Retreating and Advancing

Over the past couple of years, I have had the immense privilege to go on several multi-day meditation retreats. I say it’s an immense privilege because it really is–I don’t have children, the flexibility of my schedule allows me to take the time off, and I have the funds to pay for it. But it’s also kind of funny, because retreats are hard, so it’s like paying money for the experience of being miserable. Whenever I tell people I’m going to a meditation retreat, they usually say, “Oh, that sounds so relaxing.” That’s how you can tell a person has never been on a meditation retreat.

Basically, on retreat  your job is to meditate all the time, whether you’re sitting on a cushion, walking, eating, resting, working, peeing–all the time. At my temple, there are about 9 hours a day of formal meditation interspersed with other activities. By the end of the first full day (which feels about as long as 3 normal days) your knees hurt, your back hurts, your ankles hurt, and every mental demon you have has decided to come out of the woodwork and do a merry jig on the living room carpet of your consciousness. You don’t have a choice as to how you spend your time, what food you eat, how much sleep you get. You can’t talk or write or even look at yourself in the mirror. (Well, of course you can do all these things, it’s not like the Buddhist police are going to throw you in jail if you do. But these are the guidelines for the retreat and pretty much everybody follows them.) As a friend of mine put it, “I can’t believe we’re going to pay money to sit on our asses for five days!”

But I do it, and continue to do it, because retreats build stamina, concentration, stability, quietness, and the capacity to be happy even in less than ideal conditions. You also gain a close connection with your fellow retreatants in a way that doesn’t happen in the small talk of our everyday lives.

Before going to retreat last Thursday, I thought it would be an interesting experience to consult the tarot about it. I’ve never really thought of tarot as having a lot of insight about my meditation practice, but I was surprised by the results. So before I left, I asked the question, “What am I carrying with me into this retreat?” and after I returned I asked, “What am I carrying with me as I go back to daily life.” I didn’t have any set spread–just pulled three cards–but the answers were quite illuminating.

retreat spreads

For simplicity’s sake, I have done an artificial setup containing both spreads (I did take pictures of the original spreads, but neither were very good.) On the top are the cards I pulled in response to the first question, those on the bottom respond to the second.

So, the first three cards. What am I taking with me into this retreat? Knight of Swords reversed, Four of Swords, and Death reversed. I immediately recognized that I would be dealing with some old demons in this retreat, but I would be better able to handle them than I have been in the past. As far as I can tell, the Knight of Swords is a scatterbrain–a guy who charges ahead with lots of thoughts and ideas but no real plan or mental discipline. If you have never meditated before, set a timer for five minutes, sit completely still, and try to focus on nothing but your in-breath and out-breath. You will see that our minds are thought-generating machines and that attempts at stillness and concentration just make it go wild at first. This scatterbrained energy is what we’re trying to work with in meditation and I think this card expresses it perfectly.

On the other side of the spread, we have Death reversed, an interesting one from a meditator’s perspective as well. I think of the Death card as really being birth-and-death or impermanence–very important concepts in Buddhism. The card’s reversal, then, is a resistance to this principal of our very existence. When you meditate, you can also clearly see this. Sometimes during retreats you feel good and want to cling to that feeling. At other times, you feel awful and can’t wait for the meditation session to end–you want to rush things along instead of letting them take their own course. As the Death card clearly shows us, impermanence cannot be resisted–but it can’t be forced, either.

What impressed me most about this spread, however, is its arrangement. If the Knight of Swords and Death were upright, the horses would be facing away from each other. Since they’re reversed, however, they’re charging toward one another. This makes sense to me, since a poorly concentrated mind and resistance to change often go hand in hand. They feed off of each other. When I can’t concentrate, I cling to sleep or mealtimes or the meditation posture that was comfortable five minutes ago but is now starting to hurt my knees. When I’m concentrated, however, things proceed at their own pace and I’m totally fine with it.

So what is it that keeps poor concentration and resistance from totally clobbering me? (And make no mistake, I have been clobbered by them in the past, and have been on more than one retreat that was essentially unmitigated misery from beginning to end.) It’s the Four of Swords–meditation, relaxed meditation. Could there be a more perfect card to draw right before a meditation retreat? It’s a scene of calm. The swords of the intellect are present, but they have been suspended, as it were. This card interposes itself between the other two and keeps them from energizing each other. The message I took from this spread was: trust in your meditation practice to guide you.

And the spread was accurate–I encountered a lot of scattered thoughts and a lot of resistance to letting things unfold naturally. But this time I had the wisdom to come back to my practice and told myself over and over, “Just come back to this moment. This is the only one that exists. The only way I will get through this day is by living it from moment to moment.” Around the second morning, I was able to really let go of a lot of mental and emotional crap that I’d been hanging onto and concentrate on my practice and after that I felt pretty good.

Because of my past experience with retreats, I think I would have had the wisdom to trust my practice if I hadn’t done the tarot spread. But the spread helped me see clearly what needed to be done and was a reminder to stay on task.

The morning I came back I did the second spread, about what I’m carrying as I emerge from the retreat. It’s funny how balanced these two spread are: both contain one reversed major arcana, one knight, and two minor arcanas from the same suit. As I laid out the cards for this second spread, I had the thought, “I bet I’m going to get a lot of Cups.” And I was right.

But before we get to the cups, we get the The Fool reversed. Ouch. Not what I wanted to hear, but so true and so wise. Once you’re in a restricted situation like a retreat, you tend to want to go crazy with the sensual pleasures after you’re out. My teacher tells the story of her first retreat–an extremely intense 10-day one in winter–and going to a coffee shop right afterwards and having six long john doughnuts!!! Likewise, my reversed Fool came out a little bit. I haven’t had caffeine or dark chocolate in a couple of months because they affect my sleep so much, but the day the retreat ended I had coffee, green tea, and chocolate. None in huge quantities, but I could actually feel my increased heart rate. I also ate too much at every meal and wasted a lot of time looking at stuff on the internet. The result was fatigue, compounded by terrible sleep. The Fool is all about crazy wisdom, but the Fool reversed is simply being reckless. Yuuuup. When I drew the card, I heard that message loud and clear and ceased my overindulgence. My fatigue has gone away of its own accord and I feel restored to balance.

Next are the Knight of Cups and the Ace of Cups. What nice cards to get! The Knight of Cups suggests that I am coming away from the retreat with a heightened sensitivity, introspection, and compassion. The Ace suggests that this is a new beginning–that I am cultivating these qualities at perhaps a new level, or in a new way. Retreats are often emotional for me. After my first two or three, it was emotional in a very bad way. All kinds of emotional shit got stirred up and I didn’t know how to deal with it. In one case, a lot of past demons came up and I made a pretty poor life decision as a result. So during the retreat this time, I watched my emotions. Sometimes I wanted to cry, sometimes I was moody, but I had the patience to hold these emotions and not let them take over. Together, I think the Knight and the Ace signal a move toward emotional maturity–not suppressing emotions, but taking care of them.

So while I’m still skeptical about the compatibility of tarot and Buddhism–particularly since tarot originated from belief systems centered on the soul, which contradicts the Buddhist idea of no-self–I found this helpful and will do it again for future retreats.

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