Sunday, June 08, 2008

The Pema report

So my mom and I went to Omega last weekend to hear Pema Chodron, and I had a really interesting experience, starting right from the beginning: The campus didn't feel all that different from my home. I left a home full of lovely green forest and flowers and fresh, rich air, and two hours later I was walking around hearing the same birds and seeing the same view. I think it made the weekend a lot less dramatic, and that troubled me, a bit.

I worried that I didn't get it, that I wasn't appreciating Pema enough, that her message was so simple, almost too simple, that I wanted to hear something more complicated or deep. Or intellectual? Nevertheless, she was extraordinary. Quiet, smart, very funny, topical, and yes, deeply spiritual.

I remember hearing a criticism about Eat, Love, Pray, that the writer, Elizabeth Gilbert, just does yoga and then has a latte, like this is something bad, or it means she's not having a spiritual experience. Never mind that being in an ashram in India for months at a time, meditating and working hard, isn't exactly like taking a yoga class. But whatever the valid criticisms of this book, I think whoever said that doesn't understand that even the Dalai Lama likes iPods. That deeply spiritual people can also be fun and fun to be with. Pema Chodron knows what's happening, she gets the joke, she's a part of this world and her Buddhist world, and that's why she's so extraordinary. She's an emissary to the other, a path to finding a way to live in this increasingly tense, insane, violent world.

We are so trained to be anti-spiritual that only in very specific, formulaic ways, a bar mitzvah, say, or a baptismal, does our embittered society accept our attempts to get out of ourselves and find love and compassion for ourselves and the world. And often then many of us don't accept it. We judge it and think the people who do those seemingly meaningless rituals are just stupid or blind or traditional, god forbid. I remember going to the funeral of the mother of a friend in high school and it was at a church, and I realized why people believe in a god, or go to church or temple. Who wants to be alone, in good times or bad?

Speaking as someone who prided herself on her intellectualism, her precociousness, who was entirely of the rational, Enlightened world, I see now how dismissive I was of any hint of spirituality because I thought my thinking brain was all-important, all I needed. I didn't understand that people are both, left brain and right brain, that spirituality is the way of strength, not weakness, and that to live with a strong spiritual life is to live fearlessly. Not entirely, not always, but I do not live in fear the way I used to, and that is largely because of prayer and meditation and my other spiritual practices. I was taught several years ago to find someone who has what you want and do what they do, and I don't want cynicism or cruelty or judgment in my life.

Pema had a co-leader named Tim Olmsted, an old friend of hers and also an incredible teacher, who talked to us about meditation specifics and we practiced with him at the beginning of every session. I kept falling asleep. I meditate just about every morning (weekends can be hard) and I've never had that problem. I know it was partly because I had gotten up early and was eating big meals (the food at Omega is amazing) and not getting much exercise and the room was full of people so it was really hot. But still part of me felt like I had done something bad, which I know is not the point of meditation. Omega offers an hour mediation in the mornings before the programs start, and I did that both days. Twenty minutes of sitting, 20 minutes of walking, and then another 20 of sitting. That went better for me.

I told Tim that I knew this was sacrilege but I felt like his teachings were more helpful to me in a practical way at that moment than hers. He said, yes, that's sacrilege! But it was true. I loved being in her presence. I really like hearing her. But I think I also felt like, I keep dipping into Buddhism around the edges, like Geneen Roth, who reportedly has a long-standing Buddhist practice and tries to carry it onto her disciples without calling it Buddhism, necessarily. She doesn't even call it mindfulness. She's wonderful, I like her a lot, but at this point in my journey I don't want watered-down Buddhism, I want Buddhism. Being at Omega the audience was clearly not all Buddhist. Such a mix meant a simpler message, I suspect, although I am sure no less authentic.

As part of being a Buddhist retreat we were asked to be silent from after Friday night dinner to just before Saturday night dinner. I was looking forward to it, and Mum and I brought pads and pens and were prepared. And yes, for practical purposes, writing is okay. It was excruciating and scary for me at first. When I got back to my dorm room that night I felt totally alone. I wanted so much to talk and chat, and process -- to connect, to be understood, to be heard. But I wasn't supposed to, not that way. Just try it, see how it feels, I've been taught. People who have what I want do this all the time. So I tried it. I watched how hard it was for me not to have someone to process things with, and how I actually avoid my feelings and my experience, even, by talking. I am not in the present, in the moment, when I talk. Or maybe it's that I am much more in the present when I don't. I saw immediately that I have two new spiritual tools, not speaking, and listeningm which of course is an entirely different thing from not speaking.

But by breakfast Saturday morning, not even 12 hours later, I could already hear murmurings from other participants, and by lunchtime I moved my table twice and still heard whispers. I thought, what do they have to say that's so important? And as Tim said Saturday evening, when you don't honor the silence you rob everyone else of the experience too. You mess it up for everyone else. I was angry, resentful, at first, and then accepting. Oh, well. It is what it is, as Kim says. And it made me want to attend a true silent Buddhist retreat. No more watered-down Buddhism. Or maybe, more, but also add some direct Buddhist experiences. Who knows when I will get a chance to do one even a short one, given that I have two weeks of vacation and a family. But I will. But maybe I can do a weekend some time. And next weekend I am going to hear Sharon Salzberg talk about meditation (thanks to my new friend Brigid, who told me about it), so I know I will find it where I can. I am being taken care of.

I was given a lovely gift on Saturday morning, because of my silence. The Omega morning meditations are held in a building called the Sanctuary, a really lovely space with wood and stone and several pools. I was leaving my shoes and my pack when I noticed one of the pools, which had fountain spraying up and coming down in little waterfalls, like mini-drinking fountains. And in fact, because I was quiet and calm, I noticed a hummingbird fluttering underneath one of those fountains, drinking. I moved and she flew away and sat on a branch, and then she flew away entirely. But the image stayed with me all day, a gift, a reminder to slow down and enjoy the scenery.

It was great being with my mother over the weekend. When I said, as we were almost there, oh, we should talk about how we are going to be this weekend, she said, we're going to be independent, and that's what we did. One moment really stands out: I was looking for her in the café and a woman I didn't know said, your mother already left. I cracked up! How did she know she was my mother, and I was looking for her! When I told that story later at a meal, folks said they could totally see the resemblance, which never happened to me as a kid; my sisters used to tell me I was adopted because they looked so much alike and I looked so different. I was the youngest, and given the context of my family it was actually kind of yucky to hear.

I am thrilled my mother wanted to come, even though she didn't have any idea who Pema was at the time she registered. Not bad for an old broad of almost 80! July 8! She hits 80! Wow!

PS -- Pema is coming back to Omega next year on the first weekend in June and they are putting names on the wait list now. I recommend it if you are interested. It's an extraordinary opportunity.

1 comment:

  1. Sasha,
    Really loved your thoughts in this entry. Thanks for writing!
    Alison (Zeke's Mom)


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