I have just returned from a long weekend at an exceptional meditation retreat led by Lisa Ernst at a retreat center in the mountains of North Georgia. I feel emotionally refreshed and invigorated after being immersed in a form of practice that was quite new to me, but which I found quite profound. While the teaching was in a Buddhist context, I think has universal application, so I want to share it.
I want also to sing Lisa’s praises, for she is a remarkable woman. But I’ll start by connecting this teaching with a couple of other strings of thought that I’ve been working with recently. The first is my continual amazement at the breadth of experience and growth available in the diversity of the world’s faith traditions. Regular readers of my writings have read about my experiences of Ramadan and the Jewish High Holidays (I’m looking forward to Rosh Hashanah on Thursday), but this retreat shows me anew the extent to which this diversity exists within each faith.
The second point is to connect with Plato, whose dialogues discuss (among other things!) the philosophical difficulties of understanding where learning comes from. Out of these discussions Plato offers the possibility that there is no learning, there is only remembering. In a deep sense the practice that Lisa offered us moves in this direction, focusing not so much on figuring out answers to problems, but on letting our deep personal wisdom arise in response to the big questions that show up in our lives.
So to Lisa: as I mentioned above, she is a remarkable woman who, during a successful business career, found her attention and energy being pulled into spiritual practice. She has spent time with many traditions and settled into Insight Meditation, which is a gentle but profound Buddhist practice, and she founded a teaching center in Nashville. She has an extraordinary talent for making what can often be esoteric and difficult teachings very accessible by making them very human and by relating them to her own life stories and questions. Lisa brings remarkable honesty and intimacy to bear, and as a result is able to really connect with and affect those she is teaching.
A great example came up at the beginning of the retreat when Lisa was grounding us in what we were to be doing. She used a personal story to illustrate her teaching which, on the one hand, was simple and straightforward, but on the other was told with such honesty it had a profound impact. It began with a proposal of marriage that had been put to Lisa shortly before she was to go on a meditation retreat. She told us her initial inclination had been to say “no” because she felt she really didn’t know the man well. But she didn’t answer him immediately and went on the retreat. And while on the retreat the question worked its way deep into her.
Lisa told us of about her difficult childhood which included abuse; the divorce and subsequent early death of both her parents; and the death of her other caregiver, her grandmother. Looking back she now realizes this had left her on the one hand with an emotional hole, and on the other with a fear of intimacy, which she had not seen and which profoundly affected her in relationships. In short, she found she was either chasing the other person, desperately trying to fill her emotional hole with just that one person (which of course could not work!), or feeling that the other person was chasing her (in which case, of course, she would push him away). She had placed this man in the latter category and had previously him away. But she had decided to give him a second chance – and he had rewarded her by pushing again? Clearly she should say no!
So she went into the week-long retreat with this question on her mind.
We want to find answers to our questions, to use our formidable mental capacities to analyze, conclude, and then rationalize. But the whole point of the story and of the practice is that there is another way, a deeper way, a wiser way.
Lisa sat with her question for a week without trying to decide. She realized that the question was not actually about whether she should marry this man or not, but about her deeper needs and history. Sitting with the question without answering it allowed her the space to realize that the question was really pointing her at her own inability to put herself forward in intimacy. In the course of sitting with the question, she came to realize that the man was not chasing her, but was rather offering his whole self to her in an act of extraordinary kindness and love, and that of course the answer was yes. And needless to say they are still married, I think she said eighteen years later.
So with this background Lisa led us over the course of several days through the process of sitting with questions, sitting with uncertainty, and allowing not-knowing to co-exist with our question. It is a difficult but extremely rewarding practice, and my own experiences on the retreat were consistent both with Lisa’s and with those I heard from other retreat attendees.
I did not choose a question, but quickly one emerged: “Why do I keep myself so busy?” The question wanted to reduce itself to “So busy?”, and then it wanted to change to “Too much?” I allowed the deeper wisdom of my body to guide my practice and so this change happened and I sat with “Too much?” on my mind. Over the first day or so answers occasionally popped up having to do with connections, friends and intimacy: I want to be liked; I want people to see value in me; I didn’t have close friends as a kid; I’m scared of moving into intimate relationships; I don’t know how to make friends; I’m scared of being hurt. Sometime during the second full day there was a shift and I recognized this as a pattern copied from my mother, who lived her life in sacrifice to others. And there were yet more answers to why: I was slowly coming to realize that this question was pointing at an enormously complex behavior with no single cause, no simple answer, so easy antidote.
Then towards the end of the retreat I was walking quietly outside (a large part of the formal practice is slow, meditative walking) when I looked up and the beautiful setting of the retreat center, the woods, the bright blue sky hit me, and the question turned around. “Why” shifted from looking at the cause to looking at the consequences of this behavior. There is so much – “too much”! – and I was missing it by staying so busy. And gradually that ground also shifted. I realized that “too much” is all there is, and that it can be overwhelming. My question was a deeper question of balance: the need to stay engaged in the world in action – particularly compassionate action – held against on the one hand the need for my own personal life and on the other my spiritual or wisdom practice; the balance between wisdom and compassion, between action and peace; between living a useful life against celebrating the wonder of life. “Too much” is actually a question not to be answered, but to be held in mind as I continually look at the urgency of living my life right, of constantly slipping out of balance and adjusting, of making mistakes and correcting. It is a question not to be answered but to be lived.
During the retreat Lisa occasionally interrupted the silence with a reading, and this one from Pema Chodren seems to me to capture the spirit of the practice:
We think the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together and fall apart again. It’s all just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.
Thank you Lisa for introducing us to this wonderful practice, for your beautiful teaching, and for being such a remarkable person!
The retreat was offered by Red Clay Sangha at a retreat center in north Georgia. Red Clay is a non-denominational Buddhist group whose particular gift is to offer retreats and Buddhist teachings and practices at extremely affordable levels – free wherever possible.
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