The theme of Howie Cohn’s recent retreat at the Margaret Austin Center was “Compassionate Awareness is Your Best Friend.” With about 40 other meditators, I soaked in the natural beauty of colorful wildflowers, harmonious birdsongs, delicate butterflies, buzzing insects, stunning sunrises, tranquil sunsets, and brilliant starry nights. In our own unique ways, everyone reaped benefits from practicing mindful attention to each present moment.
Howie reminded us that we come to retreats damaged. Our speedy, greedy, ambitious, extroverted culture foments stressful worries about the future, which leads to compulsive planning. Our nervous systems can’t dwell continuously in angst about the future. When we ricochet from fight, flight or freeze reactions, we become increasingly disembodied and lonely. We live more in imagination than in the reality of direct experience of the present moment. As tension builds, we rush around, filling space with micro-tasking. Our bodies contract, our sense impressions numb, and our hearts close, blocking our basic goodness and generous instincts.
Inside, we long to reconnect to the peace and spaciousness of our own true nature. Whenever we stop for inner reflection, we go against the stream of social conditioning. On retreat, we remember how to rest in each present moment of reality. We recall how to regulate the nervous system, releasing imagined past and future scenarios. Beyond our stories and mental dramas, we are a field of sense impressions and loving awareness.
Sitting on retreat is compassionate for ourselves and for our loved ones. We recover the ability to flow with life as it is, instead of resisting and struggling against it. We begin to take less personally the inevitable cycles of joy and sorrow in life. Once again, we live in accordance with natural laws and rhythms.
As Howie says, “Life is hard to bear.” How can we serve as a refuge for others?
The retreat began with everyone taking three refuges—in the wakefulness of the Buddha, by returning to our own true nature; in the truth of the Dharma, by accepting the way things are; and in the compassionate community and long lineage of the sangha, by being along together in Noble Silence. So that all those on the retreat felt safe, we also affirmed five precepts to live a harmless life. If we want a peaceful world, we must become peaceful people. At the end of the retreat, we dedicated the merit of our practice to the benefit of all beings everywhere.
The form of the retreat supports seamless, moment-to moment attention to life as if presents itself—a continuity of awareness. In periods of 30 to 45 minutes, we alternated sitting and walking mindfully. Kelly’s delicious vegetarian meals nourished us. Our ever-vigilant retreat manager, Marvin—and his rambunctious Golden Labrador puppy, Lunita— kept the sangha more or less on schedule.
Howie’s sense of humor motivated us to persevere when bodily pains and mental worries surfaced. He quipped, “Fall in love with being aware. Marry the one who won’t divorce you!”
I felt refreshed and rejuvenated by his wise Dharma teachings about awareness and the Four Foundations of Mindfulness: “Awareness is our natural state. Knowing that we’re knowing gives us freedom and a capacity to deal with whatever is arising.” He quoted Ajahn Chah, “Don’t let your mind leave your body!”
Our untrained hearts and conditioned minds need what Howie terms “remedial help” through meditation practice, to be nourished by real-time experiences. He referred to Tibetan Buddhist masters who teach that peace and ease is “too close, too vast, too wondrous, and too easy” for us to see. Vedanta teachers say that as we practice, we brush away the dust of memory to see the mirror of our true nature.
Howie cautioned us to stop trying to be a good meditator but to simply be aware of the body just sitting. He emphasized what he calls “kindfulness,” pointing out that the mind tends to catastrophize about pain. We can learn instead to bring kind awareness to pain, letting go of reactivity, which often increases the painfulness.
We practiced bringing equal attention to what is pleasant and what is unpleasant, noticing the impermanence of all things. We practiced noting without judgment the five classic hindrances of restlessness, sleepiness, desire, aversion and doubt. By investigating their nature and their consequences, we could accept them as impermanent conditions.
What I valued most was practicing how to live in harmony with the arising and passing away of all things, noting my tendency to cling and my capacity to let go of even the most pleasurable experiences of peace and quiet.
I heartily recommend to those of you who have been hesitant to attend a weekend retreat that you take advantage of opportunities to learn from experienced and compassionate teachers like Howie Cohn in the beautiful natural setting of the Margaret Austin Center.