I went into the retreat wanting to learn the first levels of concentration practice, the jhanas as taught by Leigh, and Ayya Khema before him. At some point, it became clear that to persevere in that exploration would not be beneficial. I learned the hard way that the release of piti energy without enough pleasantness attached, simply does not work. Three sleepless nights, and a state of being on 24/7 demanded that all means be taken to return to my normal self. I walked, and I spent time in nature. I took long warm showers. I refrained from sitting too long and from counting my breath. I shifted away from pure meditation, and contemplated instead. It took me five days before I was able to feel like myself again. This is why jhana initiation should only be undertaken within the container of a long retreat and under the guidance of a teacher.
I followed Leigh's advice to cultivate joy, a missing ingredient in my overly busy life. Specifically, I was to do some metta (loving kindness) practice. The heart needed to be ready first before the mind could proceed any further. Besides practicing formal metta meditation, I needed to spend time contemplating the nature of heart. For that, I turned to Ayya Khema's illuminating talk on 'Metta'. Here are the salient points from Ayya Khema's talk:
- See the difficult people as opportunity to practice unconditional love
- Realize the faults we see in others are also our own
- Love without expectations of anything back
- Practice mindfulness
- Don't blame the trigger
- Let go of views and opinions about other people
- Just love, don't discriminate and know the difference between the two
- Practice self-compassion
The seventh point blew my mind:
Now we deliberately start every lovingkindness meditation with ourselves. Many people find it difficult to love themselves -- sometimes because they know themselves too well. [laughter] Which means that they're judging. We don't have to judge ourselves, we can just love ourselves. Judging ourselves and loving ourselves do not have to be in the same breath. We can first love this manifestation of universal existence which we call "Me." And then, if we really want to make some changes, we can find out what needs to be changed, but we don't have to mix up those two, we don't have to mix up our bad qualities with our love for ourselves. They don't have anything to do with each other. But because we do mix those two things together in ourselves, we do that with everybody else, too. They're quite nice, but... they've got all these other qualities which aren't that nice. Or we can see that they're ok, but only if they are just doing something that we're also doing, going along with our ideas. This is totally unnecessary. This is a totally different track -- the mind's track, that's where the mind comes into its own. That's when we are discriminating between that which we find useful and helpful, and that which we don't. But the heart has nothing to do with that. The heart just has to love; it doesn't have to discriminate. And when we can see the difference between the usual judgments and just loving -- not discriminating -- we have taken a very important step.
Being in a retreat environment, I had plenty of opportunities to figure this out.
It did not take long for the mind to start developing ideas about other folks in the retreat, deciding which one 'I' liked, which ones 'I' didn't like, all without any word exchanged. Indications of partially closed heart, that let only as much love as allowed by long held limiting habits from the mind. Of course, the hope lied in the difference made by the mindful experiencing of the pain of a closed heart. During the retreat, I had the time, and presence of mind to really 'see' the heart up close. On the second before last day of the retreat, an insight arose that filled me with great joy, and that I sealed with those words:
'It is the mind that closes the heart. The love, all of it is in the heart, all along. It is up to me to notice whenever the mind starts closing the door of the heart. The same mind that closed the door can also open it. It is up to me to intervene and keep the door open, giving myself the sweetness of fully open heart. 'A radical shift had taken place, from believing that boundless love was out of reach, to feeling it right there in the heart, always accessible.