Tuesday, April 26, 2011

"Wait for me"

For a woman, the main thing you must learn in order to dance tango is how to follow the lead of your partner. This, as I’ve commented before on this blog, is harder than it sounds. Following is a discipline: you need to be attentive, making your energy available for whatever is indicated by your partner’s movements. You can’t afford to get distracted, or give in to the temptation to anticipate, assuming that you know what your partner is going to do, and going ahead with a figure before he has started it. “Wait for me,” is a phrase often spoken, with some urgency and insistence, by men to women on the tango dance-floor – meaning, “wait for my lead.”

This doesn’t mean, “become completely passive and allow me to dominate you” (although some people seem to think it does, and are no fun to dance with, as a result). This kind of waiting is active and energized (and energizing). It also allows two-way communication – if you are in tune, which most importantly means in time, with your partner’s lead, this creates a rapport and sense of trust within which the follower can bring her own style or interpretation into the dance. The leader establishes the framework of steps, but within this, the follower, who doesn’t need to think about what figure to embark upon next, is freer to feel and express the subtleties of the music, and a good leader will pick up on this, “listening” and responding to his partner as well as leading her.

I’ve observed a similar dynamic when chanting Buddhist suttas. Chanting often makes me think of dancing, since in this situation too, I am usually a follower, and must wait for the monk's lead, within which it is possible to improvise harmonies – sometimes they just seem to arise of their own accord. The sense of communication between leader and follower, and the pleasure when this is sustained and vibrant, for me is very much the same as that of dancing tango. This might seem a provocative comparison, since obviously Buddhist monks don’t dance – certainly not tango! But actually, it’s more a reflection of how I experience tango – as something that at its best is very close to meditation.

In more conventional forms of meditation, the dance is between the breath (or other leader of meditation) and awareness, or the mind. The breath sets the rhythm, the timing of the dance, and the mind must resist the temptation to take over and start trying to change the pace, or breaking out into other dances altogether. Habitually, the mind (well, my mind, at least) wants to lead – it’s not easy for it to relax and focus enough to follow, let alone get to the point where it might be capable of contributing appropriate adornments or harmonies.

In Argentina, a man who wants to learn to tango traditionally begins with the woman’s part – he must learn to follow before he can learn how to lead. This seems to me a good principle for leadership more generally, and in particular, for the leadership of that would-be inner dictator, the mind. Is a mind that cannot settle long enough to follow the breath likely to come up with any ideas worth following in turn?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The idea of a rat: meditation retreat in Katoomba

I’ve just done a week-long meditation retreat at the Buddhist Vihara in Katoomba, a very beautiful small monastery nestled in bush, overlooking the Jamison valley. The retreat was led by Venerable Kovida, the Sri Lankan abbot of the monastery and at present the only monk living there, assisted by a lay woman, Louise. It struck me as quite different to other retreats I’ve done, mainly because it took place in a monastery rather than a retreat centre or other secular setting, and because the rhythm of monastic life provided the structure of the retreat.

The program of meditation was quite continuous, but fairly gentle compared with many retreats. The day started with a 45 minute sit at 6am, followed by breakfast, then chanting and meditation from 8-9am, a service which takes place every morning at the monastery, whether there’s a retreat on or not. After that the retreatants continued mediting until 10.45, alternating between sitting and walking, usually in periods of half an hour each. Then there was a half hour work period, followed by lunch which was offered by Sri Lankan families who came each day for this purpose, showing heart-warming generosity and devotion. They served each of us in the same way they served Venerable Kovida. As required by monastic discipline, lunch was finished by 12pm (which given the abundance of food offered to us meant that for a short period of time we had to behave like rapid and continuous eating machines, an interesting capacity to master). After an hour to rest and digest, the program continued at 1pm either with meditation or, on every second day, an hour of group discussion when we could ask questions or report on our practice. Sitting and walking meditation then continued until 4.45pm, followed by a break when we could eat or drink something if needed. From 6-7pm there was the evening chanting and meditation service, which concluded the daily program.

There were no dhamma talks, except for one by American nun Pema Chodron that we listened to during one of the group discussion hours – and this only happened because I’d brought the cd to return to someone, and Louise asked if we could listen to it. There were also no private interviews. The retreat was conducted in ‘noble silence’ meaning no talking or communicating except during the discussion hours, or if required for some practical purpose.

I have to admit I broke noble silence once, on the third night. I’d woken up early (at 3.20am) and decided I should go back to sleep. I did a little relaxation exercise and was just drifting off, half dreaming, when I felt a sharp sensation in my left ear, just above the lobe. I was wearing a beanie so that my ears and face were the only part of me exposed to the cold night air. I instinctively shook my head, and wondered meditatively what the cause of this sensation might be. Half a second later, a thought popped into my head, instantly followed by a feeling of fear and in a high voice I said, “what was that?” There was no one else in the room to answer me, but my mute hypothesis was soon confirmed by the sound of little feet scurrying around under the bed – the delay had been caused by the fact that I was on the top bunk, and it took the rodent (probably a small rat) a few seconds to reach the floor. At that stage I felt I was really getting a proper taste of monastic life. Not only had I been nibbled by a rat during the early hours of the morning (a friend later suggested that it was testing to see if I was alive), but I had managed quite clearly to observe the chain of reactions: contact with night-time visitor, feeling of sharpness, instinctive physical reaction of movement, calm mental investigation, conceptual thought, PANIC leading to outburst of fairly nonsensical and useless speech. It was interesting to see how my fear didn’t arise from contact with the rat itself, but rather from the thought ‘rat?’ I do have – or have had – quite a strongly entrenched fear of rodents. But now that I’ve had one nibble my ear, funnily enough, I don’t feel so afraid of them, maybe because I now realise that I’m actually only afraid of the idea of rats – although admittedly this has yet to be tested by any further close encounters.

Anyway, back to the more general aspects of the retreat. The fact that the program was so simple, and included very little teaching or talking, meant that I had a good chance to observe what my mind does when pretty much left to itself. It wasn’t all pleasant – I spent a lot of time ‘getting in touch,’ as they say, with obsessive and confused habitual states of my mind. It was quite a humbling experience. At the time, I started to have doubts about what I was doing, whether I was actually driving myself mad rather than doing anything that could possibly lead towards enlightenment. But having survived and come out the other side, I feel that I gained more insight into my own emotional processes than I have on any other retreat. I’ve certainly experienced strong emotion on retreats before, but typically, I’ve also encountered plenty of things to help distract me – or rather, plenty of words to keep me occupied and entertained. While I usually find dhamma talks stimulating, and private interviews can be anything from comforting and helpful to (more rarely) infuriating, they can all operate, for someone like myself, who enjoys playing around with concepts and words, as opportunities to avoid anything too uncomfortable in the intimacy of my own experience, and to reassure myself that my mind is basically clear, sharp and on top of things (a bit like the rat J).

Having been on a lot of meditation retreats, I realise that my ego has worked out how to use them almost as a form of entertainment, a kind of educational holiday. It took a real rat and the support of a whole monastic environment to shake me out of this mode.