That’s me in the photo, about two years ago. It was the last time I completed an extended meditation retreat. A few months before the retreat, I was sitting in my office, in the village of Sinoni, a few miles from the city of Arusha in Tanzania. I was volunteering as the Finance Manager for a non-profit, and I had discovered that for a little over $300, I could fly to India and back. I couldn’t pass that up.
Our Internet connection at the office was quite unreliable, especially in the month leading up to my departure, and there were many things to do to prepare for my three week absence, so when I arrived in New Delhi, I hadn’t been able to book a hotel for the night. It was already dark. I trusted the wrong cab driver, and through a series of unfortunate events, I found myself bouncing around the back of a cab on an all night taxi to Pushkar (the town closest to the retreat center) with a driver who was going too fast and drinking too much whisky for my comfort. Though the trip from New Delhi to Pushkar involved a series of bad choices on my part and blew through about half of my travel budget, the meditation retreat was definitely one of my better decisions in life.
O taste and see that the Lord is good: blessed is the man that trusteth in him. – Psalm 34
I’m attending another Vipassana retreat in about a week, put on by the same organization that hosted my retreat in Pushkar, an organization founded by S. N. Goenka. There are retreat centers located all over the world, and the process is very well-organized, relying heavily on a web-based application process. This time, I’ll only have to drive a few hours north, staying in the familiar state of California.
Vipassana retreats are 10 days long, with about 11 hours of meditation each day. Yes, it’s a daunting task. Yes, it seems impossible. But yes, you guessed it, that’s the point.
It’s a curious thing about the spiritual journey and about the the whole process of healing and growing. It requires work, commitment, and effort, but at the same time, we kind of have this hunch that we are not really working to change ourselves so much as to become more of the person that we already are. James Finley, one of my favorite spiritual teachers, puts it this way: we work for that which we cannot attain by effort alone. Or something like that. I’m not sure if I’ve worded it quite the way Finley puts it, but the point is that there is a paradox at work when we commit ourselves to a path that we know will require discipline and sacrifice.
This reminds me of another Finley-ism, as I call them, as I refer to James Finley quotes. He says that meditation practice is putting yourself in the path of least resistance to experience the divine. It is the classic Christian admonition to “taste and see,” to take some form of risk, to put something on the line, to sacrifice. It’s a dare. The effort we extend is not so much to achieve something, like busting through an extra set of squats at the gym: No pain, no gain, bro! On the contrary, the sacrifice of time and the effort is to do something that connects us with ourselves or with God in some way that we know, deep down, will bring us some form of freedom, or liberation, or peace. So many of our patterns of behavior and our mental life pull us away from the self that we sense we could be, the person we feel that we are.
The paradox of the sacrifices we make in order to be more healthy and whole is that in order to live a life of “the path of least resistance,” we often have to do things that feel to us as though they offer the greatest resistance. There’s the rub. Whatever it is, big or small, whether it is eating better, exercising more, starting a daily ritual of yoga or meditation or prayer, we usually know what it is that will be good for us, we have moments of clarity where we recognize what it is we need to do. We recognize that certain activities or lifestyles will simplify our inner world, purify us in some way, and will allow to live more consistently without inner turmoil. It will, in short, allow us to live a life of the path of least resistence. On the other hand, we encounter great resistance, something inside us pushes back. Call it the ego or what have you, but it’s the Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde kind of thing we all face. Our Hyde life remains just out of reach, so often, distracted by the wily ways of Jekyl.
Two years ago, I experienced a good bit of anxiety about the 10 day Vipassana meditation retreat, and while it was not without some difficulty, I did it, and it wasn’t that bad. When I left the retreat center, I took with me invaluable insights, lessons that I’ll never forget, things that I learned about myself that are almost too personal to speak of. One thing I learned, though, is that for me, these retreats are the setting that I need to put myself in. So, in a week, I return. I’ll be less anxious, in fact, I’m rather looking forward to it. Going back feels a little like meeting an old friend, or the sense that the old friend will surprise me with some great gift.