I arrived on the first day of the four-day silent meditation retreat telling myself not to have any expectations. But of course, I brought them along nonetheless.
What I was hoping for was a lot of silence. Plenty of quiet space in which I could begin to hear the truths buried in my heart.
The woman leading the retreat was nice enough. And very well-meaning. But almost immediately I realized that she talked too much. In the first three hours of the retreat, she led us through maybe eight different exercises, all of which took considerable explanation. I kept waiting for her to say, "And now, we will take the next 20 minutes (or 30 or 40) and remain silent."
It never happened. About 10:30 a.m. she took a half-hour break. As I poured a cup of tea, I realized that I wasn't getting what I thought I needed from the retreat. I considered leaving but decided that I hadn't given it enough time.
After the break, she led two exercises which felt wonderful, and so my hopes were rising. But soon after, it was noon, time for lunch -- a break that was scheduled to last 2.5 hours.
Simultaneously, it started snowing like mad. The teacher told us that four to six inches of white stuff were expected. As I gazed outside the meditation hall tucked into a steep mountainside, all I could think about was the drive home. Me slipping and sliding down the narrow road in the dark (I was commuting).
That's when I started seriously thinking about leaving. I approached the teacher and thanked her for the morning session. I told her I was nervous about driving, and she was very understanding and instructed me to take my retreat at home for the afternoon.
And so I left. Driving home, the snow tapered off (naturally) and I wondered if I'd made a mistake cutting the day short. And then I started thinking: Was this whole retreat a mistake?
Something curious happened when I got home. I decided to sit at my own meditation table and call up a guided meditation on my computer. I listened to Sharon Salzberg and, as always, she helped me to focus on and calm my breathing. And then, while I took leek and potato soup out of the freezer for lunch, I went to Insight Meditation Society's list of "dharma" talks, and found a fantastic lecture by Christina Waldman. Called "The Wisdom of Disappointment," Waldman's lecture explores the way most of us live our lives, tightly bound to expectations for how life should be. When things don't turn out the way we think they should, we get frustrated, or bitter, or resentful. Or disappointed or depressed.
Waldman points out that life by its very nature is guaranteed to disappoint. Disappointments are "small deaths," she says, deaths of our wishes or what we imagine happening in our lives. The more we expect of life, the more likely we will be disappointed. The solution is to accept what is, and to be less tightly bound to expectations or aspirations. Be open to whatever it is that life brings.
And so, as I sat eating my soup, I relished the words of this wise teacher. And I realized that if I hadn't left the retreat center, I would probably never have heard this wonderful lecture.
Waldman pointed out that disappointment often happens to people who go on retreat. Sometimes people expect some dramatic change to emerge out of a retreat. A big turning point in life. Or some kind of bliss. "We hope for rapture, and we get an aching back. We hope for calmness, and we get agitation."
Waldman believes in living life through what she calls "shouldlessness" -- in other words, avoiding mapping the way our lives should be. That's not to say we should have no aspirations. But she suggests we temper those expectations by accepting whatever life delivers up.
Life is unpredictable and uncomfortable and sometimes downright painful. Bad stuff is guaranteed to happen. The more we fight it, the more we will suffer. Freedom lies in the ability to accept life on its terms. As she points out, life is by its nature "never certain, never sure, unpredictable, full of surprises, full of change. Reliability is just not the nature of this life, and that's often what we're expecting and demanding."
By embracing life's disappointments and by holding our demands for life "a little more lightly," the happier we will be.
And so, this afternoon, as the retreat proceeds without me (I'll return tomorrow after the snowstorm ends), I am heading back to my meditation table.
I'm ready to make a few New Year's resolutions: I vow to try out Waldman's notion of "shouldlessness," that is, to live without tight hold of a map about how life should proceed. I vow to try to embrace life exactly the way it is, in all of its imperfections. I also vow to try to learn to live with the discomfort of disappointment.
All in all, I'd say the first day of my retreat was a great success.
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