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Meditation Retreat: The Good, The Bad and The Surprises

Satisfying as the meditation high can be -- one prominent teacher half-joked, "That's why we do it" -- there are no short cuts to the benefits of tough, prolonged practice.
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Attending a silent meditation retreat can produce deep, lasting rewards. But for short-term pleasure, nothing beats that magical moment when you perceive that, having slogged through several difficult days doing nothing and saying even less, you're as high as a hippie in the seventh hour of a Grateful Dead gig.

My most recent "far-out" flash arrived midway through a week-long affair at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre CA when I found myself enthralled by a lone ant dashing frantically about in pursuit of its colony's Missing Persons Bureau.

My trip got even longer and stranger a few hours later, when I joined dozens of fellow retreatants to gaze in wonderment at a fleeting feline form at the top of the hill adjacent to the meditation center. The creature vanished over the ridge almost as quickly as it had manifested, but our collective sighting was extraordinary enough to provoke a silence-breaking discussion with the retreat staff before our next round of emptiness.

One man was convinced we'd spotted a rare mountain lion, with its attendant thrills and chills. Another seemed to burst that bubble when he noted that his binoculars had revealed the stubby tail that gives the much more prosaic bobcat its moniker. (Personally, I had no idea what a bobcat was. A hip jazz musician? A semi-famous comedian?)

The Spirit Rock team, predictably, chose the Buddhist Middle Way: They sided with the safer, common-sense bobcat storyline -- bobcats, only about twice the size of house cats, are seen frequently in these woods -- but added a simple instruction on how to react if we did encounter a mountain lion: "Get big." (A California government website goes one counter-intuitive step farther: "If attacked, fight back.")

That evening, as I passed the hill on the way to tea, I was mindful of my reflexive desire for an encore big-cat moment, along with the twinge of disappointment that ensued when I realized I was viewing "only" vegetation. This scenario -- wanting things to turn out a certain way followed by aversion when they don't -- played out repeatedly for the duration of the week, an object lesson in how our attachments and expectations get in the way of experiencing what's actually going on in the present moment.

On the retreat's penultimate afternoon, I laughed out loud when I found myself staring so hard into the distance in hopes of seeing something that wasn't there, I almost tripped over a very real black cat in my path. (Did cracking up break my vow of silence? I say, if a person laughs out loud in the woods -- especially at himself -- and no one hears him ... )

An up-close and personal sighting of a great cat might indeed be awesome and dangerously thrilling. William Blake wrote, "The wrath of the lion is the wisdom of God." But wishing too hard for it might put a crimp in a competing fantasy that sometimes rears its mushy head at these retreats: the "we are all one/gentle unity of life" school of spirituality. Sure, the beautiful deer that populate the woods near Spirit Rock seem to coexist in perfect harmony with their human brethren. But if you watch a mountain lion long enough, you may observe that it survives by feasting on the carcasses of those fabulous fawns.

Satisfying as the meditation high can be -- one prominent teacher half-joked, "That's why we do it" -- there are no short cuts to the benefits of tough, prolonged practice. As Spirit Rock teacher Will Kabat Zinn put it, quoting the oft-lionized text of "Lyin' Eyes" by those time-tested truth-tellers The Eagles, "every form of refuge has its price." On this message, the most revered Eastern masters agree: No matter how wild your mind gets during extended periods of meditation, just keep at it. Or, to paraphrase the ancient wisdom of such Western gurus as Big Maybelle, Joe Tex, The Animals and Bette Midler, "One monkey-mind don't stop no show."

Long-term benefits aside, it was most pleasurable to notice that my retreat high didn't vanish when I left Spirit Rock. A day after returning home, I played a single note on my piano and felt the rich resonance of a fine melody. Maybe, I thought, if I practice sitting long enough, I won't have to practice those boring scales...

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