The spider was as big as the palm of my hand. At least, the circumference of his legs would’ve covered my palm. His body was oval and his mouth parts moved in little whirls, like petals blown by the wind. He was a gorgeous yellow tawny colour. And he sat in the bathroom sink.
Being at the Dharma Centre can be a bit of an ordeal. In late April 2018, after the terrific ice storm, we had to pick our way gingerly over a rutted surface of ice chunks that melted each day and froze again each night. We walked like drunken penguins, lurching from one safe foothold to the next, clutching at air.
Barely five weeks later, the landscape was green and glorious and full of mosquitoes. One brave soul was staying in a tent; another tried one night in Pyramid, before he was driven to take refuge in the Temple dorm.
What’s good about the way they run things at the Dharma Centre? Everyone’s so pleasant and kind. Their eyes have deep, available presence and humour. Serious and light at the same time. Marta and Marion preside over meals—they don’t just cook and run away—they don’t take their portions until we’ve had ours—as if they’re receiving us. I think they have a good time together.
This day, the first full day of an Insight Retreat, was to be spent investigating the senses, establishing tranquility. At lunch, I forgot to go over to the spice rack and take in oregano or cinnamon as if for the first time. But I chewed up my star anise with great delight—a little crown on Marta’s tart tatin, a delectable concoction of baked pear with a poppyseed/nut meal crust.
I feel a little guilty for being so focused on the food at a retreat—but so grateful for small comforts—egg muffins for breakfast! lemon bliss balls at lunch!
The teacher says, You know your likes and dislikes don’t matter.
We do de-armouring exercises, wiggling our fingers and toes like babies in a crib, waving our limbs and rocking like seaweed in the depths.
Counting breaths is hard. Today, I can’t get past 2. The monkey mind is spinning ancient arguments and fascinating new dialogues—how, why do these fantasies persist?
The teacher says, the worst thing for meditation is the continual mind chatter.
On top of the mind chatter sits frustration. I straighten up, restate my aspiration, resolve to pay attention to each micro-moment of breathing…1…2…dammit. I am hopeless at this. And after how many years?
At question period, I share my dismay. “It’s a losing battle!” I wail. Ludo says, “You were a teacher. You knew how best to correct children—gently. Can you try being gentle with yourself?”
I sigh—oh my gawd! I’m still berating myself in that sad sigh! It is hopeless.
You have to go to the smile.
Though it feels forced, I smile. It’s hard to spin the story of my hopelessness with this silly grin on my face.
We start again.
I observe the breath.
I have a thought.
I recoil—ah! aversion
Your first defense is awareness.
Don’t augment it, don’t deny it, just be with it.
Just hang on and watch the experience.
But I want to fix it. or fix me. Thank goodness for the bell and lunch and a little karma yoga and a walk in the woods. With bug jacket. I make it to a cabin overlooking a swampy pond. I wonder what it would be like to do a private retreat here. Pounding my way back along the path, I see massive deer-shaped prints. Moose! There’s a moose in that thar swamp! I guess he came out on the path to escape the bugs. But there’s no escape--
At every level, we have a tendency to want to fix everything;
Keeping things the way they are,
Having oatmeal every morning--
instead of octopus.
We are here to investigate the three characteristics of being: anicca, dukkha, anata. Hard truths, and one that I still just don’t get—well, to be honest, that scares the bejazus out of me. The dharma discourse pleases my mind, though, laying out each one in careful, precise detail with accompanying images. Anicca is a fwoom, like an arrow whizzing by. Dukkha, a lead ball. Anata: feathery cirrus clouds. I like this part. I’ve always liked studying.
Rinpoche says, “The order of things are, You have to study first. Then you meditate.”
But, but…we’re doing it all at once. Studying the dharma, walking and sitting, doing qi gong and yoga, shamata and insight practice…this is the crucible of retreat.
The burning questions that you need to be contemplating:
life is short, everything is impermanent, there is no self.
After four days of this, the teacher proposes a full day of meditation, alternating half-hour sessions of sitting and walking. By then, we have got a measure of tranquility. The body work leaves us relaxed and open. We’re ready to jump in. That sense of self, that death grip on my way of looking at things…let’s have a go at letting it go.
It will evaporate by itself, if you give it air. You have to simply abide with it. Feel its intensity. Feel its tentacles.
I sit tight, too tight; I loosen, I persist. I get tired and dopey. Up from the depths come some words—not a dialogue, not a fantasy, but a response. I relax. They’re hard words, but true. Something in my body calms. Thank you.
In the Chenrezig sadhana that we do every night, are the words: “the compassion that is not separate from the activity that stirs to the depths of Samsara”. Somehow, this week, something got stirred.
And the spider? An old plastic jug with the top cut off served as rescue implement. An easy scoop and dropped gently outside where spiders belong.
Thanks to teacher Kim Sawyer for a gentle scooping.