By SUSAN GHOSH
In September, feeling stuck in old patterns and wanting a breakthrough in my practice, I checked in to Great Cloud for a seven-day solo retreat. Soon after I arrived, I met with Fred, and he inquired about my goals. I told him I wanted to rest in natural mind, and immediately he challenged me. "You can’t rest in natural mind until you know your mind," he told me.
He offered me the text of The Flight of the Garuda to work with and told me to focus on Songs 3 and 4 and to reflect on the questions they raised, using them to explore my own mind. He said I should do eight hours of meditation each day -- a daunting number.
On the second afternoon, he encouraged me to go on to the eighth or ninth song and to continue to apply the questions and teachings to my own mind. This meant that I looked to find an “I" anywhere in or out of my body. And I looked at thoughts: where they come from, where they went, what they looked like when they were present. Practicing in the Tower Room of Great Cloud, I asked the questions over and over again and did my best to investigate what was true for me, by looking in my own mind.
That night my mind put on a terrifying display of fear, anger, and worry. All "my" old problems resurfaced. It was horrible. I was a failure. Even the things I thought I'd achieved through my practice had not been achieved. Maybe I should quit… the retreat, the sangha, FCM. During the night a disturbing nightmare woke me. In a graphic way it offered a picture of my life ahead if I chose the pain of seeking pleasure. I had to smile because the meaning of the dream was so obvious. “OK," I decided, "I will not quit the retreat or the sangha. I am going to stay."
The next day Fred asked about the nightmare. Where was it? Was it real? I couldn't find it, and no, it wasn't real. It couldn't be found. Everything was like that. Nothing solid anywhere. Nowhere. He also went on to explain that what I was experiencing was a common part of the retreat process. He said, “I tell retreatants they are going to learn the Dharma, but they also will learn about their own minds. The old patterns will come up even more strongly than before, but on retreat we are unable to flee from them by blaming our spouses or distracting ourselves. We can't avoid seeing them.”
I took a deep breath and exhaled. Fred knew me well. He knew I believed that no effort would ever bring me to the necessary standard of perfection. He made me look for this old thought pattern. I couldn't find it. Anywhere. “Everyone is unique,” he told me. “There is no perfection. It makes no sense to compare. Susan is Susan and she's an ordinary human being.” I felt calmed and held by Fred's compassion.
I described my observations so far: the near constant worry, the counting and chanting, the obsessive rehearsing, the review of the past. "She's living in a fantasy world," Fred said. "Just let her relax. Let her enjoy what's really happening. If she gets into a corner, go take a walk in the garden."
I went back to my room and, at first, breathed a sigh of relief. My teacher did not think I was hopeless failure. He saw and accepted me as a member of our community of Dharma practitioners. The exhalation barely complete, a light gray wall came down in my mind. Relaxing exhalations stopped. I could sense the change but didn't understand what was happening. So, l ignored it and kept on reflecting on the teachings and investigating my own mind as best as I could. I could barely concentrate and the day seemed to go on forever.
In the night I woke up to a mind that was whirring and animated by extreme anxiety. My body was tense and breath tight. Since it was clear that I wasn't going to fall back to sleep, I put my hands on my stomach and placed my attention on the rise and fall of my belly. Over and over my mind wandered off and I brought it back.
After some time I was aware of holding the view of the watcher. The thoughts slowed and I could see their insubstantial nature. In truth, they were nothing but thoughts, coming and going, arising from nowhere, going nowhere. For the first time I was able to experience that these thoughts, so deeply believed, were nothing.
A peacefulness arose and into that open space came the answer to what had seemed to be an insoluble problem. I would get up and simply do my best. What else could I do? Yet the simplicity of that was startling after many years of rehearsals, worry about outcomes, striving to be good enough or, preferably, the best. My body seemed to take over. It rose, and pushed the chair close the small table where my Buddha had been sitting. It arranged the blankets to support my body, put the text and the little clock on the side on the bed. That day I would sit in one spot and meditate.
At the next meeting, Fred asked me, “How is Susan?" I answered that she'd had another rough night but I'd come through it with some clarity. "What happened?" he asked, "Everything was fine when you left and nothing external happened. You've been on retreat the whole time." "I don't know,” I answered. “Look," he instructed me firmly. "You have to know."
With tears I explained that I had shown that total mess of a mind to him: the anxiety, the obsessions, the chanting, the rehearsing. It had been seen; I had seen it clearly myself. As I launched into this sad tale, Fred said, "Stop! Just look into your own mind. Look straight there. What do you see?" The truth was, I saw nothing. There was nothing at all there. The story dissolved. At that moment the teaching, the reflecting, the experiencing came into a coherent whole.
Fred encouraged me to let Susan be, to allow her to relax, to be right there, in the moment. "If you're practicing and you get stuck," he repeated," take a break and walk in the garden." Once again, I felt held by my teacher's compassionate gaze, his kindness, his clear guidance and the skillful way that his guidance was attuned to this particular mind and its strong habit energies.
I went back to my room. I sat in the space that I had prepared and applied myself to alternating short periods of shamatha, concentration practice, longer periods of meditation on the breath, walking meditation and reading and reflecting on the teachings in a flexible rhythm throughout the day and evening. It was not impossible. The teachings lifted me up and through the day. They were so specific, so easy, if one didn't fight them. It was thrilling to discover a simple way to cut the attachments to the complexes of superiority and envy that had caused lifelong suffering. I looked at my many preferences from the point of view of the watcher. My goodness, so much of my life spent thinking I was someone, an "I," a “Susan,” who was generally right and was entitled to a marriage and life that was in accord with my preferences.
The next day Fred arrived at our meeting with a new text. "I don't know why I picked this one up," he said lifting Pointing Out the Nature of Mind: Dzogchen Pith Instructions of Aro Yeshe Jungne by Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche and Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal Rinpoche. "I thought you might find it interesting." And, I did. The amazing text spoke to my heart. It was so simple, helpful and direct. Practicing with it, I was filled with joy and gratitude.
The following morning -- the last morning of the retreat -- Fred asked what had changed for me as a result of my time there. There were so many things. I felt so much joy at the end of the retreat. I felt so much lighter from recognizing that the thoughts that had caused me such suffering were insubstantial. Being able to examine my experience with the mind of the watcher completely changed my understanding of my "self" and the path. I had been trying to concentrate in a kind of brutal way to achieve a particular kind of quiet in my mind. Fred had guided me to understand that the path was about relaxing, not striving, and I had actually directly experienced enough of the difference to feel confident that I could go forward and practice in a new way.
I told Fred I also had a new understanding of and appreciation for my teacher and what he was offering me. I now had a felt sense of his enlightened mind, an indescribable mixture of wisdom, kindness, understanding, and compassion. I could sense he would keep showing up to help me, over and over again, that he would not judge or hurt me, and that he would even interfere when I was hurtful to myself.
His final gifts to me on this retreat were, "Relax. Trust Susan." Ever since the retreat I have guided myself with these three words.
Susan Ghosh, who attends the Tampa Sangha, is a long-time practitioner at FCM.