A Trip to Cloud Mountain

An address to the White Heron Sangha, November 29 2015

Four years ago, at a series of workshops conducted at Crow’s End in San Luis Obispo by White Heron Sangha members, June Kramer and Nancy Hilyard, I was introduced to the technique of concentration meditation, as adapted from the teachings of the Burmese monk, Pa Auk Sayadaw by Tina Rasmussen and Stephen Snyder. Concentration, or Samatha meditation is claimed to have been favored by Buddha himself as an approach to elevated states of consciousness known as the Jhanas, which are precursors to true insight and eventually enlightenment. This form of meditation was long considered an esoteric discipline reserved for monks and initiates, but in recent years it has become accepted and popularized for lay practioners by a number of Buddhist teachers.

The technique of Samatha meditation taught by Tina and Stephen is simple but demanding: one focuses awareness exclusively on the movement of the breath–inhale and exhale–as it passes the area between the nostrils and the upper lip known as the anapana spot. When the awareness goes elsewhere, one gently returns it to that spot, through repetition and habit “building the muscle” of concentration that eventually makes it possible to retain that focus for as long as one chooses.

Though suitable for daily meditation, this practice is not expected to yield progress outside of a full-time retreat setting. Drawn by its promises, two years after the workshops, I attended a three-day introductory retreat at Cloud Mountain in Castle Rock Washington. My experience there induced me to enroll in a 13-day Samatha retreat planned for this fall, providing almost two years advance notice to prepare me for the challenge and my family for the difficulties of scheduling created by a long absence.

Never having undergone the rigors of a long silent retreat, conscious of the cost in time and money, and wary of the expectations of spiritual attainments that this commitment would entail, I felt both excitement and anxiety as the starting date approached. I came close to cancelling the trip at the last minute, once because reading the Pope’s Encyclical on Climate Change forced me to realize that I couldn’t undertake a spiritual quest without first renewing a long-lapsed engagement with this moral issue, and a second time because I felt obliged to deal with what seemed like an organizational crisis at the non-profit where I serve on the Board.

Both those impediments having been cleared, on the afternoon of October 22 I boarded the AmTrak Coast Starlight at the San Luis Obispo station, ready to begin the 25-hour northbound train ride that would transport me from the dramas of daily life to a different reality. As the miles clicked by, I imagined this excursion as a rite of passage from adulthood to old age. Around King City, lost memories of another such rite suddenly arose–of my bar mitzvah at age 13, 60 years ago. The person it would be most satisfying to connect with on this journey was Brian, my fellow Hebrew School student and intellectual companion at the time. From the quiet coach, moving at 70 miles an hour, I dialed him up at his lab in Philadelphia on my cell phone, told him where I was headed, and got him to exchange recollections of our youthful religious enthusiasms and disenchantments.

The Cloud Mountain Retreat Center is located on a five-acre hillside of second growth temperate rain forest surrounded by Pacific Northwest logging country. Its modest but comfortable facilities—dining hall and kitchen, sleeping quarters, bath house and toilets, —are scattered under a tall canopy of moss-coated western maples interspersed with hemlocks, cedars, and firs and are connected by rustic trails and stairways. These buildings and its landscaped features of ponds, bamboo groves and fountains all give a sense of being homebuilt on a tight budget. I learned at the end of the retreat that the Center was developed over many years by a “local boy” who became acquainted with Buddhism while in the military during the Vietnam war and did the design and construction himself with the help of a growing community of meditators. The “Diamond Hall,” where group meditation takes place, has a less woodsy, elegant and spare design reminiscent of a Japanese Zen temple.

There was little conversation at the dinner that followed arrival and registration, but before the onset of the Noble Silence regimen which forbade speech, written communication and looking at one another’s faces. I took a guarded visual survey of the full-capacity 25 member group of retreatants, referred to there as “yogis.” About two thirds men and one third women, all looked middle aged with the exception of two young men and two old guys, including me. One woman had a recently shaved head and one of the young men had a huge beard and hair to his waist, but the rest looked unintimidatingly normal.

Laura, the Center’s Executive Director, handed out schedules and described the retreat’s rules. There would be eight 45-minute sessions of sitting meditation per day alternating with 30 minutes walking meditation, starting at 6:00 AM and ending with a Dharma talk at 7:30 p.m. We were encouraged to extend the sittings at will. After five days, scheduled sittings would be lengthened to at least one hour, but optionally to two. Each person would be assigned a single daily “yogi task” such as setting up and clearing meals, washing dishes and cleaning bathrooms. In the course of the retreat, each of us would have five individual twelve-minute interviews with the teacher.

After the commencement of Noble Silence, we reconvened in the dimly lit meditation hall and staked out positions on the bamboo floor with cushions and plastic chairs. We were welcomed by Tina, who sat in front of an altar supporting a statue of Buddha illuminated by a small lamp which cast a shadow of his head and arms upward on the wall behind. Above the shadow and below clerestory windows in the cupola hung a large scroll displaying a brush-painted Enso, the circular Buddhist symbol of emptiness and form. Tina reported that she and Stephen had recently been injured in a car accident and that though he was unable to attend, he was on the road to recovery and would be with us in spirit.

A primary instruction for Samatha meditation is to keep awareness in the present and avoid thinking about past or future. After two years of anticipation and the last two days of retrospection on the train, I was eager to do that. So now my account proceeds in the tense of the journal that I kept as the days unfolded.

Saturday

The morning sitting starts with group chanting of a thrice-repeated declaration in the Pali language: “I find refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.” I’ve resisted participating in this chant during our Sunday night Sangha meetings at White Heron, but here it seems relevant. Buddha stands for the Buddha-nature that lies within, the shadow on the wall. Dharma is the teachings that have drawn me to this retreat. Sangha is the mysterious community of people I’ll be surrounded by for the next two weeks.

The second chant is a modified version of the ten precepts pledged by those who adopt a monastic regimen, and in rough translation is applicable to this retreat: I will eat no meat, take no more than is offered, tell the truth, refrain from sex, intoxication, idle talk, entertainment, food at inappropriate times and displays of wealth or status.

The sitting’s silence feels like relief. On the way to lunch afterward, I’m elated by the fall of giant golden maple leaves and the shimmering green sprays of the smaller vine maples along the path. On the bulletin board I’m pleased to discover that I’m scheduled for the first interview with the teacher, Sunday 7:30 A.M. There’s also a little packet with my name on it containing two Lindt chocolates and a note from the director: “To the hero of the retreat. Ding Dong.” Like two years ago, I’m the only one to volunteer as wake-up bell ringer.

The meal is vegetable/rice casserole, buttered carrots, green salad and miso dressing. Sitting at the table with averted eyes is awkward but adds to the concentration of attention on the food. Each mouthful creates an extraordinary explosion of taste sensations and saliva production. My yogi job is to clear the dining hall and put away leftovers. I fall out of the euphoric state into a reality of dirty dishes and sloppy sponges. It’s a struggle to stay focused at the afternoon sittings and even during walking meditation.

At the first Dharma talk, Tina lays out the principles of the retreat practice: purification of mind, concentration of attention, thinning of the “me.” One leads to the other: reducing the amount of unnecessary thinking, or what she calls “mentalization,” allows us to focus on and return to the breath, which allows awareness to become more coherent and energized and shrinks the space for egotistical self-consciousness.

Sunday

I’m on the porch early for my scheduled interview on the dark morning, reminded of a recurrent image during meditation at home: that I’m stuck waiting outside a closed door bordered with cracks of light. Tina comes to the door of the interview room and smilingly invites me in to the brightly lit space. “Finally we meet,” she says. I feel locked in her gaze. Eventually I speak up, saying that there’s a great deal at stake for me here. I confess that the desire for “attainments” is hard to suppress after four years of effort. She says that such striving is an acute form of suffering and I should remember that arriving at access concentration is a matter of grace.

At her evening Dharma talk she distributes a chart, which traces the milestones from “First Sit to First Jhana.” There’s a three-stage ascent from momentary concentration to access concentration to absorption or First Jhana, the condition in which consciousness is totally unified and concentrated on the awareness of the breath. Each stage involves contention between the five Hindrances—craving, aversion, torpor, restlessness, doubt—and the five Jhana factors—momentary concentration, sustained concentration, rapture, happiness, and equanimity. As one progresses, the effort required to maintain concentration is gradually replaced by surrender, as if one is in a kayak carried along by the river’s current.

Within access concentration there is a sequence of optical phenomena called the Nimitta. It begins as a cloudy intermittent radiance, progresses to a well-defined and stable presence and finally becomes unified with the object of concentration, the breath at the anapana spot. This is the entry to absorption. The Nimitta cannot be elicited by will or discipline. It arises of its own accord, and if pursued with attention, will disappear.

She lays out specific instructions to guide our meditations during the coming days:

  1. Maintain Beginner’s Mind. This means have no expectations—positive or negative. Believe that at any moment anything can happen.
  2. Stay with the object in the present moment, the breath as it passes between nose and lips. Try to maintain continuity of attention there to the exclusion of all other objects. When it lapses, bring it gently back, regarding that act as “strengthening the muscle.”
  3. If it’s helpful, count breaths from one to eight and back down again from eight to one.
  4. Evaluate the length of time and percentage of purity of attention to the object and keep increasing the length and intensity of the intervals. Bring the attention back there even when not in formal sitting. Never take the lid off the pot, otherwise it won’t boil.
  5. Maintain inner as well as outer silence. Try to quiet the mind’s incessant thinking. Neuroscientific studies indicate that 80-90% of our thoughts are repetitions.
  6. Let the breath be natural and take its own rhythm. Don’t try to change its length or quality.
  7. Be generous and kind to yourself and others.

During the question period, I ask about my drugs of choice, caffeine and Ibuprofen. Tina says there’s no gain in abstaining from either—monks traditionally drink tea to stay awake and we should do whatever we need to reduce body discomfort.

Monday

Sitting for 45 minutes is easy and attending to the breath is a source of mild pleasure both inside the meditation hall and walking the pathways and trails. On a bank above a little stream, I sit on a rock on which I’ve placed a cushion of dry moss peeled from the crotch of a huge tree. The most prominent hindrance has switched from “striving” to the play-by-play commentary of the inner observer.

At the 6:30 p.m. sitting, I’m startled after an hour when the Dharma talk begins. At this stage of the retreat, Tina says, our immersion deepens. On the basis of the interviews, she’s decided to move to the longer sitting schedule a day earlier than planned.

I’m accustomed to attending to the breath while going to sleep, but tonight I cant find it. Two hours later I wake up and try again to feel it. Have I forgotten how to meditate? Will I have to go home tomorrow? Is this dementia from too much meditating? I get up to empty the pee bottle in the outside toilet and then sit in the meditation hall and wait. Eventually the awareness of the breath and the spot returns.

Tuesday

At the second morning interview, I tell Tina about last night’s incident. She surmises that the forgetting was a reaction to the letting go happening overall. She says I dealt with it “skillfully.”

The first hour-long sitting of the new schedule passes quickly and I decide to remain longer. I don’t need to count the breaths up to eight and back down again as a mechanical way to stay on track. When I think I’ve passed the two-hour limit, I check my watch: 10:25. Almost three hours. I must be close to the goal of absorption—already! The meditation hall is almost empty and I walk up front and stare at the big Buddha statue. Am I looking in the mirror? I walk to the vestibule of the hall to put on shoes and raingear and recheck my watch. This sitting started at 8:45 not 7:45. I’ve been here one and half not two and a half hours.

Outside, the paths are steeped in fog. As I perform the walking meditation that takes me to the top of the hill, I hear the chip-chip sound of a wren and stop to locate the tiny bird that hops from branch to branch faster than my eyes can track. It’s heading toward me. Will it land on my shoulder? No.

As I continue the slow rhythmic walking I think of some literary spiritual guides I’ve followed in the past: John Donne, William Wordsworth, Henry David Thoreau, Virginia Woolf. Does anapanasati give me solid access to something that they all could only seek as “intimations of immortality”?

I go back into the meditation hall for a last hour-long sitting before the noon bell. My knees hurt, I can’t stay with the breath even while counting and I’m impatient for lunch. But both lunch and the cleanup chores afterward are distasteful.

I try to find some balance, first by recording the oscillations of mood in my journal and then by taking a longer walk. Staying in the present has led me astray. Let distance provide some detachment.

During the afternoon sitting, I struggle to attend more closely to in and outbreath. To do so I must slow down awareness and notice the contrast between them. I try naming them separately: inhale is “not yet here.” Exhale is “already done.” I repeat that as a mantra and label it with an acronym: “NY/AD.” Then I hunt for a metaphor: the inbreath is a young girl, the outbreath an old man.

Tina’s Dharma talk is another recapitulation of the sequence of stages leading to First Jhana, absorption. She mentions in passing that there are two ways of “knowing the breath” at the anapana spot: from above, watching it, or from inside the spot, being part of it”–a distinction I find intriguing but unclear.

She concludes with a discussion of “Spiritual Materialism,” a term coined in the 60’s by a Tibetan monk for the kind of grasping for attainments that makes me feel envy during the question period afterward, when one of the yogis describes the white light he’s been seeing and asks if that’s the Nimitta arising, and she says yes.

Wednesday

I wake up at 1:15 A.M. wanting to continue with the NY/AD method of concentration on the breath. I sit cross-legged on the bed for an hour, then go to the meditation hall and sit on the cushion. Excited about being the only one up this late, I imagine looking through breath flowing across the spot as if from a cave behind a waterfall. At 3:30 A.M. I go back to sleep.

During the morning sitting, I feel encouraged by a sense of progress. A surge of gratitude arises for the teachings and teachers that have brought me here.

After lunch I sit by the duck pond and watch bright yellow maple leaves twirling slowly around their stems as they descend to the still surface of the water. I hear the tiny sound of each one alighting and setting off a slowly expanding circular wave. I go back to my room and lie down to catch up on rest after the wakeful night. At first it’s like the momentary sensation of getting into a hot bath, but it doesn’t fade. Muscles and joints throb with pleasure, and around the top of my head there’s an electric buzz. This must be Piti, the Jhana factor of Rapture.

The Dharma talk this evening is on the ways Vipassana meditation supplements the Samatha techniques we are practicing. It can deal with persistent hindrances by investigating rather than simply turning attention away from them. During the question period I ask Tina to elaborate on the two ways of attending to the breath passing the anapana spot she mentioned last night. Rather than answering, she turns the question back to me: “how would you do that?” I see this as an opening to share my invention. “Sometimes I imagine the inbreath as a young girl and the outbreath as an old man.” There’s no appreciative response from the group, and she curtly replies, “That just adds another layer of thinking.” I’m flooded with emotions: righteous indignation, wounded pride, resentment and humiliation.

Back in my room, I lie on the bed buffeted by feelings. How to get a grip? Again I take refuge in the journal. As I record it, this situation seems to echo something that’s happened before. Five years ago I attended a retreat on “Writing and Meditation” in British Columbia offered by a prominent novelist and Zen novice that drew only five people. Midway through, I completed a writing exercise in which I imagined myself being the teacher of this class and harboring negative thoughts about how much work I had done and how few people were there. After I read this aloud to the group, the teacher reprimanded me in private and I realized that it was both rude and a false interpretation of what was going on. There’s the pattern: veteran retired teacher takes a class with a younger teacher he admires but gradually feels the need to impress, either as star student or as rival. As this insight dawns on me, I remember Tina’s advice: once you discover a recurrent hindrance, try to compost it into something fertile that can support your practice.

Thursday

At our morning interview, I tell Tina about my experience of Piti and confess my last night’s challenge to her and my discovery about it. She accepts my apology.

There’s a steady pound of rain on the Diamond Hall’s roof. After four years of California drought, I can be present with it, along with the breath.

Friday

Twenty-five people sitting utterly still in the hall–no coughs, no shuffling, no sounds of breathing. With each pause in the tapping of intermittent rain, the silence deepens.

Awareness flows smooth, like ripples on the pond.

Hand dangling from the arm of a chair. Soles warmed by the towel on the floor.

Tonight’s Dharma talk, the only words all day, drill into the mind. A passionate plea for Faith in this process to neutralize the hindrance of Doubt.

Saturday

Tina nods knowingly at the interview as I describe my sensations of Piti. I talk to her about the trust I must experience in the teacher guiding me into unknown territory, my concern that purification of mind could lead to brain washing. This is why there are lineages, she says. The teacher’s teachers are needed to authorize the power we give over to them. And everyone must exercise discernment.

Today is Halloween and the day the clock turns back an hour, leaving an additional one to fill. Heavy rain precludes walking meditation. Concentration on the breath is easier and ever more pleasant. I stay in the hall for two-hour sessions, sometimes standing up.

Sunday

Feeling at a plateau, I decide to join two other yogis doing “eight precepts,” the monastic practice of not eating after the noon meal. During walking meditation on the trail I feel more engaged by the sensation of the breath than the beauties of nature. While the others are in the dining room at supper I stay in the hall “locked on” to the breath.

Tina’s Dharma talk is about “the unconditioned” signified by the Enso painting on the wall above her. It represents the reality that is neither form nor emptiness to be known at the higher stages of the training process we are embarked upon. The next two days will be the time for us all to go deepest on this retreat before we begin on the return road to our daily lives.

Monday

At our final interview, I tell Tina about not feeling troubled by striving, about continuing experiences of Piti, about my sense that I’ve reached the stage of access concentration. She says she’s glad that I’ve had such a great retreat.

Except while asleep at night, I don’t want to be away from the meditation hall for more than an hour. Two hour sittings are now the norm. During one I see a flash of light to the upper left behind closed eyes. Suddenly the breath seems crystalline clear. Is this the Nimitta? But it’s gone immediately, and I conclude it was just a momentary ray of sunshine penetrating the forest and touching me through the window.

Later in the day, I sprawl in my chair overtaken by Piti stronger than ever before. I flash on the Bernini statue called “The Ecstasy of St. Teresa” depicting an enraptured girl flung back in her seat, eyes closed, lips parted, about to be speared in the heart by a beautiful angel.

Tuesday

The last day of “going deeper” is empty of events and full of sustained concentration in the hall. Breath awareness continues to be more focused, smooth and subtle. In addition to Piti, I experience what I think are the additional Jhana factors of Stukha—happiness– and Upekha–equanimity–since I’m not disappointed that I haven’t attained Jhana or even the preliminary arising of the Nimitta.

Tina opens the Dharma talk by mentioning that tomorrow will be dedicated to reorienting ourselves to return to the external world. She congratulates the group on the intensity of our efforts, on the remarkable silence in the meditation hall, on the consideration and support we’ve shown one another. Then she says something that detonates in my brain: “twenty percent of you have attained first Jhana.” I do a lightning calculation: “if twenty percent got to Jhana, at least fifty percent must have seen the Nimitta. That puts me somewhere in the bottom half of the group! After continually having told myself it’s all worthwhile, it turns out that I’ve failed. And the proof of that is this very reaction.” I dont hear the rest of what she has to say.* I’m just waiting to go back to my room and hide. Once there I unburden myself to the journal and then gratefully fall asleep.

Wednesday

I wake up at 4:20 A.M. feeling great. I remember fragments of a dream in which my 14-year-old grandson is dressed in white and says “I want to keep living to learn more.” A new narrative has formed out of the wreckage of the intended one of the questing hero bringing home the Golden Fleece. Last night’s despair is reconfigured as a step toward authentication, an explosion of ego and of hindrances in decline. It shows that I’m not yet ready for the next milestone, that the arising of the Nimitta at this time might well have led to delusions of grandeur followed by a fall into confusion. Rather than being ill-advised, Tina’s unexpected disclosure served as an intervention in my personal process, a smack to wake me up.

I’m eager to resume sitting in the hall, but after breakfast she encourages us to spend the day in “decompression” by not keeping awareness on the breath. This will eliminate any last minute chance of the Nimitta arising for me, but I’m ready to let it go. I take a strenuous hike beyond the sheltering rainforest of the retreat center property along a highway bordered with shabby mobile homes and a vast logging slash.

After Tina’s final Dharma talk—a recounting of her own spiritual journey and a tribute to her teacher, Pa Auk Sayadaw—she has us “break silence” temporarily by dividing into groups of four and chatting for five minutes. It’s lovely to have permission to look at people’s faces, to see them drop their expressionless masks and smile, and to hear their warm, companionable voices–Gloria from a tiny town on the Oregon coast, John with a tony British accent from Oakland, and Mark, the craggy mountaineer from Salt Lake City—all veterans of long retreats. I’m the newcomer, but for the first time here, I feel a sense of community, Sangha.

Thursday

Next morning is too busy with Dana donations, bunk cleanup and a hasty breakfast for conversation with anyone but Mark, who provides me with a ride to the nearest railroad station in Kelso-Longview on his way south. We laughingly share reflections about our experiences of the last two weeks and discover we are so spaced out we have to stop three times in the small town to get directions to the depot. Once there I text my wife, who’s in a meeting, and am relieved to learn that while I was away, there have been no family crises. Next I check the New York Times online, since just before I shut down the cellphone thirteen days earlier, Hurricane Patricia approaching the coast of Mexico was threatening the worst destruction in history. It turns out not a single life was lost.

Sunday November 29

Now that I’m back in the present present, and the retreat retreats further into the past, I ponder what will endure of that long-anticipated experience. Three and a half weeks later, it’s hard even to imagine its deepening silence and singularity of purpose. The equanimity which there followed upon dramatic episodes of delusion has lost its protective powers. The euphoria of Piti, which revisited my morning sittings during the first week afterward, has faded into a wistful memory. The old hindrances of craving, aversion, torpor, restlessness and doubt are no less ready to pounce than before I went north. The real-time journal I’ve just read to you sounds embarrassingly self-conscious, and only the ironic incidents seem appropriate to share with an audience.

But I committed to tell this story tonight long before I knew how it would turn out. And recalling that none of the tales of meditators like Henry David Thoreau, Jack Kerouac, and Leonard Cohen that inspired me to continue on this path have been either neat or predictable, I’m left between cloud and mountain, in a state of fluid uncertainty.

——–

*It turns out that what I didn’t hear was an important clarification I learned of later. Tina stated that the average rate on previous retreats was 10%-15%, indicating that the 20% figure was higher than expected.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a Reply