What did I learn while spending five days in silence? First off I realized that I talk to myself … out loud … a lot. I think that this pattern has grown stronger over the last few years after Anne Mei went off to college and I was living alone for months. Oh, yes, I do talk with Toto, too, but she wasn’t at the retreat. Thankfully I didn’t do any talking out loud when sitting in a room with 35 other people in silence. There, I did a lot of talking in my head. Of course, that’s why we were there. To pay attention to ourselves talking in our heads and then let it go. Still working on that.
I’d read about “mindful eating” before, but had never really tried it. As one of seven children, I grew up eating fast so I’d have a chance at seconds. At the retreat, there was no one to talk with at meals. People were all around me in the dining hall, but we weren’t talking. Also no TV, music, computer, or cell phone to distract from the task at hand–eating. So I tried taking one bite at a time, putting the fork or spoon down between bites instead of loading up the next one, and pausing to pay attention as I chewed what was in my mouth. Slowly. Not picking up a utensil until I’d swallowed. Some people think about where the food comes from and the people who grew it, picked it, brought it here, and cooked it for us. Since I was trying to slow down the thinking in my head, I just paid attention to eating and watching what was going on around me. For not talking with people for five days, we learned a lot about each other just by paying attention.
The menu was vegetarian. The food was varied and delicious. But, by the third day I had a question: what’s the point of salad, if the main course is all vegetables? Just a little humor to break the silence.
Every afternoon the teacher led the group for an hour of qigong exercises. I’ve been doing qigong along with taiji for about 15 years now. Some of his moves were familiar, others were new and worth learning. It took me years to learn how to move my arms without using my shoulder or arm muscles. Just let them swing and move in a direction set by moving my waist or hips or legs. Also how to raise my arms, again without using my shoulder or arm muscles, and then to let them drop … s l o w l y … without using my arm muscles to control their descent. As I said, it takes years of practice to learn how to let go of one’s arms, to let the hands release and just float up and down. So I wasn’t surprised to see what I usually see when new students join a taiji class. Tight neck, tight shoulders, rigid arms and hands. Trying to move slowly with the teacher, but just not letting go. More worried about doing something wrong than about just letting go.
No big deal everyone goes through that. But what surprised me was a move that I hadn’t done before. Letting each arm swing swing back and forth, up and down, back and around–separately, one at a time. I’d moved my arms one at a time before, but never quite in this position. I quickly realized that my left arm was moving like a newbie. I had a hard time letting the left arm just swing from the hips. My right arm flopped around like a sheet on a clothesline drying in the wind, when it was its turn. I know that I am terminally right-handed. What I realized is that my attention is so focused on the right arm and hand that I fooled myself into thinking that I had learned how to do taiji with “no arms,” as Cheng Man Ching teaches, when my poor left arm was still holding on. I have a whole new area to work on in taiji.
In my last post, when I told people about going to this retreat, I mentioned the book I’m working on. If you had a chance to look at the Introduction I posted, even as far as the table of contents, you saw that I’m doing a lot of arguing with Buddhist philosophers. The biggest issue that emerged for me during the retreat was my argumentativeness, my inner Fighting Irishman. From that exploration I now can write the last chapter of the book. I had outlined it as concerning what Buddhists call “the three gateways to liberation.” Now I see them as gateways for the Fighting Irishman to get out of the ring.
At our very last session, the teacher Oren Jay Sofer read a poem by Derek Walcott. It sums up my experience during these five days.
Love after Love
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
Sum up the experience? Not totally. Of course, the Fighting Irishman had to get a word in. “That poem’s all about ‘me’. What about anattā?” Usually translated as “no self.” I counter-punched with one of his favorite lines from Leonard Priestley:
… [T]he Buddha’s ‘denial of self’ … is not a denial of the significance of the first-person pronoun, nor a denial of specific theories about the self or even all such theories in general; it seems to be a denial of the usefulness of the notion of self (beyond the obvious limits of practical discourse) in seeking an end to suffering and rebirth. What the Buddha offers is not so much a theory of non-self as a non-theory about self, a refusal to engage in the endless speculations about self which were current at the time.
That shut him up long enough for me to savor the poem and the retreat. And to keep working on just saying “Hello, you’re at it again” next time.