By Peter Carlson

The value of the Buddhist approach to life is threefold:

  1. There is a clear understanding of the way the mind works, either to create and sustain stressful states of mind or to alleviate that suffering.
  2. There is an ongoing valuing of harmlessness, compassion, generosity and tolerance.
  3. There is a high value placed on routinely training the mind through meditation.

Currently, the world we live in is very stressful. Despite all our creature comforts there is a persistent unsatisfactoriness looming. We have intervals that are comfortable and reassuring, followed by sleeplessness, restlessness, and stress-induced illnesses.

This message is being read by those of us who have expressed interest in alleviating suffering through Buddhism. I assume that most have read about Buddhism, item 1 listed above. We yearn to realize this wisdom. We want to manifest the values of compassion expressed in item 2. However, when it comes to item 3, meditation practice, it becomes quite difficult to manifest regularly.

This system requires a melding of the three facets: study, virtuous living, and mental training. Retreats are the time-tested way to cultivate mental training. The whole atmosphere of a retreat is structured to supply the three facets: Wisdom is presented through the teacher’s instructions and dialogue with students; Virtue is built into the structure through the 5 precepts of harmlessness; Mental Training is supplied through the many hours of meditation practice, from waking to sleeping each day.

In 1981, I was suffering—my father died, and my divorce was finalized. I had read a lot of spiritual literature, but still found myself embroiled in misperceptions and ill-considered actions. For Christmas that year, a friend gave me Joseph Goldstein’s book, “The Experience of Insight”. She told me “Since it is endorsed by Ram Dass, I’m confident you will like it,” and I did.

What appeals to me about it is the practicality of mindfulness meditation as Joseph described it during a series of talks throughout a meditation retreat. I am an intellectual, used to thinking my way through life. I discovered during 1981 that, despite my best thinking, my actions overrode my good intentions. Mindfulness meditation is experienced in the body, particularly in the surges of urgency that overcome my best thinking and intentions.

I was so intrigued by what I read that I immediately began to practice, and within a month decided that I would attend a retreat as soon as possible at the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts. I called the facility and made arrangements to attend a 16 day retreat led by Ruth Denison, scheduled to end Easter weekend in 1982.

When I went to the retreat, I knew that I had to learn to sit non-reactively with the churning of the mind and the urgent impulses of the body. All my reading and pondering was useful, but without the immediacy that immersion into the practice that a retreat affords, I would not be able to intervene in the suffering that tormented me. I told my friends that I would do whatever was expected of me by the teacher. This determination arose out of my intense dissatisfaction with the course my life was taking, and the faith that Joseph’s book instilled in me.

It was intense. I had prepared for the retreat with training myself to meditate for 45 minutes, knowing that is the standard time set aside for the practice. I was surprised to notice how hard it is to repeatedly sit still! However, my determination was (and still is) strong, and I followed the instructions diligently. After 3 days, I reached a crisis of urgent impatience. I had followed the instructions for 3 whole days, and I felt more uncomfortable than ever! I was tormented by remorse and longing for my ex-wife, and my body was stiff and aching.

During one particularly agonizing meditation, I felt resistance rising in my mind, like a tidal wave of frustration and churning urgency. At that moment the teacher said “Just notice how the mind is trapped, attached to the thought of the moment, and let go of paying attention to the thought—go back to the breath.” As she said this, I did what she suggested, and immediately the urgency broke and subsided, as if a wave passed without sweeping me away and tumbling me head over heels. At that moment, 3 days into my first retreat, I realized what I could gain from being on retreat. I was immediately aware that I have the ability to be free of the demands of craving and clinging in the mind. From that moment until this day, I rely on this immediate embodied awareness to help me reduce the stresses that persistently arise. I realized that I can’t control what comes into awareness, but I can control what happens afterwards.

I see meditation practice as a craft, a skill-set, much like learning to play a musical instrument, or carve wood, or execute a flawless serve on the tennis court. You can’t just read about a craft, you must practice. I was a professional artist for many years, and I practiced my craftsmanship daily for many hours. Often, people will dedicate time and money to tennis camp, in order to immerse themselves in the direct experience of crafting the use of the tennis racket and the body as tools. It can be quite grueling work, hot and sweaty, with blisters and sore muscles. The player has to overcome resistance to the training in order to master the game of tennis. After the week of intense practice, there is noticeable improvement in the tennis game, and the joy that comes from self-mastery.

On a meditation retreat, the skill building is organized around mindful awareness and letting go of urgent reactivity in the mind. The tools of the mind are sharpened and made more useful through repeating the basic procedures over and over again, much like practicing playing the scales repeatedly on a piano. At the end of the retreat, the game of living is experienced more fully; the crafting of life is more masterful. What more worthy endeavor could there be?