Reflections on an Online Retreat with Pema Chodron

Having just completed an online retreat with Pema Chodron offered by the Omega Institute, I wanted to reflect on the past two and a half days. I feel like this essay will be rambling and not as “literary” as my usual attempts at writing, but it comes from the heart.

Four years ago, I took part in a similar retreat, and as I recall, the topic was about living well even in the midst of uncertainty and change. I remember running my errands that week prior to Friday night, straightening up my house, buying some candles, burning some incense, and informing people that I would be out of contact for the weekend so that I could focus. I felt very serene as the weekend began, but by midday Saturday, the weather worsened, and while it wasn’t that bad locally, there was an unseasonable snowstorm in upstate NY where the institute is located. By Saturday evening, the streaming video and audio broke down, and suddenly, I felt so many negative emotions. “I paid good money for this retreat!” “What’s going on up in upstate NY?” “Is the retreat still going on?” “How long am I supposed to sit here staring at a broken feed?” “Now what?”

By 9pm, I gave up and remember trying to distract myself with the cats, and that was the moment I remember noticing for the first time that my cat Mommie had an unusal limping walk I’d never noticed before.

I took a look at her, and I found a large knot on the top of her shoulder. Cancer, I thought. It has got to be cancer. And I remember sitting there in tears, holding her, stroking her little head, thinking oh my god, I will need to take her to the vet Monday, and they are going to want to euthanize her. It will be the only humane course of action.

So I determined then, that this weekend in October, if it should be our last together, we would spend it closely, and I remember giving her extra special attention. After a time, I realized that I had forgotten the broken retreat feed, as I stayed up most of the night with her, afraid to give away any of our precious hours together.

By Sunday morning, I remembered to go back to the website, though, and suddenly it sparked to life, with Pema on stage. I don’t remember her exact words, but she made a joke about how the theme of the retreat was certainly , and most ironically, brought to life due to the weather. It turned out that some of those at the retreat location had no heat or hot water. People were doubled up in rooms. Borrowing blankets and sweaters. They knew they’d lost all of us online as well. But the storm had broken, and by Sunday morning, they were back to bring us all together again.

On Monday, I took Mommie to the vet, and I remember crying so hard in the waiting room, my emotions just pouring out of me publicly, and for those who know me, that’s something I work very hard at times to avoid. I remember walking into the exam room with her. I remember the moment the vet said, “yes, probably cancer.” I remember the moment the vet said, “It’s not the end, though.” I was incredulous. How could it not be the end?

We could give her a painkiller. Many animals lived with cancer and their parents simply managed their pain. Kitty hospice, essentially. The vet said she might live well another year or more.

I was ecstatic. Here I thought I was going to have to let her go, and yet I was given a reprieve. SHE was given one.

I brought her home and felt like some kind of goddess of victory. All that worry over nothing. “Living well with uncertainty and change,” I thought, “look how things seemed to go so very wrong, but then went so very right.” I thought I’d learned so much in the 2 short, yet interrupted, retreat days.

But no sooner had those thoughts crossed  my mind than I heard Dobbsie, Mommie’s little boy, crying. Within ten minutes, I realized that he was in acute pain. I drove right back to the vet after a phone call, this time with him in tow, Mommie now back on her little cat bed purring happily. Oblivious. She had lived apart from her boy outside for so many  years that by the time I brought her back inside, she was blind, and she no longer knew him.

I took him in, frantic, and I remember the moment that the vet tech Brooke walked in with a bright white bath towel and sort of wrapped him up in it. I remember the moment I saw her holding him and taking him to the back to give him pain meds and to x ray him.

It was the last moment I would see him alive. I will never forget it.

I took his mother in assuming that I would need to make the decision to let her go, a decision I was spared making for another year or more. What I didn’t realize was that within the next 12 hours, her son would die on his own, his body a victim of some massive trauma in his abdomen, a mass that seemed to have metasticized or ruptured. He died at the vet’s own house that night between 3 and 4am in his sleep. Later Dr. Little told me that he had been lying on a heated blanket and was comfortable. She had been planning to do an exploratory surgery on him later that morning.

My ex-husband brought his body to me later that day, and together, we had a funeral for him and buried him under my bedroom window. Darren had not seen him in over a year but had been planning to come to the vet before the surgery in case Dobbsie didn’t make it. I am sure that Darren’s heart was broken because he didn’t get to say goodbye, but then again, neither did I, because it never occurred to me that Dobbsie would die when Brooke carried him away from me. I don’t think any of us anticipated that outcome.

By the time we held the funeral, the retreat was a long-gone memory, yet another thing that hadn’t gone “right” in my life, but I did at least remember to read some of an essay by Pema on “when things fall apart” at the little service I created. I remember I could barely see the words on the page because I could not stop crying.

Dobbsie’s funeral was the last time that Darren was at what had been our house. It was the last time I heard his voice. I have now lost the memory of what his voice sounds like, and boy, does that ever hurt.

Flash forward to this year’s retreat. I don’t know why I’ve not looked into more retreats since 4 years ago, but about a month ago, I thought it was time to go back. So I registered and waited again with anticipation. My memory of the retreat 4 years ago is certainly bound up in terrible things, but I also know that had I not taken part in the retreat, that the pain and anguish I felt that week would have been even worse. So this year, I had plans to do the same thing: run my errands, clean my house, purchase incense and candles, and prepare for Friday night’s talk to begin.

But nothing went right in terms of setup. I’ll admit, that’s laziness, not circumstance. I just kept putting off the work I wanted to do to prep. And when I saw that Hurricane Joaquin would be hitting us by the weekend, I thought, you know, it’s all going to fall apart again. The feed will be interrupted, the retreat will end just as it gets started, someone in my house will probably die. That sounds like I’m being a drama queen, but clearly, I lived that pattern before.

So I was not ready for Friday night. The most I did was to sort of clear off my coffee table so there was enough room for my laptop. I had incense, which I forgot to light. I had a candle which kept burning out when the wax crept up too far. But that’s ok, I thought. It’s all ok, because I’ve been more or less at some sort of Buddhist practice now for a few years, I’ve been in and out of psychotherapy, I’ve read about 50 books on Buddhist principles, spirituality, and more recently, Christian mysticism. I’m in a better place than I was 4 years ago.

The retreat got off to a great start, but I didn’t sleep well Friday into Saturday, and during Saturday’s session, I struggled so mightily with tiredness. I was shocked to realize that my monkey mind simply wanted to curl up and take a nap during meditation sessions, and during the second yoga session, because I didn’t really like the yoga instruction (not sure why), I actually did just check out and nap. Pema kept saying “everything is fine; everything is ok.” So I reasoned that a nap would be as well.

I held off on my errands till 5pm when the sessions ended for the day. I had gone with the suggested vow of silence since Friday night and was so concerned someone might “force” me to talk (or I’d have to come off as rude to someone) at the store, so I waited until I could speak before I left. The hurricane had moved out to sea, so all we had were higher than normal winds and rain, and normally, I’d never go out in those conditions, but I reasoned that I needed to suck it up and just deal with it (part of this year’s retreat, on making friends with your mind, was just that—realizing and accepting that things sometimes aren’t great and you  just have to learn to develop “discomfort resilience”).

I got my groceries and came home and felt good, calm, centered. The feed had held up other than a small blip with audio cutting out for but a minute. I got the house straightened a tad. The cats were all healthy.

I went to bed to get a good night’s sleep for the final day.

That didn’t happen. I slept fitfully, and between 3 and 4am, I woke up both hot and cold. I felt very agitated. I thought about a woman who asked Pema about insomnia and this terrifying fear she felt alone at that time of night in the darkness. I had been having a terrible dream, and that dream and  my agitation and anxiety sent me into what I now think was either a panic attack, or some kind of spiritual awakening, or most likely, both things at once.

I tried to take everything I had heard so far in the retreat and use it. Here was the perfect moment to try all of it out. Face the fear. Face the anxiety. Walk right into it. Say “well hello, old friend, there you are again.” And yet I could not understand why I was going through any of this. Hadn’t I had a relatively calm weekend so far? Where on earth did this come from? I think, perhaps, that THIS was my monkey mind, going berserk, trying to take all the things that I’d felt were unresolved issues in my life, trying to construct some kind of narrative about them that made sense.

And as I sat up in bed in the dark, I tried to hold all of these thoughts and emotions and feelings lightly, like a feather, to see their truth, and what I came to realize was that I felt a very strong connection to the past, but not to my recent past. I’m talking past lives. Pema had talked about a karmic imprint, and I think I grasped what she meant. I felt like something in me was finally open to seeing my link to a very distant past.

For several years now I’ve felt the victim of a great betrayal and it has dominated my life. As one of my friends said, much of my existence has been refracted through one particular person who betrayed me. I have felt at times powerless to move past this in spite of a great desire to, and yet the betrayal has also sparked an enormous amount of creativity and understanding in me. It is the very thing that led me on a spiritual path of my own making, influenced by those I have sought out as teachers. And for that reason, I think I’ve been reluctant to let go of the pain. If it generates creative work, shouldn’t I be grateful for it?

Yet between 3 and 4 am I thought about how I wasn’t just betrayed in this life, but I was betrayed in past lives. I don’t think it’s any accident that I chose to write a series of novels about Ariadne. Maybe I was her or someone like her in a past life. Somehow, this realization made me think “it’s alright. Everything is alright.” I guess for the moment I felt I couldn’t breathe this morning, it was because what has been caught in me all this time is my lack of being able to just accept that this is a role that I might have been meant to play since the beginning of time. I have spent so many hours of my life railing against this “fate”, feeling it’s “not fair”. But who is to say it is or isn’t? Maybe those destined to become betrayers are also sick of the role that they play in the world. Maybe they wonder why they are so tormented as to act in ways that hurt others. Somehow, coming to this feeling that if I would just accept that something bad happened to me—and something bad likewise probably happened to every version of me before, but that this was the role “we” were destined to play, made me able to just calm down and “rest” in awareness. My breathing returned to normal. I felt a great weight lift from my shoulders.

In fact, I thought to carry this idea out further. I thought to myself, “perhaps in my next life the same thing will happen again. And I’ll fear it, and I’ll hate it when it happens, and it will terrify me, the aftermath of it, but perhaps it is a cycle that will simply repeat.”

Then, I thought, “but I have free will. Perhaps it won’t. Perhaps in this life, I have been better equipped to deal with these negative feelings. Perhaps ever so slowly, I am learning.”

See when a participant asked Pema about how SHE gets caught up in negative, terrible emotions, and how to handle that, Pema said, “ask yourself what is so bad about those emotions. What do you fear?” And I applied that to myself and realized that my fear was that I hadn’t done enough to fight back when things went wrong. I regret my own lack of strength.

But how could I have had the strength to fight back more? It is only being betrayed by someone I loved that made me BEGIN to fight back in this life. I have a clear memory of not being a fighter, then being a fighter. So I think part of what I did at 3-4am was to open the door to forgiving myself. I couldn’t be something I wasn’t earlier in this life, or in my past lives. Maybe every time I live out some version of this earth-shattering moment, the thing that makes me change or become the person I am now, I get a little better at it. But maybe it is something I am going to face again and again, because this is the way things are. And there is no reason to have judgment about that. It just is.

So I finally fell back asleep and then got up for the final 3 hours of the retreat today, and I was delighted when one of the most profound questions to Pema came from what seemed to me an unexpected source: a 12 year old boy named Alexander.

Now all through this retreat and the other one, any time an adult stepped up to the mic , it took her or him up to 5 minutes just to ask the question. So many people had so much to say about their difficulties, their lives, their struggles, and I found myself growing frustrated even listening to them. “Get to your point!” I wanted to yell at them. Sometimes I wondered if people saw Pema as a wise woman or as a personal therapist, and I knew that seeing people in the latter role was my own negativity creeping in, for likely had I been in their shoes, I’d have taken ten minutes to set the stage before asking MY question.

Well Alexander made me smile, for his question was so simple, yet so complex. “Where do thoughts and emotions come from?” he asked. Pema was even taken aback. She said, “I don’t know. Where DO they come from?” and she laughed, and the audience laughed, as Alexander said, “I don’t know.” Pema laughed again and said, “Keep it that way.”

Now this wasn’t the end of her answer (or was it?), so Pema mentioned karmic imprints and past lives. She said there were all sorts of studies and Buddhist teachings to answer such a question, but that she liked that Alexander admitted not knowing. She said it was good to be curious, but good as well to just relax in the “not-knowing.”

I thought about all the adults, myself included, who struggle just to even articulate what we want to know, who say, as the first questioner said, that she had worked all this time to find the dharma, only to realize that there were STILL no answers there, STILL no relief from pain and suffering, and this was the end of the line. So now what?

Well I think Alexander has the answer. Ask the question. Ask any question you need to. But accept the fact that there may not be an answer.

Alexander impressed me because he didn’t bind up his question in a personal drama as I would have done. He simply asked a question that could apply to all of us at any time or place. I felt myself envying him in that moment, because I realized it might just be a question of him not having lived long enough to have created those stories about himself, (or perhaps he is the next Pema, so to speak?), so I understand Pema urging him to continue with the “not-knowing”.

I think it gives me a small measure of comfort to think that each of us plays out a drama that we have played since the beginning of time, but I also believe that our free will allows us to change that drama to some degree. But that’s just it. The changes are small. And I think I feel more freedom of acceptance to say that no, I don’t expect changes in leaps and bounds IN THIS LIFE, which is ok. Maybe the changes are only slight.

But it also gives me comfort to think about Alexander’s point of view, for out of the mouth of a babe, so to speak, one of the  most profound truths of this retreat came to light. It’s ok to ask, but it’s also ok to relax in not having an answer. It’s ok to have pain and to make friends with it. It’s not about eradicating bad feelings and emotions, but embracing them, saying “hello, old friend, there you are again.”

As this retreat ended, I was grateful to see that the cats are all ok. For today, we have no traumas, no illnesses.  No deaths. And I can’t remember my ex-husband’s voice anymore, but there was a time I knew it intimately, and I’m grateful for that time, and I wish him well.

And just like 4 years ago, on Sunday, the sun came out from behind the clouds. But as Pema said, the sun never left in the first place. It has always been there, if we had but the eyes,the wisdom, and the open heart, to see it.


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