Mirror of Zen Blog

Whiplash in Retreat

I’m in an awful funk the last several days, almost a kind of depression. There is a reason.

After weeks of maintaining silent retreat, I let it get punctured several days ago by leaving WhatsApp functionality open to the world to be available for certain people who are suffering, and in order to remain helpful to a painful family drama. The result of this half-assed “bodhisattva sickness” on my part? Eviscerated needlessly, perhaps accidentally, by some flailing creature’s ability to reach me in the extremely sensitized condition of the meditative state.

And it has thrown my head into a tailspin.

(Note to anyone who has a friend or family member who attends retreats: never, ever, ever contact them when they are in the depths of retreat. Unless there is some death in the family to report, you are not going to help your meditating friend in the least by bringing your chockablock outside world emotions into their space of inner clarification.)

For anyone who is familiar with food-fasting, this experience is the equivalent of attaining the heightened super-sensitivity of a 14-day water-only fast, and then suddenly – – without transition -– needing to eat a bacon double-cheeseburger with fries and a Coke. See what your body‘s reaction to that will be! What is “normal“ food in a non-fasting state can kill you in the middle of a fast, or irreparably harm your organs.

Or it is like these deep-sea divers who might explore the ocean floor at a depth of kilometres: if they are brought up to the surface too quickly, to the surface atmospheric pressure of everyone else, they can develop an embolism and die a painful death. The abruptness of this change can literally kill you! Divers emerging from deep sea exploration must rise to the surface in gradual, calibrated lengths, stopping in stages for some minutes or even hours to acclimate, before proceeding up some more meters to acclimate, and so on, and so on.

Having spent several days in extreme quiet and undisturbed serenity, following a strict schedule, staring straight down deeply into the very core of consciousness, to receive some aggressive, attacking messages from an aggrieved soul through a social messaging app, quite out of the blue — it feels like a roundhouse sucker-punch to the soul. Whatever their intentions, the impact is registered far, far more violently in the meditative soul.

Back in the day, when I first cultivated this practice, we were protected in a mountain setting, without phones or news or video or even speech with fellow retreatants. This is really the only way to attain depth in this practice.

Now, carrying on this same practice out in the midst of the world, and needing or expected to be conversant with the life burdens of people who are not in retreat while guiding a meditation community, it can really throw you for a loop to receive such energy. Although the person is, by nature, very good and sincere, the intensity of their expression pierced me through straight down to my bowels. It has now been 7-8 days wallowing in this whiplash, and I can’t really settle back into the depth I was experiencing even one week ago. I even feel a sort of “regression” (though such a thing is not an actual reality). I definitely feel plunged into an uncharacteristic funk, a sort of “what-difference-does-it-make“ hopelessness that, while I know from experience is insubstantial and only dream-like, nevertheless feels heavy and hard to dissolve again. Perhaps it is the historically oppressive heat we are experiencing these days that magnifies the heaviness of this. But it is very, very intense.

One is either practicing, or not. There is no halfway effort. But even the full-on effort has its dangers and vulnerabilities.

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