Recently, Michael had the opportunity to realize a long-held dream, following his dharma to participate in a retreat with a teacher that he has admired for several years. Here, he chronicles his journey, along with the thoughts, reflections, and lessons that he experienced along the way.
As I settle in to my airplane seat to embark on the first leg of my journey, I don’t exactly feel like a pilgrim. Nevertheless, I am on a pilgrimage. The flight will take me across the country, to Redwood City, California, to visit the Insight Meditation Center. Once there, I will meditate, listen to dharma talks, and meet Gil Fronsdal, a dharma teacher who I have greatly admired for the past several years, but have never met in person.
It’s a long way to go for a few days retreat, and my rational mind could have easily talked me out of making this journey. Although I’ve been wanting to go for a while, it took some focus and planning to make it happen. There were many good reasons to not go, and only one clear reason in favor.
Objections to the trip included the time involved, the cost, the fact that such meditation could happen anywhere, the prospect of leaving my family for 4 days, and so on. The one compelling reason to go: to follow my dharma, my right path or inner knowing (gut feeling).
Since first engaging a yoga posture sometime back in the early 1980’s, I’ve been on a journey. For most of that time, it has meant following my dharma. The first pilgrimage was to leave Australia to go to the USA and visit a host of ashrams and new age communities. A few years later, I returned to take up residence at the Kripalu Ashram in Massachusetts, to explore the power of yoga to change lives – mostly mine.
In the years since, I’ve visited and taught in many places such as Findhorn in Scotland, Yogaville in Virginia, and Ananda in California, as well as in Australia, Japan, the Netherlands, and some beautiful places in Canada. I’ve often felt inwardly nourished and supported by many of these journeys. But this trip is different. For me, it is both personal and purposeful. As I sit on the airplane now, I’m pleased about taking the leap, and happy to be on my way.
From the first time I listened to Gil on the podcast AudioDharma, I’ve felt a resonance with both his material – Vipassana Meditation – and his way of teaching the dharma. To me, he is down-to-earth, pragmatic, personable, articulate and wise, as well as having a great sense of humor. He’s my kind of dharma teacher. But there is more behind this trip than to meet a teacher that I admire.
Over the last few years, I’ve made some pretty major shifts in my life. I’ve focused more on my relationships with my wife and family, and been more purposeful about manifesting my intentions – creating greater closeness, love, respect, and empathy. It has been a daily practice and a most fulfilling experience, one that has also taken me deeper into compassion. I see more, I understand more, and I tend to act from a more considered place in many of my day-to-day interactions. There is less reaction, and on the occasions when reaction still appears, I can generally call it on myself and turn it around. There is a greater feeling response now to the suffering I see around me. While I see and celebrate some of the great changes that are happening in our world – more people in the West pursuing yoga, spirituality, and meditation – I also see much that disturbs me. I often take refuge in these times in the teachings of the Buddha: everything is always changing, suffering is part of the journey, particularly when there is attachment, and this too shall pass. But is taking refuge enough?
As a teacher for almost half a century, I’ve been fortunate in developing a body of work in Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy that serves many people. Several great teachers have been trained, and many skilled practitioners are doing wonderful work in the world helping others to alleviate suffering. As I sit here and reflect on these experiences, I ask myself: how can all of this be used for the greater good in more effective ways, and perhaps address some of the great challenges we now face in our world? And what does that call forth from me? I don’t know the answer yet, but something inside tells me it’s important. I want to embrace it and find out. Hence my pilgrimage.
I often have great reflections and insights while thirty or forty thousand feet above the earth. Today is one of those days. A beautiful day for flying. From my window seat I see the vast flat and dry part of the earth begin to merge with the snow-capped mountains. Internally, I sense diversity, difference, beauty in that difference, and experience the acceptance of it all. Here in this small window of time, it looks like nothing changes out there – the mountains are just there. But everything changes. And maybe someday, they will not be there. Who knows? And so much space. Vast areas without movement or activity. Internally, I feel the joy of the emptiness. No mind. No needs. No agenda. Just being. Here. Now. My mind gets momentarily distracted by anticipation of my arrival in San Francisco. Will it be easy to find my rental car? Where will I eat? I notice. I breathe. Back to the present. No need to anticipate. Just continue to enjoy the ride and the view. The pilgrim’s journey is happening moment to moment. It began the moment I made the decision to go. It continues.
I drift from present awareness to connect to an earlier awareness. I’ve flown over many states today and I could not see if they were red or blue. Only their beauty was evident. Noticing my disdain for dualism and labels – black/white, red/blue, us/them, good/bad, and so on. I see much divisiveness in our world. I have no control over how my family, friends, and colleagues choose to see each other or divide themselves from each other. I must accept that it is so. And that acceptance is difficult. I want a more accepting world, a less fearful world, a more peaceful world. I also know that as I have gone deeper into my own suffering, and opened myself to living intentionally and mindfully, I have changed. I have become more accepting and peaceful, and much less fearful. That alone gives me hope; hope that we may find a way to become a we rather than an us and them. There are no lines in the sand outside my window. The landscape flows together in harmony. As humans we are as natural as the earth below, so can’t we harmonize too and become comfortable with our differences and look out for each other as well? Or, am I too hopeful, too trusting, too accepting for my own and others good? These are the questions I ask. And can I accept that perhaps there are no answers.
Ever since the time of the Buddha there has been conflict and turmoil. Interestingly though, there has, to my knowledge, never been a significant war between Buddhists, despite the many sects and variations of practice. Perhaps there is something in the teachings of the Buddha that holds a key. Is it my dharma to resolve this for myself internally, so that I can be better prepared to help build the bridges in our world that I see as so desperately needed? I plan to sit with this thought over the days ahead.
The first day at IMC is Dharma Day – a day to explore the Buddha’s teachings around Wisdom – one of the ten Paramis (sometimes translated as perfections) that he outlined. A perfect topic for me, given my quest.
We begin with a guided meditation. Notice the parts of the body that feel at peace. Notice the parts that don’t. I go back and forth between the two. I’m aware of the peacefulness in my thighs and the turmoil in other parts. I notice and let them be. I notice the spaces in between. I don’t try to change anything. It’s just THERE. As I relax more into acceptance of both, a sense of calm begins to invade each moment. Soon the body sensations lose my attention and instead my inner gaze shifts to the waves of blue light passing through and around my head. Ahhh… so this is what meditation can do? And with that thought I lose the light.
For the rest of the day we meditate, walk, discuss, listen to Gil talk about wisdom, and end the day with another meditation. I notice the busyness of my mind and there are no more blue light experiences. Just lots of thoughts coming and going. I love listening to Gil and to hear him in person. And today, his words and my experience have left my mind very busy. Lots of questions. The relationship between Wisdom and Compassion? And in the exercise of one’s wisdom, what is Right Action? I notice the agitation within. The needing to know. I bring myself back to the moment. So be it. Accept not knowing for now. I am amazed at how easily I can do that. Maybe that is progress. Notice that thought also. Let it go. Experience, notice, accept.
In the evening I walk around the city observing the tree lighting ceremony and the streets crowded with families celebrating the beginning of the holiday season. Some peace, some joy, some anxiety and some stress noticeable on the faces of the parents shepherding their children. I notice the clarity with which I can see this and to see without judgment. All just a part of the scene. Accepting that. I notice my hunger and look at the menu outside of a traditional Japanese baru (a bar that serves small plates of food). Looks good. I go in, sit at the bar and order.
A conversation begins with a young couple sitting next to me. At first we discuss the food but then move into deeper subjects as I decide to tell them about my pilgrimage, in response to their question about what I’m doing here in their city. They work for one of the very well known Silicon Valley tech giants. Their desire is to generate a more compassionate level of interaction on the platform. A wonderful conversation about change, neuroscience, and technology follows. Before they leave, we become friends on Facebook. A chance meeting that becomes one of the highlights of my evening and a reinforcement of the hope I feel for our world.
Today is a daylong meditation retreat at IMC. Meditate, walk, mediate, walk, and so on, alternating throughout the day with a break for lunch in silence. There are times when it’s hard, and times when it just flows. Some deeper meditations, but still no blue light – not until the very last few minutes of the very last meditation. Without effort the thoughts stop. Without effort the body feeling tired and full of aches moments before, becomes peaceful and very comfortable. The waves of light reappear and continue without interruption until the bell sounds to end the meditation. Notice not wanting it to end. I listen to the dharma talk on the value of practice. It makes perfect sense, as the words are totally supported by my experience of the day. There seem to be no shortcuts, and that the best I or anyone else can do is be fully present to what is happening as the first step in not being bounced around by it. Being fully aware and accepting what one sees is almost a necessary pre-condition for Right Action, and to counter reaction. Although I have known this intellectually for many years and have had varied success in practicing it, it sometimes it takes a pilgrimage like this to experientially connect to it again. To really KNOW.
The next morning, there are another two periods of meditation followed by another dharma talk from Gil. This time he talks about his new book, The Buddha Before Buddhism. It’s a translation of the Book of Eights with commentary. I’m drawn in by the relative simplicity of this early expression of the Buddha’s teaching – before his teaching became an “ism.”
The lines that best resonated with my weekend experience included these:
It’s not easy to overcome being entrenched in views…
Those who are cleansed do not form a view…
About states of becoming or non-becoming anywhere in the world.
While this is easy to hear and easy to either accept or reject from an intellectual perspective, I’m comforted by the knowledge that my pilgrimage has enabled me to internally experience the truth of these words for myself. A greater knowing and, hopefully, a more discerning wisdom goes home with me.
Michael is the founder of Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy and author of two books: Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy-Bridge from Body to Soul and Turn Stress into Bliss. He lives in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts with his wife and youngest daughter. For a schedule of upcoming professional trainings and workshops with Michael or to book a private online Life Mentoring session click here.