Tuesday, February 17, 2009

What is satsang?

So besides being a wife, mother, corporate manager, meditation floozy, a capella singer and all-around regular, boring, middle-aged New England chick, I am also a teacher with a local sangha. White Mountain Sangha is a group I helped to found with my teacher, Norman Scrimshaw. Norman is a wonderful, wise, sweet, shy guy who came to understand the truth of this life as he hung out with his teacher, Adyashanti. Please check them both out; they are each worth reading and listening to. 

White Mountain Sangha is a loose gathering of people who are interested in... well, already it gets hard to describe. Generally people come to a group like ours with an interest in meditation, or maybe some background in Buddhist practice. But these facts are peripheral to what really compels people to join us. What really drives people to a group like ours is a question. A compelling question. This question can be very clearly formed, for instance, "What's the point of this thing called life?" or "I've heard about this enlightenment business, can I have some please?" For other people, there is a sense of general dis-ease with life, as if there's a missing element. The question in this case is less well formed, but still palpable. What turns out to be important is not so much the question itself, but what a person feels compelled to do with it.  

Satsang is for looking into these questions in a very particular way. The nuts and bolts of satsang are pretty simple to describe, although it doesn't really get at the answer to the question "What is satsang?" Nevertheless, it's important to know the form, as simple as ours is. Generally, we start by gathering the group, most often in someone's living room, or sometimes at a yoga studio or similar meeting place. We spend a little time greeting each other, talking and settling in. Next, the teacher "in charge" of the satsang will invite everyone to spend about 20 minutes in seated stillness. There may be a little instruction about how we suggest people hold this time of meditation. After 20 minutes, a bell rings to signal the end of the meditation period. Then the teacher talks for a little while about a topic of interest to "people with questions." Finally, there is time for some dialogue between the teacher and attendees. After satsang is done, we often enjoy tea and goodies together, or sometimes a potluck meal. This is the form of our satsangs.

The spirit of satsang is more difficult to convey, and is best understood by experiencing it. My teacher, Norman, is a very heart-oriented kind of guy, and I think I remember him once calling satsang the "home of the heart." Imagine a place where you are invited to directly and fully feel everything you are given to feel in this life.  Satsang is beautiful, fearsome, frustrating, mind-blowing, boring, hilarious, tender, sad, and every other emotion that wants to emerge from your yearning heart. Satsang can be as light and relaxed as you need it to be, or as deep and gut-wrenching as you demand it to be. It can lift you up or slam you down hard.

Let me tell you a story from one of the many satsangs I've attended. This one happened at a 6-day silent retreat I was attending. At this retreat, there were upwards of 200 people gathered to rest and steep in silence and the space of morning and evening satsang each day. At one point, I was fortunate to make my way to the queue to ask a question of the teacher who was leading the retreat. And I did ask my question, and had some dialogue with the teacher around the question, and walked away satisfied with the answer. And then it happened. A reaction of embarrassment descended on me for having show-boated a little during the question, for having in fact interrupted the venerable teacher during his answer. And here is where satsang does its work. There is no place to go on a silent retreat, no book to lose yourself in, no television to distract yourself with. It's you and your reaction, spending the day together. So after the meeting ended, at about noon, I scurried back to my room and scribbled out a kind of mad treatise on what was happening to me, thinking to write the business away. No relief. I then strode to the dining hall for lunch and proceeded to inhale a plate full of food without ever seeing or tasting it. This is very un-serene action for a well-behaved meditator. Next, I plowed my way down to the beach where I was accustomed to lying in the sun for a few minutes to rest my back before afternoon sitting. I literally could not lie still. The reaction had taken my body over like a fire. After about 10 minutes, I had a revelation: Get your ass up to the meditation hall and sit it out. And that's what I did. We had off-and-on sitting time for three hours, so for three hours I watched my body and mind ride the roller coaster of heat, blushing, anxiety, trembling, thought storm embarrassment. By the end of it all I was settling down to bemused chuckling at myself. What a trip! 

It's not this specific story I want to emphasize here, entertaining as it may be. Everyone who has ever been in silence for a prolonged period has stories like this, probably many stories. What's so interesting is how through spending time and attention in this way, I can see very clearly the habits and behavior patterns that generally drive me around on these crazy trips. And the trips are fine and I keep taking them, believe me. The difference is that, with some time spent looking into life in this way, I may still take a trip now and then, but the trip doesn't take me. There's something transformative about the simple seeing of how these trips play out. With this direct, honest observation, the power of it all to spin you out of contact with your own awareness winds down.

Now please also remember a time when you felt totally accepted and supported, just exactly as you are. Satsang is also this. In this form of gathering, agreed to and created by all who attend, the bottom line question that's been trying to form in you can safely present itself for your investigation. We call this inquiry, a direct investigation not of the mind but of the heart. And who knew, in my case, that I needed to look into how much importance I place on being perceived as polite and wise to the people I hang out with.

Satsang is something you may want to check out at least once or twice. It's certainly not for everybody. For some, it is a powerful means for exploring the truth of this life, your life. Maybe that's you?

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Stumbling Awake

A few months ago, I was spending a long weekend doing what I find myself quite often doing: hanging out in silence. I was at the Garrison Institute, a beautifully restored former Capuchin monastery on the Hudson River, just across from West Point. Two teachers in the tradition of Vipassana Buddhism were holding a four-day retreat during which a group of about 150 of us walked and ate and learned and sat in silence.

I told a Zen monk friend of mine once that I call myself a meditation floozy. He chuckled, but the next week when he asked me to stand in as jiki jitsu, or meditation leader for that week's sitting, he asked that I refrain from sharing that particular tidbit. I love silence, just about anybody's brand or flavor. This may come as news to some people who know me professionally or socially. I actually have quite the cocktail party flair. You're a little lonely for some company? You definitely want to sit next to me on a plane. But I'm just as useful to the seatmate who wants total privacy in their 16 inches of real estate. I am a meditator. I sit quietly when given half a chance, doing what meditators do.

What DO meditators do? A question for the ages. For now, let's say they sit still, keep quiet and take what comes.

But I digress. As I was navigating the fourth floor of the Garrison Institute, I had the most interesting experience of free fall. The fourth floor is where you wind up when you register very late, way past when there should have been space left in this popular retreat. On the fourth floor, there are tiny rooms for what must have previously been the very short monks, I guess, plus strange raised bathrooms one step up from the rest of the floor.  And here's where the falling happened. I was exiting the bathroom. Now a very clear-minded meditator, one who has truly mastered the depths of consciousness, would probably have skillfully and permanently imprinted the step up and down to the bathroom the first time it was negotiated. No such luck for the meditation floozy. I stepped out of the bathroom and enjoyed free fall.

This brings me to another experience I had recently. I went sky-diving for the first time last summer with my 18-year-old daughter, as her high school graduation present. After hard body and mind training over about 8 hours, I was granted the gift of 60 seconds of free fall with two instructors falling next to me, ready at any time to pull my pilot chute for me and get me down the newbie's way. I made it through the entire solo fall, I'm proud to report, and pulled my own chute. And I only say this when my husband is not around, so don't tell him, but it was one of the most heightened physical experiences I have ever had.

Which brings me back to the Garrison Institute. Four months later I found myself free-falling for a glorious 1.5 seconds or so. What was cool about it was that I loved it and felt it and knew it to be exactly the same type of experience. And for this way of experiencing the world, I thank the practice of meditation. So on this day, as I stumbled down the bathroom step, I really appreciated the freedom of the body falling unsupported and unworried through space. Somehow, the legs knew perfectly to flex, reach toward gravity and brace for impact. Meanwhile, the torso, head and arms soured and flew. At the end of the fall I landed perfectly safely, with euphoria perhaps even greater than my planned fall last summer, since it came without the trappings of training and equipment. Just very simply:  Aaah...  wow!

I think back on the many times I've stumbled, crumpled and downright fallen. The experience seems to usually involve an immediate addition of one or more mind constructs, or stories. I'm embarrassed, and look around to see who witnessed the blunder; I'm annoyed and look back to find the imperfection in the walking surface that I can blame; I straighten up quickly, and put on the act of nothing having happened. But not on this day. For this fall, there was just... falling. Falling, as it turns out, involves a big rush of hormones experienced in the body that can be interpreted any number of ways, none of them particularly true. But to feel the body itself enjoying flight and to purely feel the rush of hormones signaling excitement and requesting insistently that great attention be paid in order to ensure wisest action and survival, well that is something wonderful indeed. 

I want to add than any effect that results from meditation that can be described or spoken of like this must be acknowledged as a side effect. I think many meditators take up the practice itself for different practical reasons, and many of them succeed at improving things such as concentration or their understanding of the workings of the human mind/body. The practice of meditation has granted to me, as one of it's side benefits, the sometimes unusually clear ability to see the workings of the world, as they arise in my body itself and near me, in front of my eyes and around my ears, hands and feet. What I teach about is really not about the side effect, or even the act of meditation, or the stalwart commitment to the practice of sitting still and ... being. It's about waking up to life itself, however it presents itself. The momentary experiences here and there are just snapshots, illustrations from points in time to help orient anyone interested in this way of being with life. If you are interested in looking for this quality of clarity and direct experience through your own eyes and experiences, let's look into that together. 

Anyway, I imagine I'll continue stumbling awake in my own way, tripping and falling and laughing through this life. So join me, if you like!