangha, and by the spontaneous gathering of a few of us to silently witness the moment of the fall equinox. Then, miraculously, on day six, I had a long practice day again with the shared silence of sangha at the Valley Insight daylong monastic retreat with Ajahn Jayanto––and we were all live, in person!

Ajahn Jayanto’s teachings were simple and perfect. His emphasis was on recognizing and living from a felt-sense of presence in our lives. He spoke of us living in the space outside of our-selves, of establishing a place of rest, of centeredness from which we can know our thoughts with care and kindness––but not live from them. His words were profound and simple, with a direct relationship to our daily lives. In some ways this day was a summary for me. It helped me to sense my way further into the fullness of life––without there being any need to leave the retreat behind. I began to more deeply understand what I was already knowing in my direct experience: that “retreat life” and “non-retreat life” are not separate; that they both require an alive, active balancing. Both call for what Bhikkhu Analayo has named “situational creativity”––intentional and wise actions which arise from mindfulness and clear seeing, as opposed to our more habitual, unexamined “situationally patterned” life with its “situational reactivity.”

I left the daylong retreat with Ajahn Jayanto a little early. I chose to do this because there was an afternoon event in my neighborhood honoring two very long-time friends who are a bit like family to me. Leaving when I did meant that I could get to the second half of that other event, which I did. It was a joy to walk into that gathering with the felt-sense of retreat spaciousness in my heart and an awareness of presence in the air around us all.

“The dharma hall is in the heart.”
– Bhikkhu Analayo

“Life is what it is about.”
– Pablo Neruda, “Keeping Quiet”

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