I’ve been hard on Buddhism over the years (see for example my critique of the recent bestseller Why Buddhism Is True). But I like to think I’m open-minded. So I recently put my skepticism to the test by going on a weeklong silent Buddhist retreat, which my pro-Buddhism friends Lisa and Bob argued was my moral obligation.
The retreat rocked me. I’m still trying to make sense of it, but I’m going to take a stab at describing it, if only for my own sake. As I told Julie, a teacher who advised me not to write during the retreat, I’m not sure what happens to me until I write about it.
The retreat was organized by the Dzogchen Center, a Buddhist organization based in Cambridge, Mass., and took place at the Garrison Institute, a contemplative center on the Hudson River an hour’s drive north of New York City. Coincidentally, I lived in Garrison, the hamlet after which the institute is named, from 1990 until 2009, when my marriage broke up. I taught my son and daughter how to ride bikes on the grounds of the Garrison Institute when it was just an abandoned Catholic monastery, and I swam with my dog, Merlin, in a nearby spot on the Hudson.
A spiritually savvy colleague, Lindsey, recommended the retreat’s leader, Lama Surya Das. A big man with a Buddha belly, Das is a self-described Jewish kid from Long Island, originally named Jeffrey Miller, who still speaks with a New Yawk accent. He is a few years older than me, and like many youths of my generation he headed East in search of answers.
He eventually became a teacher, or Lama, specializing in the Dzogchen tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Dzogchen’s meditations, chants, breathing techniques and doctrines are intended to nudge you toward enlightenment, the extraordinary way of seeing, and being, that Buddha supposedly achieved. You become the cosmic self underlying your flawed, individual, illusory self. According to Dzogchen, we are all already enlightened, we’re just too dumb to realize it.
Das promotes Dzogchen through his books and the Dzogchen Center, which he founded in 1991. He is a kidder, who pokes fun at Buddhism, other teachers and himself. His mother, he likes to say, calls him the Deli Lama. When he listed the four or six or whatever precepts or pillars of Dzogchen, he invariably forgot one, perhaps to let us know we shouldn’t worry too much about doctrine. He liked the Zen aphorism, If you meet the Buddha in the road, kill him. Buddha, he explained, is within you, so any Buddha outside you isn’t real.
When he chanted Tibetan mantras or prayers, his voice swerved from a bass rumble to a squeaky falsetto. It was a funny but effective way to get us to loosen up and chant along. When we meditated, opened-eyed and open-mouthed, he urged us in a hypnotic murmur to let go of our cramped, fearful, grasping self and become our true self, which is big as the sky. That technique, like the chanting, eased me into pleasant, trance-like states.
On the first night, Das led us in meditation, talked for a while and took questions. I asked what he thought about the latest report of a prominent Buddhist leader accused of sexually abusing women. He replied that scandals involving spiritual leaders aren’t unique to Buddhism, but they trouble him. He fears for the future of Tibetan Buddhism.
To my surprise, he asked what I thought. It turned out he did this often during Q&A. I said I thought we should get rid of the idea that being enlightened makes you morally infallible. Yeah, or omniscient, Das said, that’s a problem too, no one is omniscient or infallible.
In addition to Das’s helpers and assistant teachers, there were 30-some students on the retreat, male and female, old and young. They included (I learned when we broke silence on the last day) a rock musician, artist, human-rights lawyer, several psychotherapists, teachers and business-folk and at least four engineers (one from Google, another from Microsoft). The retreat cost $1800, and we were encouraged to give the Lama a donation at the end.
Each day’s schedule, which lasted from 6 A.M. to 9:15 P.M., included 10 sessions of meditation, chanting, yoga, teaching or combinations thereof. Besides Das, three veteran female students also led teaching (dharma) sessions. Teachings focused on how to integrate Buddhist practice into ordinary life. Students could ask questions after teachings, otherwise no talking.
We were also not supposed to use phones or other digital devices or to read anything other than Das’s books, which were on a table in a first-floor room. These rules weren’t enforced, and I saw a few students looking at phones, laptops and non-Das books. Some, including me, also wrote in journals, although that was discouraged too.
I went to every session the first day, but later I skipped some. I spent hours sitting on a bench overlooking the Hudson and lying on the lawn staring at the sky. I went for a run every morning before sunrise, and several afternoons I jumped in the Hudson at the same spot where I once swam with my dog.
Friends had warned that during the first few days I might struggle with self-criticism and painful memories, with sorrow and regret, but that didn’t really happen, perhaps because I’m emotionally shallow. Plucked from the trappings of my normal life, I did see my vanity, insecurity and neediness in high relief, but these flaws seemed more comical than disturbing.
The first few days were hot, mid-90s, I’m guessing. There was air conditioning only in the main meditation hall, where all our group sessions were held. Monday, my second full day, was rough. I had slept poorly the previous night, and the heat was wearing me down. After the final meditation session, I trudged up to my third-floor room. Feeling rebellious, I checked out a library at the end of my hall. Most of the books were on spirituality, the environment or history. Ugh. Then I spotted The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson. Dickinson is a mystic, I rationalized, so reading her won’t really be cheating, it will be like meditating.
After reading a while in bed, I realized that not every Dickinson poem is as pithily perfect as “The Brain Is Wider than the Sky.” Some are a little schmaltzy and whiny. I also started feeling guilty for violating the reading ban. (Has anyone felt sinful reading Dickinson before?) So I set the book aside and lay back on the bed, a fan pushing hot air at me. I wondered, What do I do now? The answer came: Don’t do anything, don’t even think, just be lazy. You know how to be lazy, don’t you? This was an inside joke. My girlfriend likes calling me lazy.
Then I was lazy, really lazy. I felt like I was sinking into the bed. Thoughts arose, but they seemed silly, not worth thinking. (Some readers are no doubt thinking, We could have told you that, Horgan.) I was resting on the bottom of a swimming pool, and my thoughts were vague, blobby shapes moving above the surface of the water. This metaphor is over-dramatic. This state felt totally natural, so much so that I didn’t really pay attention to it, I was just in it. Then I fell asleep. I slept for seven hours without waking, which for me is great.
When I woke the next morning, part of me was still in that ultra-lazy state. Call it The Laziness. My thoughts still felt slightly distant, as though they belonged to someone else. I was also in a great mood. On my morning run, during breakfast and lunch, in the meditation hall, the world was grinning at me, and I was grinning back. I felt like giggling, and at the same time tears kept welling up in my eyes.
At some point I thought, Hey, what’s going on here? I didn't feel as though I had discovered anything. I had simply noticed something there all along, or become something I already was. My reaction wasn’t “Aha!” or “Wow!” It was more a “Duh” or Homer-esque “D’oh,” like when I’m looking for my glasses and realize I’m wearing them. Except that metaphor isn’t quite right, because glasses are something extra, artificial. A more precise analogy would be looking for your eyeballs and realizing they’re in your head. D’oh.
I came up with these descriptions while jotting down notes on what I was feeling. I worried that writing about The Laziness would deflate it, but it persisted, along with giddiness, throughout the day. I was scheduled to meet with the Lama for 10 minutes at 4 P.M., and I obsessed over what to tell him.
I bowed, as his assistant had instructed me to do, but he stuck his hand out and shook mine. I asked, Can you become enlightened if you don’t believe in enlightenment? Sure, he said, why not. I’m a science writer, I said, a skeptic, who has written critically about Buddhism, but something weird is happening to me. Das told me not to get hung up on any particular experience, just stay open-minded, see what happens, there’s a lot of time left in the retreat.
As I thanked him and said goodbye, tears welled up again. Afterward, I crashed emotionally, as if all the glad molecules in my brain broke down into glum byproducts. I thought I had destroyed The Laziness by analyzing, writing and talking to Das about it. But it came back that night when I stood on the lawn, fireflies flashing around me, and looked at the violet sky, where a half-moon hung between Jupiter and Venus.
I never felt as euphoric as on that day. Perhaps the initial giddiness resulted not from The Laziness itself but from my dawning belief that I had taken a tiny step toward enlightenment. After I had sex for the first time, I also felt euphoric, not because of the sex itself--which was awkward, and painful for my partner, who was also a virgin--but because I finally had sex!
But The Laziness never entirely faded. For the rest of the retreat, I felt like I could see more clearly, because my thoughts and emotions had become transparent. Things seemed charged with mythological import, especially when I was outside. The Hudson became The River. A path winding through woods became The Path. A brick wall was The Wall. A goldfinch preening in a pine tree was all the evidence anyone could want of Divine Creation.
The retreat convinced me that contemplation can reproduce the effects of psychedelics, a claim I have long doubted. On the retreat, as during a trip, I saw life’s inexplicability and improbability, which I like to call “the weirdness.” On psychedelics, the weirdness screams at you. On the retreat, the weirdness murmured. Imagine the perceptual state that inspired Dickinson to write “A Bird Came Down the Walk.”
In my old tripping days, when I encountered strangers, I shunned eye contact, because I feared people would see into my soul and know I was high. I felt that same reflexive fear during the retreat. I had to remind myself, You’re not doing anything illegal, fool! And everyone else here is probably tripping too!
Some other students seemed to be in trances much deeper than mine. On the last day, when we could talk, a young man to whom I mentioned my looking-for-your-eyeballs analogy said he felt like he’d been looking for his head and realized he had no head. Whoa.
It’s considered bad form to talk too directly about enlightenment, and I understand why. As Dickinson said, some things are best seen veiled. But enlightenment, I decided by the end of the retreat, is banal. It means simply appreciating each moment, no matter how mundane and annoying, as an end in itself, not as a means to another end, like making money or impressing others. Like, be here now, Dude.
Easy to say, hard to do. Most of us see our lives as a series of chores to be completed, not moments to be cherished. I certainly do. An insidious effect of being a blogger is that my life becomes fodder for my writing. I’m not complaining, I love this gig, but there is a price.
Is it worth devoting weeks, months, years, decades to cultivating hyper-attentiveness? Is that the best thing to do with life? No. There is no best thing to do with life, and Buddhism errs in implying otherwise. The exaltation of enlightenment makes us vulnerable to abuse by sleazy gurus. And seeking enlightenment is pretty self-indulgent. The world isn’t all fireflies and goldfinches. It has problems that need fixing, as I was reminded whenever I looked across the Hudson at the West Point Military Academy.
But I’m glad I went on the retreat. The Lama, during our private chat, said Buddhism isn’t true, but it works. Something worked during the retreat, but what was it? My wishful thinking? Suggestibility? A charismatic guru assuring me over and over that I am Buddha? Hours and hours of meditation? Chanting? Staring at clouds? Isolation from my laptop, phone and Kindle? From email, Netflix, Twitter, Facebook, The New York Times, idle chitchat, all the usual distractions? The heat? Withdrawal from caffeine (I cut back when I took ayahuasca earlier this summer and quit entirely for the retreat)? Who knows.
Now that I’m back in the real world (which, given the digital distractions, is more virtual than real), The Laziness is fading, becoming a memory, an idea. I don’t know what The Laziness is, and I’m suspicious of any explanation of it, Buddhist or otherwise. But I want to get it back, and sustain it, no matter what I’m doing. Grading freshman papers, waiting for the subway, watching Humans with my girlfriend. When I seek The Laziness, I am not living in the moment, I am looking for my eyeballs, but I can live with that paradox. I’m thinking of starting each day by chanting, D’oh.
Postscript: I’d like to thank Lisa and Bob for urging me to try a retreat and Lindsey for recommending Lama Surya Das.
Post-postscript: See my followup post, Buddhism, the Good and the Bad.
Does Buddhism Give Us Answers or Questions?
Meta-Meditation: A Skeptic Meditates on Meditation
Research on TM and Other Forms of Meditation Stinks.
What Does It Feel Like to Be Enlightened?
What Should We Do With Our Visions of Heaven and Hell?
Yes, Make Psychedelics Legally Available, but Don't Forget the Risks
Meta-Post: Horgan Posts on Psychedelics
Rational Mysticism: Spirituality Meets Science in the Search for Enlightenment