Our True Refuge residential retreat is now complete and the retreat was truly about refuge in all of its forms. Several of us arrived early, on Wednesday evening, to practice an extra day. Thursday was overcast but mild and I had an opportunity to hike one of the trails after breakfast. The landscape in December couldn’t have been more different from the last time we were at Bethany Hills in April. From the warm and sunny days, incredible spring greens and flowers in the fields, to grey skies and barren trees, I barely recognized the place. At first the contrast was jarring. Then as I hiked the trail, I gradually settled into the stripped down winter world and felt a deep appreciation for the stillness and stark beauty. The crunch of the dead leaves on the path opened me to deep gratitude for the opportunity to spend time there on retreat.
I began the afternoon rounds of meditation settled and appreciative of the extra day’s practice. About halfway through the first sit, unexpectedly a fly landed momentarily on my lips. I recoiled and immediately brushed my lips before I realized that I was only spreading around any germs. I began thinking about what might be on my lips, worrying about whether the germs were making their way inside my mouth. Then I clearly saw my reactivity and brought my mind back to the present. I inquired, “how do I find refuge when a fly lands on my lips?” This wasn’t an intellectual inquiry, but rather one of seeking an answer from the place of insight within. Immediately my reactivity stopped and I dropped my worries about the germs. There was nothing I could do at that moment except sit. A few minutes later the fly landed squarely on my nose. I blinked just slightly in surprise, but was aware and nonreactive now, having found refuge in the way things are, even with a fly hovering by my head. It buzzed around me for about five more minutes. By now the fly had become, if not a friend, at least a guest I was willing to welcome. I do admit that after the meditation session ended, I went to my room and washed my face! I spoke of the fly during my dharma talk the next night, and discovered after the retreat that the fly had visited many people. They said they were grateful that they had an opportunity to make their peace with the fly, that it had been a good teacher in learning to cultivate non-reactivity.
Issa, a Zen poet, wrote about flies this way: “Where you find humans, there you’ll find flies and Buddhas.” This is our human condition, to continually experience the shifting movement from pleasure to pain, samsara to awakening, joy to sorrow and back again. When we are able to cultivate non-reactivity to the changing collidescope of experience, we can begin to taste true equanimity. Sometimes we are visited by Buddhas; sometimes flies. Sitting still for long stretches and walking the same ground over and over, we face our experience in every way imaginable. At times it may be painful or boring, other times joyful and transcendent. As our hearts open more deeply to this practice, we begin to appreciate all that life has to offer and we can welcome both flies and Buddhas.
One of the most welcome parts of the retreat was the amazing, ever changing weather during our practice. We had no sun during this retreat, but we enjoyed periodic rain, wind and lightning. The weather was warm enough to walk outside all weekend. Saturday evening we enjoyed a dusk meditation on the deck to a symphony of thunder and light rain. It was a magical moment of being in the midst of nature on our cushions as darkness fell, protected by the deck’s large overhang, yet still immersed in the wiles of the weather. Meditation outdoors allowed us to open our lens of attention to accommodate the wide world of nature in our practice, to take it all in with a receptive mind.
Many people found the retreat challenging, and it is designed to be. At the closing they reported finding an opening into their practice that was very rewarding and far deeper than what they had experienced during their home practice. Most discovered the joy of meeting their visitors, whether flies or Buddhas, with an open, undivided heart. Our next retreat is scheduled for April 11 – 15. You’re welcome to join us.