A few weeks ago Linda and I attended a weekend meditation retreat led by Pema Chodron, a long-time practitioner of Buddhist meditation and the principal teacher at the Buddhist center, Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia. The retreat was based upon the teachings of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and was entitled, “Smile at Fear“. Both Linda and I have long been fans of Pema’s work and her books, especially the best seller, When Things Fall Apart, which although published prior to our current social/political/economic crisis, seems to have been written precisely for these times. So naturally, when we heard about the retreat, which was held at a huge pavilion in the city of Richmond, we signed up for it, and not, it turned out, a moment too soon. Despite the fact that the event was being held in a building that could accommodate 3,000 people, we just barely made it in before it sold out.
The hotel that the sponsoring organization had contracted with for the special room rate however had sold out all of its rooms that had been reserved for the retreat. After many phone calls and much time on line, we were able to find a nearby hotel that had rooms available and we reserved one for the two nights that we would need accommodations. At the end of the first evening, we drove to our hotel and because it was dark and the road had a detour, I found it difficult to follow my directions. It took us about three times longer to find our way to the hotel than it should have. I made a verbal note to Linda to get an early start the next morning to make sure that even if we got lost again, we would make it in time for the opening meditation.
It seemed like a good idea at the time, but it soon became evident that fate had other plans for us. After having breakfast at a nearby restaurant, we got on the road, with plenty of time to spare and I proceeded to get us even more lost than we had been the night before. Still, I wasn’t worried since we had left early enough to deal with any unplanned meanderings and still make it in time. When after about fifteen minutes going in what turned out to be the wrong direction, it became obvious to us both when we ended up at a dead end, that my instincts, which are not always 100% reliable, had unfortunately failed me and it was time for another game plan.
The question was of course “Now what?” Although I was totally unfamiliar with the terrain, I declined Linda’s suggestion that we might consider asking someone for directions. No need to do that. I did what any other man would do in a similar situation, one in which he had absolutely no idea of where he was or how to get to where he wanted to go. There was of course no need to ask anyone for directions. Yes my instincts had just failed me, but that was all the more reason to trust that they would not fail me again. After all how often does lightning strike twice in the same place? One misjudgment was fluke; two would be a near impossibility. Besides I was really sure this time that I knew the way.
Linda was beginning to have her doubts, but bless her heart, she gave me another chance. Well, you’ll be shocked… SHOCKED, to hear this, but it soon became apparent that I was wrong again. Unbelievable! But apparently not to Linda who once again asked me with great patience if I might want to reconsider my decision to not ask anyone for directions. By now it was clear to me that it would probably be a good idea to take Linda’s suggestion and pop the question to someone who might know more than I did about the local territory, which probably would have been anyone over three years old that happened to be in the vicinity.
The clerk in a nearby convenience store gave me clear directions to the pavilion. I thanked him, got back into the car and happily headed towards our destination. It looked like we were going to make it on time after all. When we began to see signs directing cars to the retreat, I knew that we were home free, or so it seemed. Unfortunately, this was not to be the case. Four blocks from the pavilion a flashing red light appeared up ahead accompanied by a clanging bell. The two cars in front of me stopped at the railroad crossing that was about twenty-five feet in front of us.
My mood immediately got dark again with all kinds of very unenlightened thoughts and urges coming into my mind. In an instant, I went from perfect peace to perfect frustration. I checked the time. We still had nearly ten minutes before the first session began and we were so close to our destination. Even if the train took five minutes to pass we would still have enough time to get to the parking lot and make it inside before the meditation began. No problem, except for one thing: The train turned out to be by far the longest train that I had ever seen in my life. It took more than five minutes, more than ten minutes, more than fifteen minutes. It took over twenty minutes for that train to pass and for the crossing bars to finally lift to let the drivers in what had now become an incredibly long line of cars to restart their engines and resume their travels.
My initial reaction to yet another roadblock was to become possessed by a frenzy of impotent outrage. In the midst of my expletive-filled rantings, Linda, gently reminded me of three things that that stopped me and my rantings cold in my tracks (almost literally!). One: There is nothing that we can do about this situation. Two: It is temporary and at some point it will end. Three: We came to the retreat to experience peace, greater awareness, and acceptance of the experience of the present moment. I don’t know whether it was her words, her tone of voice, her clarity, or some combination of the above that shook me out of my entranced state and illuminated the ludicrousness of my reaction.
The irony of freaking out because I was so impatient to get to a meditation in order to practice mindfulness hit me between the eyes. I felt both foolish and grateful simultaneously. I realized that we had been given a gift: an opportunity to practice what Pema had spoken about in the opening evening session: to be able to bring a mind of openness, acceptance, and non-judging awareness into all of our experiences, not just those that go in accordance with our plans. Not because this was the right thing to do, or because there was some reward that we would get for being mindful, but simply because to do otherwise was a certain prescription for continuing to create pain and suffering, something that I had just experienced a vivid taste of.
I looked over at Linda. She wasn’t distressed at all. She was smiling, not at fear, but at the ridiculous spectacle that I had made of myself in thinking that if I got upset enough, reality might change. My frustration melted in that moment and I experienced a feeling of incredible gratitude towards Linda and a release of the distress that I had been feeling. In what seemed like a moment later, the last train car passed, and the gate lifted. I started the car and we drove into the parking lot which was only about 100 yards away. The five minute walk from our parking spot to our seat inside of the pavilion was delicious. I realized about halfway to the building that I must have been smiling, because nearly everyone that I passed with whom I made eye contact, seemed to be smiling back at me. I smiled through the morning meditation and I’m smiling now as I write this. I’m remembering the words of Swami Satchidananda, who was fond of saying that we can’t stop the waves from coming, but we can learn to surf. Hang ten!
-=+=-=+=-=+=-=+=-=+=-=+=- As I anticipate my favorite holiday, I am reminded of the words of Meister Eckhart: “If the only prayer you said in your life was ‘Thank you’, that would be enough.” Imagine, if you can, what your life would be like if the other 364 days of the year were also infused with the same spirit of gratitude that we feel when we are reminded of our gifts and blessings at Thanksgiving. Have a happy Thanksgiving every day. Many blessings, Linda and Charlie Bloom