I just returned from a seven day Buddhist-Vipassana meditation retreat at Vallecitos, located in the mountains of New Mexico. The scenery and landscape were breathtakingly beautiful, and the people at the retreat were very kind and supportive. It was a much needed vacation for the mind and spirit, helping me to recharge the batteries and come back ready to continue to serve my clients, friends, family, and community. The retreat was silent and free from all forms of technology, making it possible for those of us attending to focus only on our internal experience and whatever nature decided to put in front of us. Our teachers were outstanding, one of whom was Dave Smith, an old friend of mine, and one of my favorite people in the world. Early on they set the theme of the retreat as compassion, both for others, and for the self, even those parts that we tend to reject or demonize. In Buddhism, compassion is not arbitrary, nor is there a scattershot approach to who or what is deserving of kindness. I left the retreat feeling very open-hearted, almost a little raw. It’s a state of consciousness that can be a little frightening, especially when it seems like the whole of our society is coiled up like a snake, ready to strike at anyone who holds a different opinion or way of living. I’ve been to many retreats, some of which have been life-changing. The challenge has always been how to remain open-hearted when the clinging ego tells you that if you stay that way, the world will give you more pain and suffering than you can bear.
The day the retreat ended and my smart phone picked up reception, I felt a pang of anxiety as the pings and buzzes of the machine began trying to get my attention. I thought about leaving the phone off for one more day, but decided it wasn’t realistic since my wife had to pick me up at the airport later that day. When I arrived back at the hotel I checked my messages as I ate lunch, one of which was a former co-worker and friend whose voice sounded strained on the voicemail. I called her back and she told me that a former client she knew I was very fond of had died of an overdose while I was at the retreat. The news hit me hard as I felt the reflexive urge to retreat from the pain; but because of the mindfulness practiced on retreat, I made the decision to allow the grief to simply do what it needed, meditating on the unimaginable pain that his family must be experiencing. Then I focused on the gifts that this fellow traveler had given me in the three months I worked with him, including a desire to work with men who are suffering in prison. Then I thought of what one of the teachers at the retreat chanted each night: “Knowing that all conditioned things are impermanent is the key to lasting happiness.” It is a teaching of the Buddha that I am still a long way from internalizing.
It was time to get to the airport. I called Uber for a ride and was picked up by a smiling Frenchman who barely spoke any English. Seeing I looked exhausted, he grabbed my bags from me and gently placed them in his trunk, inviting me to sit up front with him in the air conditioning. Out of the blue he began telling me about his life, something that happens to me quite a bit and makes me feel very grateful. Able to remain present, I gave the man my full attention as he explained what brought him to New Mexico from Paris. He told me that his wife was from the area, then said he wanted his daughter to learn English in the United States. As he talked his eyes began to well up with tears. When I asked him what was wrong he told me that he was a single father because his wife had died in a car crash a year ago. As we drove, he talked in detail about trying to make a living for his daughter and expressed how difficult it had been since the death of his partner. When he was through talking, I asked him about the details of his wife’s death. At first he stated that she’d been killed by a drunk driver, but after a few miles he turned to me and told me that he’d been lying. “She took her own life. She was addicted to alcohol and pain pills.”
I hadn’t told the man I was an addictions counselor, but for some reason he felt like he needed to tell the truth about his wife’s death. I experienced deep compassion for the man, especially for the shame he carries over his wife’s death. It saddens me that we still live in a society that makes people feel like they have to cover up deaths related to the disease of addiction because on some level they know that people think that alcoholics and addicts do it to themselves or deserve it. When we reached the airport, I thanked the man for the service he provided and told him what a good man he was and how his daughter was blessed to have such a caring father. He shook my hand warmly and showed me the photo of a beautiful six-year old girl who will grow up without a mother because of the disease of addiction. The Frenchman beamed as he showed me the picture, causing me to see clearly what it means to love unconditionally.
I’m back home now. There are two dogs next to me on the couch and my beautiful wife is across from me twirling her hair the way she does when she’s trying to figure something out. There seem to be risks to leaving the heart open, but I am trying to take the lessons learned in New Mexico back here to Tennessee. The more I let these truths from the meditation retreat sink into my bones, the more I am coming to believe that these risks are illusions. I think it might be a piece of what the Buddha called Right-View. Whatever it is, I hope it remains.