Category Archives: Healing

Protecting Myself

What does it mean to protect myself? Most people probably do feel strongly that it’s important to protect myself. How does this relate to vulnerability, which we also yearn for?

As I look at it, there is so much stored in our memory that comes from past painful situations. As tiny babies, our nervous system was often overwhelmed by what would seem to an adult to be small things. As we have gone through life, there have been moments of almost overwhelming stress, anxiety, and pain. Sometimes these episodes have eroded the health of the body and nervous system.

What’s left over from these episodes is a deep guardedness to make sure we never go through that kind of experience again. This guardedness is on a deep neurological level. It feels like it resides firmly in the bones, muscles, nerves. When it is triggered by something that reminds the body/nervous system of a past traumatic event, it instantly comes into play faster than we can consciously react.

One difficulty with this build-up of traumatic reaction patterns, in my observation, is that it continually expands. If I was once afraid of a supervisor speaking angrily, I may now be afraid of supervisors in general. It seems to be part of how the nervous system functions that it tries to continually cast a wider net to watch out for danger. It also seems to reinforce itself, digging in deeper. The next time a supervisor speaks critically, the traumatic patterns says, “See! I knew there was danger here,” and the pattern becomes even stronger.

Eventually, as we have more years of experience, the fear of so many things can make our lives very limited. It can become difficult to be flexible with friends and family. Our options become limited and we can find ourselves living an unsatisfactory life in some or many ways. But there is nothing we can do about it because these fear patterns feel like they are saving our life.

Is there a way to work with past fears that is not restrictive and increasingly debilitating?

Naturally, it is helpful to start to become aware of the reaction patterns – how they manifest in the body, what seems to trigger them, what the thoughts and emotions and feelings are that are wrapped up in the reaction. I’m not sure what it takes to start becoming interested in this. If someone else suggests it to me when I’m in a triggered state, I’m likely to resent it. I don’t want to see what’s going on. I want to protect myself. Which seems to mean I want to react, to do what I think I need to do to protect myself. Maybe I feel like I need to get back at my supervisor. Maybe I feel like I need to quit my job. Maybe I feel like I have to move out of town. Whatever it is, all of the energy seems to want to go into the reaction.

Unfortunately, my habitual reactions may also become sources of anxiety. When I get even with a supervisor, I get fired. When I quit my job, I can’t pay my bills. When I move, I have to start all over again.

So it leaves me not really knowing any more what to do. Instead of doing something, I may start listening more closely to these reactions. Why? Because on some level, knowing myself, knowing what is going on inside, becomes more important than defending myself in the same not-very-functional ways.

So I begin to have a new relationship with myself. I want to know what’s going on inside. I’m interested in seeing things freshly.

Along with this may come the possibility of relating to the outside world – the supervisors, the unreliable friends, the dangerous people – of relating to them in a new way too. Out of this, when a supervisor speaks angrily, something new and different might happen, unpredictably. The new interaction might not be pleasant. Or it might be! But it is new. It doesn’t add to the old pattern. And it comes from simply being interested, open to something new.

In this way one’s life may shift dramatically from protecting oneself from the “known” dangers of the past to being interested in what is going on inside and among the people and situations of my life. Along with this, even in a challenging situation, there might be the realization that we are all in this together.


Meditation and Therapy

[This post was written in response to a link to an article about meditation and therapy.

The article]

On Meditation and Therapy

To me, meditative work is very much about healing of trauma. It’s also about wholeness in this moment. Does that seem contradictory?

Peter Levine is a therapist who works with trauma. In his book Waking the Tiger, he describes how most of our efforts to resolve trauma tend to make changes in how the trauma is managed but reinforce the core of the trauma itself. Then he describes how there are rare moments in which the entire trauma pattern opens up and there is nothing left to reinforce. He describes this as the healing of trauma.

I can relate to what he says from my own experience with personal trauma. In meditative terms I would say that the moments he describes are moments in which all resistance has dropped away. It is total vulnerability and total openness. It is a moment when all agendas have dropped away. In such moments wholeness blazes forth.

I often feel that too much emphasis on meditation practices very much stands in the way of this happening. It is all too likely that behind an emphasis on a meditation practice is a “practicer.” I mean that there is an identity and an agenda that becomes fixed to the practice and is reinforced more and more deeply with each moment of “practice”. After all, a practice implies that I hope to get something from it.

To me, Life always wants to sweep away all my intentions. It wants to knock out from under me all my plans for improvement and healing. When Life blazes through in this way, all resistance is blown away. It’s not that I stop resisting so that I can heal. Healing/wholeness – when it is able to move through this organism – redirects the energy that was going into a knot of resistance so that that energy goes into healing and being.

Once this possibility of being swept wide open by Life becomes greater in us, I think there is more awareness of our traumas and we can get much more out of working with a therapist. I used to expect this kind of help from my meditation teachers, but that’s not really their training.

I do question the view of the author of the article that somehow Siddhartha didn’t have traumas and that made his path easier. I’m not sure that makes sense to me. From what I see, it is the nature of our delicate nervous systems to be continually susceptible to traumas – old ones and new ones. Wholeness doesn’t require an absence of “issues.” It reveals issues in wide open space and the space of wholeness seems to naturally lead to healing (which is accelerated by working with a skillful therapist.)

A moment of wholeness is a moment in which it is clear that all life is one undivided energy unfolding as it needs to and grounded in stillness. Awakening to this has nothing to do with whether we have a broken leg, arthritis, anxieties, a bad eye or are perfect, beautiful beings. It only has to do with seeing if it is possible for Life to open through us in this moment, which can only happen when our dreams and goals for becoming a better person get swept away.

I don’t mean to say that we somehow shouldn’t deal with traumas and issues. It is quite clear in a quiet moment that a pattern of severe anxiety isn’t helpful. I’m just trying to share that what fundamentally allows trauma to open and heal is the discovery of this energy of Life that sweeps away my resistances in this moment. And I’m raising the issue of examining whether spiritual practices become part of the resistance to what is happening right now.

It is not too hard to look, during a meditation period, at what I am actually doing. Am I focused on something – the breath, a sound, a vision? Is that helping me right now to be in touch with everything that is around me right here – the air, the feel of the body, the sound of the fan, the presence of other people? I personally find that I’m often blocking out a lot for some reason. What reason? Someone told me it would help me become a Buddha in the future? Or that if I do something long enough I would heal? But what has become most important to me is my relationship to everything in this moment. To sacrifice that now for some “wholeness” in the future doesn’t make sense to me any more.

Is Time Running Out?

I imagine that, like me, you often are under the pressure of the feeling that there is not enough time for everything that needs to be done. This usually involves practical things – getting a window painted, getting the garden fixed up, making plans for a trip, making sure I don’t run out of household supplies, etc., etc.

But when I step back a bit and consider what I think of as “my life”, there is a different sort of feeling that time is running out for me. Do you know what I mean? It’s almost a feeling that life is slipping very quickly through my fingers. I don’t feel like this all the time. There are many moments that are full and joyful, not concerned with the future. But right now I’m bringing up this feeling that time is running out in order to enter into it a little and wonder about it.

Time is running out for us! What does this statement bring up for you?

One reason I’ve thought of this is that, as we get ready for our annual retreat, I’m in touch with people who have been talking with me about coming to retreat for five, ten, or more years, and have not been able to get to retreat during that time. Wow. Ten years. At the age of most of us, that’s a long time. A long time of feeling that I have plenty of time left to take care of things later. Plenty of time in the future to devote a handful of days to the inner things that so much need attention in me and to being at peace with the outer world, which usually seems so impossible.

It seems true to me that we do all have a very heavy backlog of unprocessed past experiences, difficulties, traumas, fears, longings. And around all of that there seems to be a powerful defense system that doesn’t really want any of these things to be touched. It’s as though we have learned to live in a world defined by these things. And a big part of the defense system, for me, is the thought that I have plenty of time to deal with issues in the future.

If time is running out, if time in fact has already run out, then the need for me to face the inner challenges, to meet them directly right now, to let them open up in me and reveal themselves – then that need is very clear and urgent and present. It needs to happen now. It can’t be put off. To me, these inner challenges, when they are put off till the future, become even heavier and more difficult. And the heavier our burden of unfinished business, the more difficult it is to mobilize ourselves to meet them directly and begin to heal. In other words the longer we put off healing, the harder it becomes to start the healing process.

Retreat is the time and setting where we help each other create a space where healing becomes easier. And the more healing happens, the easier it is for healing to continue.

The time leading up to retreat is the time for reflecting on how much I’ve been putting off till off to the future so much of my unfinished, internal stuff. It’s the time for summoning up the energy to set aside time for the healing process. Maybe this requires reaching out to others for help doing this. Maybe it means noticing the resistance to stepping out of one’s routine. We only have one retreat here a year. When thinking about going to retreat starts to feel anxiety-producing, it’s very easy to think of putting it off till next year. But maybe together we can try something different. Maybe we can talk together about what it takes to step into healing – despite all the fears and concerns and resistance. This is something that we do together.

If there were no future – if your time was to run out tomorrow – what would that bring up in you? Do you feel the huge amount of unfinished concerns, feelings, maybe blankness?  That’s the stuff that wants the time and space to open up and be heard and felt. And perhaps, finally, healed and finished, while we’re still alive and have the strength to heal.

Psychology or Spirituality?

JW: You asked me to explain why I don’t want to come to dialogue groups. I am very religious as you know, but also very interested in spiritual practices, such as meditation, mindfulness and gratitude.  I am not particularly interested in solely dealing with relationship problems, because I believe that turning to our Source, our Creator, to God, is in reality the abiding solution to these and other problems.  What I’m trying to say is, I personally like you and your abilities as a facilitator, but I’m looking for the “divine spark,” that element in discourse and being which speaks of God.

Jay: Thanks for explaining. I have a better idea now of what you are talking about.

The issue of what is spiritual and what is merely psychological is one that I’ve looked at for a long time. My primary goal in dialogue is to work as directly spiritually as possible. This may not be evident all the time so I’ll try to explain a little how I see it.

First, what do I mean by spiritual? In the deepest sense, for me, a spiritual moment is a moment in which the feelings of separation have dropped away. Along with it, other things have usually dropped away as well, including a sense of being a physically limited body, of having problems that have to be solved, of antagonism or irritation with others, of the world being mechanical, dry, and empty. Such a moment, to me, feels infinitely expansive, timeless, not needing or lacking anything, full of simple beauty, in-touchness with the natural world, and radiant with affection, love, and wisdom.

All of these things that drop away are, in my observation, perceptions that come from how the brain tends to think about things. When the brain has become quiet, it isn’t making those interpretations. It is just participating in direct experience of this one, undivided world, which seems to carry with it love, affection, and wisdom.

So if we want to talk about the “truth” of spirituality, for me it is a moment or extended period in which this simple beauty of life is visible – not covered up by interpretations of the brain.

To put it in some other words, the brain has the habit of creating certain filters through which we interpret the world. For example, some of us are habitually suspicious of other people who treat us in certain ways. But this filter of the brain is not always activated. It can be “off line.”

From my experience I would say that there can be moments, sometimes extended, when the entire filtering process of the brain is not activated and instead of filtering, the brain is simply sensing, perceiving.

Of course most of us don’t live in that state most of the time. But if one has a strong sense of the importance of living without division and free of our painful interpretations, then one begins to wonder what’s happening the rest of the time. For me this means being very carefully in touch with WHATEVER state of mind is going on. In other words, most of the time our work is to let light shine on this filtering process – noticing it, feeling into what agendas are behind it, what keeps it going, what does it want, what happens if it drops.

I don’t think human beings generally are aware of these things or pay much attention to them. On the contrary, we firmly believe our interpretations about other people and our assumptions about who we are and what we need, even – or especially – about spirituality. But when one begins to examine these carefully and affectionately, the process of continually filtering life through blind assumptions begins to let up.  The more carefully we examine out filters, the more direct the process of them beginning to let up. And the more the filters begin to let up, the more frequently and groundedly they may drop away altogether for moments at a time.

In a moment when filters are not operating and we can see each other and the world clearly – with affection – it is possible to work together to shine light on these filters that we all have. This is the purpose of dialogue and of one-on-one meetings.

So if someone is angry at their boss and they bring it up in a dialogue, it may seem at first glance like a mundane, personal, psychological problem that doesn’t belong in a spiritual dialogue. But I have come to see it very differently. If the person just vents and other participants give suggestions for getting a better job or doing some breathing exercises to relax, then nothing much has really been revealed on a spiritual level.  But if we look together closely and try to open up the whole dynamic, we may both discover things about the filters of seeing people as “other” and of feeling threatened and needing to defend and the fear of not defending and the fear of the unknown.

When dialogue leads to a person coming in touch with these deep filters, then something begins to loosen up. In a moment of coming in touch, each of us is really letting go of filters for a microsecond and experiencing the profound spiritual power of listening to one’s inner workings without any defense or agenda. This is a moment of awakeness – the most profound experience – even though it is only for a fraction of a second.

If someone does not have much experience coming in touch with these inner motives and agendas, then doing this in a group dialogue may open up a flood of new energy and interest to watch oneself more closely. This movement of allowing the inner workings to become visible is exactly the function of One Mind. The whole universe supports this effort. And until a habit has been observed, carefully lived through, opened up, brought out into the light, it is very much an effort to live with it consciously. It takes a lot of energy. This is why we come together in a group to do this work together. It’s why we go off for seven days various times during the year to devote energy to this.

And the more this kind of work is done, the more frequently and deeply the moments of wholeness and love come to us and work through us.

When I first started participating in groups, I used to hear other people’s psychological problems and think “I’m beyond that. Why can’t this person live in the present right this moment and drop their problems?” But I began to discover that this was a very naive view on my part. First of all, I usually noticed later on that I DID have that problem. I just never had noticed it. Secondly, I began to realize that in the immediacy of a moment with someone else – sitting together in dialogue – this pattern that they were bringing up, this filter, WAS exactly what was here in this moment and we had a very precious opportunity to open up this filter together, for the benefit of both, or all, of us.

So for me if someone brings up a psychological or relationship issue in dialogue, it is far from mundane or superficial. It is a human being beginning to look into these hidden filters that operate automatically and blindly and cause so much pain and suffering in the world. It is the beginning of wisdom functioning and of wholeness blossoming. It is the most precious moment possible. It is all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas coming to us to shine light thoroughly on what a human being has started to become aware of.

I hope that gives you a perspective on what I see going on in dialogue.

If  you don’t relate to the kind of issues that people bring up in our groups, you’re welcome to meet with me just the two of us to explore what you see as spirituality. What I described above is only one way of working together.

Also, I’m experimenting with a first Thursday of the month event in which there will be some quiet sitting but no dialogue. After the sitting anyone can bring up an issue or question or explore something, but there will not be cross talk. I may respond, so it is sort of a one-on-one meeting time but with others present in the group but not responding.

JW: I believe I understand much of what you are saying, and am impressed with the depth of your insights and feelings.  The only major disconnect in our viewpoints is what can I say but “The God Factor.”  Those feelings of expansiveness, loving-kindness, evanescence and radiance emanate from God.  It is God speaking to our hearts, and that should be acknowledged.  “Love Me [God] that I may love thee.  If Thou lovest Me not, My love can in no wise reach thee.”  (Baha’u’llah)

Jay: Toni Packer would sometimes be asked by people why she didn’t talk more about love or Love. Her response was that Love takes care of itself and manifests in us when we are willing to be open with ourselves. The more openness and vulnerability, the more Love can work through us.

She did in later years refer to Love a little more but my feeling is that it doesn’t always necessarily needed to be given a name or a personification (God). When we are really listening vulnerably to each other, then it is felt very strongly.

Now it may be that there are some things about the image or sense or identity with the sense of God that are important images for you. Most of us feel more comfortable with an image of a caring “being” rather than a non-personal sense such as Love. But my feeling is that that is something important to look at. How does that function in my life? I’m not saying it’s not a valuable thing for you – how could I know what’s valuable for you or not??? – but it may not be important for other people.  And yet the work of uncovering the fears, anxieties and defenses in each of us is something that we can all participate in and which – I’d say without fail – brings that “divine” love into action and can be felt by all.

I’m just thinking that if the concept of a God is important to you, from my experience I would want to suggest that you treat it as a question, an exploration, rather than a fixed something to take refuge in.

By question I don’t mean something to think about necessarily or to “doubt”. However, there are many questions that may come up naturally for you. The whole sense of a separate being outside of me may feel very helpful but many “masters” and teachers actually negate this, so you can question for yourself “What are they talking about? Why doesn’t the Buddha refer to any god? Why does Krishnamurti point to concepts of heavenly beings guiding us as a false hope?”

I’m not saying to believe Buddha or Krishnamurti or other teachers who don’t refer to a god. But on the other hand it’s hard to discount such people completely. So you have to look very carefully for yourself.

I don’t think it’s productive to consider whether or not there is a God but to question things such as if there is a God and it is everpresent, where is it right now that I’m not experiencing joy, love or divine presence? If I am essentially of God, how is it that I feel very separate, even from God?

If one wants to find out for oneself, then questioning, looking freshly and ever more deeply, happens naturally, I feel. If one makes every moment an opportunity to feel more deeply into what one feels God is, it will begin to unfold in a fresh way.

Our natural tendency is to take refuge in certain types of feelings and concepts and no matter how noble, taking refuge in feelings and concepts can lead, in my experience, away from looking directly into myself and my relationship with the world, with life, with God. Looking this very moment is a different energy than resting in certain feelings and beliefs. If this is clear, then it can become increasingly clear what I am, how I really live, and the vast loving space in which everything happens – without separateness.

I just wanted to share these thoughts. I personally am very wary of the sense of a being – no matter how lofty. In my experience the reality of what the Buddha and so many other people have experienced and talked about is a living that is not divided up into separate beings and objects – nothing more holy or more profane than anything else.

This may not be at all how you see it but sharing our experiences when there are stark differences in perspective is one wonderful way for all of us to look more freshly, more clearly, and more deeply into ourselves, which is where the fears that keep us from opening up reside.

I hope this comes to you in the spirit of affection, sharing, and interest in which I feel I’m writing it!

What Should a Buddhist Practice When Suffering?

Recently someone wrote asking what a Buddhist should practice when suffering. Here is my response:

Wow. A simple but profound question. Let’s consider this together.

Buddhist teaching claims to deal with the cause of suffering. So what actually is suffering? What’s going on right now for you? Something has happened and now you’re in a really uncomfortable state. I don’t know if it’s something just moderately serious or something that is really awful for you right now. (Maybe you’re asking this question even though you might not be suffering right now but it’s not too hard to remember difficult situations, so we can start with that if you need to.)

Usually when we’re in pain the last thing we want to do is to pay attention to it. There are lots of ways to distract ourselves from it and that’s natural in a way. The body is designed to try to get out of pain. But the kind of suffering we’re talking about is different from simple pain. If I get stung by a bee, there’s a certain amount of physical pain going on. If, as I’m smarting from the sting, I start thinking that I better not ever do any gardening again, and then think about how much I’m going to miss gardening, and then being angry that I can’t do my beloved gardening without having to watch out all the time for bees, and then thinking about how I always have to be on guard against people too and that I’m sick and tired of it, etc., etc., then now there is suffering. There is pain being added layer upon layer by trying to deal with a current, simple pain through the imagination. In other words imagination amplifies and magnifies the pain and it does it over and over because it can’t really solve the problem.

It is really helpful to become familiar with what is going on inside as suffering takes place. Then naturally the nervous system doesn’t enter into a process that it knows is not helpful.

So in the case of whatever you’re experiencing that’s painful right now, have you been able to notice the thoughts that go on around it? Maybe that seems like a dumb question, especially if there’s nothing but negative thought after negative thought going around and you’re sick of them. You could say you know the thoughts all too well.

It’s always possible to listen a little more to what’s going on beneath the thoughts. What are the feelings? The patterns of reaction? What triggered the whole incident? What was it about the trigger that really got you? I’m just making up some possibilities. You can come up with the questions that are real for you and help you listen beneath the surface.

One thing that I’ve found worth noticing is that there are moments when the crazy cycle of thoughts does slow down and perhaps even stop for an instant – a tiny gap of freedom from the thought cycles. It’s amazing enough just to notice that this happens. It’s also helpful to notice that something kicks the thoughts back up again and the exhausting process continues until it wears itself out and pauses for a second again.

There are lots of ways to work with this situation but they all come from your own intuition. Maybe we can share a little bit together but the real guidance comes from wanting to really see what’s going on deeply for yourself. When it’s clear how thinking kicks up endless anxiety and that this kind of thinking is not a good way to come to terms with whatever difficult life situation is going on, then the mind doesn’t go there. It stays with just being in touch right here. For that moment there is an end to suffering and a beginning of wisdom. But there’s no guarantee about the next moment!

When we’re caught up in endless thinking about a problem, it seems like there is nothing else to rely on. But looking more carefully, there is always the in-touchness of this moment, which might include a tight and tired heart, a sore back, a feeling of sadness. These sensations are all real, unlike the complex world of imagination. And these real sensations tell us something. They feed us real information. They lead us into understanding ourselves.

Does this make any sense? Have we addressed your question? I guess I haven’t spoken about “practice” but that’s because I don’t think or experience in terms of tactics to apply over and over. For me it’s about direct in-touchness with what life is manifesting this moment, rooted in simple sensation. That’s all that’s needed. Everything flows spontaneously and ever freshly from that.

Please let me know if you want to ask more about this or question something. I hope you feel more at ease soon.

Giving Attention to That Which Most Needs Attention (revisited)

Recently I’ve been thinking of retreat as the opportunity to allow attention to light up that which most needs attention. Can we look into this a bit together right now?

What does this mean? What is it that needs attention? What first comes to mind for me are things like “I need to clean the kitchen,” “I should call my  mom,” “I’ve only got four hours left to finish painting today.”

The thought of these activities is already a little tiring and I’m looking forward to giving attention to the tired and sore body with some rest, relaxation, maybe some stretching, and some sleep.

Is this the total of what needs attention in our lives?

Maybe it’s the future that needs attention. Maybe I need to plan for a better future. As I write this, I realize that there are so many assumptions in me about what “better” would mean. It feels like I have two choices right now. I can assume that I really know what would make my life better and move forward with trying to work toward that or I can move inward and become a little clearer about what “better” might mean. I believe it’s this second direction that, for me, needs more attention.

This leads me back to considering what it is about my life that feels less than satisfactory, less than what it could be? What is it that feels like it wants to be better in the future?

Maybe you don’t want to go into these darker places. Maybe it’s wise for you not to. But let’s see if we can at least shine a little light honestly and openly and caringly together on this ball of difficult memories and draining patterns that all of us humans are subject to.

Isn’t there, under the surface that we try very valiantly to keep somewhat cheery for others, a sense of what we might call unfinished business? Perhaps this includes memories of habits of interactions with others that have been hurtful to all parties. Perhaps it includes concerns about getting old, becoming helpless and vulnerable, dying away. Perhaps it includes a sorrow for the painful way that humanity lives, how poorly humans treat each other, abuse of power, blindness to, and violation of,  the gentle needs of the natural world. Perhaps locked away inside somewhere is a sorrow for what one has gone through personally – the lack of love and connection that we almost took for granted would be our lot when we were young.

Do you have the sense that right here, just under the surface, is a great deal of unfinished business that may feel very personal? Do you have the feeling that at this moment this either gets light and air and space and attention or it continues to become harder, drier, older, more painful, more numb?

If this becomes very clear, there is really no choice but to find a way for the light of the world to have the chance to touch all of this. For most of us, daily life doesn’t offer enough support, despite our best and repeated efforts. So this is where the beauty of retreat comes in. Giving ourselves seven days to devote to the healing of this unfinished business. Coming together to support each other. Being in a beautiful quiet natural setting. Putting aside most of the activities that move us away from in-touchness.

In this setting healing cannot help but take place. It happens on its own. But the dialoguing that we do together, listening to each other, inquiring together bravely, gently, all of this brings even more energy to the healing process, because even in retreat there are very stuck patterns that may never open up without our coming together. What a miraculous thing to become each others’ support!

In a way it can be too painful in daily life to come  in touch with this ball of unfinished concerns, fears, anxieties, discomforts, hopes, passions, so they stay in the dark and become more difficult, more encrusted, adding a bit to our sorrow and the sorrow of the world.

And we tend to become a little bit more calloused, numb, in order to survive. Many people say something like, ” Of course I have issues and concerns but I don’t let them overwhelm me. I have faith that it will work out eventually and I’m patient.”

I suppose therapists might say this is a healthy coping strategy but to me I can’t help but feel sad. When I see how patterns in me cause pain to others and to myself, the need for shedding light on what is going on is immediate. It isn’t something that can be put off to the future. I’m thinking of a person I know who described having been a heavy smoker. At one point it was clear to her how harmful this was. She couldn’t force herself to stop by will power. But she also didn’t turn away from the issue. With a new intensity she observed in clear detail the entire process of beginning to crave, of rationalizing what she would do, of lighting and inhaling, of finishing the cigarette, and of all of the feelings going on the whole time. She burned with the need to face the painful pattern in each moment. This intense attention took the mystery out of the addictive pattern and it lost its power. Soon she was no longer smoking.

So maybe our question here is not just “what is it that most needs attention” but also “Isn’t the need for attention immediate. Isn’t this something that is not to be put off any further, that only becomes more painful the longer it is put off?”

Some people may read this and feel that there is no need to go “looking for trouble.” That they will deal with things when they come up. In fact they may feel that the greatest thing they’ve learned from meditation is to not get too riled up about things. I understand this and it definitely has its place. At the same time there are in each of us patterns of reaction that come up again and again. Just dropping a reaction when it comes up is wise in that moment but there is most likely something behind the reaction that has not yet come to light. We don’t necessarily need to go hunting for what that might be. We just need to give lots of opportunity for deeper layers of habit, conditioning, reaction, trauma, to emerge. Given enough opportunity, these things will start to move, come to the surface, open, and heal.

Taking this a little further, my feeling is that not only is there so much that needs attention now, but it also needs very deep, thorough-going attention. This kind of deep attention can be difficult for us to access in daily life. Deep attention shed on an issue can kick up painful feelings. Maybe this is why we become content with more superficial ways of trying to touch on our issues.

Periodically setting aside time to come together for seven days of retreat, then, is an amazing chance to allow deep, through-going attention to shed light into our deepest being in a way that doesn’t happen in our ordinary life. And yet so deeply needs to happen right now.


An Invitation to Retreat

Retreat is an invitation to listen. And to be heard. What do I mean by this? In the quiet space of retreat it makes sense that I can listen to what is happening inside and outside. But what does it mean that I can be heard?

This question is making me touch into my desire to be heard. To be understood. Isn’t that a strong desire in us? Maybe it’s become dulled or atrophied after years of not being heard, after giving up on the possibility. Maybe we’ve come to believe that it’s immature to want to be heard. That we should learn to be independent. Maybe we don’t even hear the need any more. But it seems to me to be fundamental part of who we are. We want to be heard, understood, seen, touched. We want to be visible to the world.

So maybe one aspect of being heard in retreat is that I hear myself freshly and more honestly, more vulnerably. In sitting quietly, moving quietly, not having to rile up the mind with busy activities and distractions, hearing myself happens on its own. It’s unavoidable!

It strikes me that I usually think of “being heard” in the context of being heard by someone else, but it does make sense that if someone else is to hear me, I need to be able to speak clearly about what I need and want. To do that I have to listen to myself.

But on another level perhaps the real reason that we long to be heard by someone is because that opens up a space for us to hear ourselves and for self-healing to being. If someone can really hear how hurt I was by their comments – if they really hear it without making excuses, if they can just hear it vulnerably and feel my hurt for themselves – then maybe I can be done with that incident. At the same time the incident may open up for me so that there is some insight into the nature of that hurt in the first place.

So what I’m longing for in both of us is really the space to hear and feel openly, vulnerably, deeply, without moving away from the difficult feelings. It makes sense, then, as I sit alone with others in retreat, that entering into this vulnerable listening, being, each moment, is the same as what I long for from others.

In retreat we do have time for interacting, for putting this listening to work together with others. We can do this in the group dialogue and in one-on-one meetings. That’s why we have these opportunities and they can be very healing.

There’s no question that opening up, being vulnerable, carries with it the possibility of pain. And the possibility of pain carries the probability of reacting, of shutting down, of wanting to escape. Just the thought of signing up for a retreat raises all of this, maybe subconsciously. Even after years of retreat I still get a dry mouth and anxiety as retreat begins. It’s no different than realizing that one’s partner – or any other person for that matter – can ever really be “safe”. We can learn to be a source of comfort and support for each other but there is always the possibility of something being triggered. That doesn’t mean we avoid relationships. Or does it? Maybe we do. But underneath there is, I believe, a longing for vulnerability and intimacy.

In a relationship for there to be the possibility of vulnerability together there has to be a mutual understanding of how we can hurt each other and a willingness to learn about this through vulnerable listening. Similarly, when you are invited to retreat, it’s important for you to know that the retreat setting, the people facilitating, want to support this process of mutual listening. Of making it as safe as possible for you to listen to yourself and as safe as possible to explore the hurts inside that want to and need to be heard.

When I invite you to retreat (on behalf of all of us) it’s because we need each other. We need to come together for a number of days to make it easier for us to listen, to heal, and to come alive in open vulnerability, together.

Just as in our relationships with our partners, there’s a sort of speed bump that we have to get over to start listening together. When I talk to people about coming to retreat, the first thing most people talk about is how impossible it would be to do that, to take time off, to step out of the routine, to be in a strange place, to spend the money. It’s not too different than our therapist suggesting that I talk about how I feel and suddenly I can feel that speed bump in my throat and think of a hundred reasons why I shouldn’t do that.

But then I start talking. Because I need to. Despite having to get over the bump, over the fear, And some how it works out, no matter what it brings up. And there is a feeling of greater honesty and greater openness.

With coming to retreat, people who really need to come find ways to deal with the practicalities. I can make suggestions for you if you need to work that through.

Retreat is the rare opportunity to pay attention to that in our lives that most deeply needs attention. Without an opportunity like this once in a while, a time or two a year or more, doesn’t something inside sort of wither?

Together we can make it easier to listen, be heard, heal, and come alive again.