I walked into the Tallahassee Chan Center for a five day retreat, having never before meditated for more than half an hour a day, genuinely scared for what awaited me.
“What am I doing here?”, I thought more than once during orientation, as Guo Gu explained the intense 16 hour day schedule, and the expectation of noble silence. I am a person so unaccustomed to silence that I walk around with my cellphone tucked under my bra strap and a podcast constantly playing in my ear. When a shower gets too boring, I start singing. And now, total silence? For five days? I told myself to remember what I was in it for: greater ability to contain myself and my thoughts, more space to plan my life intentionally, and to challenge myself to become better. I didn’t even have the half of it right.
The first two days were… hard. There was a component to the living that was restful and delicious (who knew a simple raisin could be so bursting with flavor?), but the sitting itself was a challenge I could barely surmount. More than once, I had the urge to get up in the middle of a sit and fling my cushion across the floor. “I can’t do this, I can’t do this!”, I thought, as my inner monologue ran wild and my legs burned with pain. And yet, every time I managed to sit through until the bell rang, it got easier to do it the next time. When I faced the pain, and relaxed, I was able to see my own strength.
There was Guo Gu, too, always in the background, supporting with words or with mere presence. At the time when I felt the most hopeless, he happened to focus his dharma talk on faith. At a time when I felt disconnected, he focused his words on the connection of the elements within us to the earth: fire, wind, water, and air. He was more than a skillful teacher and a scholar, he was somehow a container for all of our experiences at once. Although he couldn’t have possibly known what we were each individually going through, he somehow seemed to sense our experiences intuitively. On the rare occasions that we did speak to ask him questions, he was precise and exacting with his responses, never rendering an opinion until he got all the detail of the situation.
Little by little, I adjusted. It helped immensely that the periods of sitting were broken up by periods of walking meditation, gentle yoga, and sometimes slow prostrations. Rather than hating the noble silence, I found I actually enjoyed seeing how much was communicated through presence alone. My body started to soften and relax, put at ease by a level of attention it hadn’t received in years. My mind began to clear, and there were even periods of time that I felt fully embodied, which I had never had the opportunity to experience. Then, Guo Gu introduced the huatuo.
If you’ve never had the pleasure, the huatuo is an intense questioning of the origin and nature of thought itself, and brings immediate attention to every wandering thought the practitioner has. Guo Gu challenged us to use it, and by the end of the day, everyone had dropped the method. “It’s too hard”, we complained, “We have to keep repeating it over and over, it’s making us think too much!”
Guo Gu listened as all of us relayed how quickly and easily we had given up on the method, and then, he asked us if we trusted him. We all said, “yes”. He told us that great faith and great interest were necessary to practice Chan successfully, and it was vital that we treat this as a life and death issue, because of the goal: to save innumerable sentient beings. Not just to cut off our own endless vexations, but to end the suffering of countless beings. Up until that point, I had thought of this retreat like a spa: focusing on my self, my relaxation, and my mental health. I hadn’t even considered the countless generations who had lived and died in order to hand down the teachings that were helping me to transform my mind. Suddenly, I was struck by the realization of my selfishness. I resolved to try the huatuo again, with even more dedication and focus.
The next day, I spent all of the periods of meditation engrossed in my huatuo: “What is it?” I walked around in angst as I repeated it to myself over and over, hearing a buzzing in my ears. I was getting more and more annoyed, because of my own ignorance, and the level of self involvement present in my thoughts. I began to cry: I hated that I didn’t know. Didn’t know the meaning of life, or anything, or why I’m here, or what the universe really is. Didn’t know where my thoughts come from, or where they went to, or where the past and future are, and why the present is so fleeting.
I went to Guo Gu weeping, and he told me: you are already connected to everything, and everyone. It’s just that you’ve had to build this shell around yourself over the years, for protection, and taking it off hurts. As I walked out of his office, I felt the weight of the years of not-knowing well up inside me, and I ran outside and began to sob.
I was crying, heart wrenching, deep sobs, letting it all out, thinking about nothing, just experiencing the sorrow. About 5 minutes in, mid dramatic sob, a thought popped up: “Why am I crying?” The answer came quickly: “Because I just don’t know!”
Mid-sob, I began laughing, hysterically. Here I was crying like a baby, and why? Because I just don’t know the source or the meaning of life! I laughed and laughed until the tears ran again. I walked back into the Chan hall and sat, brought forth my huatuo, and sat in amazement. All of the angst and anguish of my ignorance was gone. What I felt was pure wonder, like I had when I was a child, looking up at the sun, at rainbows, at the stars, thinking: “What is it? What is it, this great matter of life and death?”
I am eternally grateful to the Tallahassee Chan center, to Guo Gu, and to every member of the community who made the experience possible. There was an invisible network of support there, gently holding all of our experience within the sangha, and I feel so blessed to have received that kind of love. I am glad to have found this community, and I can’t wait to come back, again and again.