Friday, July 24, 2020

Summer Stillness: Essay & Poetry for the Pandemic Pause

Rainbow over Mesa Verde
photo by RPodunovich

The “pause” created by the global pandemic that emerged in late spring now extends through summer. It wraps each one of us, no matter our station or position, in a quiet chaos that both fascinates and terrifies. It feels as if a retreat, one that a person might choose, prepare for and engage with intention, has been forced upon us suddenly, unexpectedly. So we attempt to adapt.

I remember the first 10-day silent retreat I attended in my early 20s. I was living in Olympia, WA and my life at that time centered on spiritual awareness and growth. I had spent years at that point exploring many traditions and practices. I was open to new experiences and always said I would try anything at least once (often a mistake). My yoga teacher at the time mentioned he had just attended a Vipassana or Insight Meditation retreat, which consists of 10 long, grueling days of sitting meditation, noble silence, with no access to books, and no writing or contact with the outer world at all.

That same month, I called a high school friend from Boulder and he mentioned he had just completed 10-day Vipassana retreat!! I used to take these things as signs, maybe I still do, but in my youth I also had a belief that I must follow the signs, while these days I just take joy in the synchronicity. Perhaps that is the wisdom of aging, a sense that I am not searching so hard to find something that I must follow signs, rather a feeling of being settled in all I have gathered through constant searching. A knowing that I have enough substantial inner resources and can count on them. A sign has to be really promising for me to want to walk that path at this point. Or, maybe that is just being jaded by life; knowing that signs don’t always point to what’s best. 

So within a week, I had found an upcoming 10-day Vipassana retreat to be held in Vancouver and was signed up for it, just like that, not thinking it through too much. I had enough money for a bus ride there but not for the return trip. I called and they suggested that probably another participant would be heading back that way and I could ride share. So I committed, bought the ticket, hoping I could find a ride back.

When I told my yoga teacher I was going, he inquired, “Do you even have a meditation cushion?”

“I was just going to take a pillow.” I replied.

“You are going to be sitting for like 10 hours a day,” he warned. “I am going to loan you a few of mine. You really need to prepare, it’s kind of a big deal.”

I took his pillows and some advice on sitting postures and stretches that could be supportive. Cell phones were not a thing, so I said goodbye to my partner, gave him my expected return date and the retreat center’s landline for emergencies. I took a Grayhound bus to Vancouver, found my way to the retreat center, checked in, met my roommate, had a last dinner with conversations and then it started with instructions and the following information. 

A bell would awaken us every morning at 4am. There would be 30 minutes to pull it together and get to our meditation cushions where we would sit for 2 hours until breakfast. Then a morning talk, then sitting until lunch. Then sitting until dinner. Then a dharma talk. Then sitting until 9pm. Repeat for 10 days. No talking, no reading, no writing. Just sitting with your self, focusing on breath and sensation in the body.

You can imagine experiences, anticipate how they might be, but that first morning the reality sank in. I was stuck with my self, in my body, with my history, my thoughts, my feelings, my pain- and there was no getting out of it. The first few days were spent squirming a lot. I had the belief and hope that I would find a comfortable position, strategies to avoid pain, ways to check back out and dissociate. That ended for me by day 3 when I realized there was no fixing anything, no permanent solutions. I would find a sitting posture that worked until it didn’t and then had to adjust. I couldn't distract myself from my rapidly shifting and often frightening inner landscape. I sort of gave up caring and settled in for the ride. What else could I do, I literally had no other ride.

Scent of Valerian
photo by RPodunovich
And that’s when moments of pure presence, absolute stillness, fleeting and blissful would arise amid the chaos of my inner experience. I reflected on so many things, historical hurts, hurts in my body, fear, cravings, and confusion. And when I would realize I was on an endless tangent of thinking and feeling, I would bring my attention back to my breath, to the sensations that arise and live and die endlessly. I actually reveled in the silence. As an extrovert who never had difficulty socializing or making new connections, often too busy and overcommitted, it was a profound experience to have 10 whole days of relief from reading other people, responding to them, giving of myself outward in connection and rapport. I settled into my self, all of myself, the pain and the pleasure, the clarity and the confusion, the isolation and the brief moments of transcendence. By day 7, I never wanted to talk again. I had amazing dreams. One I still remember was about spiritual beings that looked like baby Muppets, and their pure spiritual awareness and goodness made me wake up crying with profound joy that I can still remember…and I still laugh at the silly imagery.

And then the silence broke on the last day. Some people talked a lot about the hell they had endured, others about the bliss, and others like me kept rather quiet, reticent to emerge from the inner spaces. I did find a ride home with a nice guy. I returned the cushions to my yoga teacher. 

“How was it?” he inquired.

“Hard.” I said.

“It is hard to sit that long.”

“It wasn’t the sitting that was hard.” I replied.

Learning to Hold My Light
Collages by Renee Podunovich
About a month later I signed up for another 10-day Vipassana retreat. This time I had signed up to do “service” meaning a gesture of reciprocation for all I had received from the first retreat. I helped in the kitchen, made sure people had what they needed. And while I was able to meditate for long periods of time and enjoy the silence, it was a different point of view. It was witnessing people in their suffering. I understood what they were going through. I understood why it was so upsetting that at the light, vegetarian meals, all the bananas went first at breakfast, or at dinner, all the bread disappeared and the soup seemed meager. I understood why the sound of a light bulb slowly fizzling out in the meditation hall seemed like it could drive one mad. I understood that our human experience feels so out of our control at times, that our history and trauma and pain feels intolerable in moments, and that at times, we are graced with experiences of utter bliss and a connection to something vast and mysterious. I understood that a small kindness- finding someone a band-aid or a blanket, going to look for more bananas, smiling reassuringly, can make a culture of care real. It’s not that hard to be kind. Small gestures are everything.

I have contemplated and discussed with another meditation practitioner how the current crisis of the global pandemic is akin to a forced retreat for all of us. I am not surprised that I am witnessing many of these things, in myself and in almost everyone I talk to:

-food and eating challenges and difficulties
-resurgence of compulsive or addictive behaviors
-obsessive or intrusive thoughts, memories or fears
-generalized fear, anxiety, panic and overwhelm
-depression, dissociation, shutdown, freeze, hopelessness
-feelings of abandonment, loneliness or isolation
-sense of loss of control or powerlessness, feeling confused
-anxiety around money, shelter, food and other survival needs
-past traumas being activated, triggered or re-experienced
-health anxiety heightened (related to Covid19 or otherwise)
-feeling like existing chronic needs are being ignored
-thoughts and feelings about death and dying
-new and old grief surfacing
-feelings of anger, irritation and frustration
-caring for everyone to own detriment, compassion fatigue
-feeling exhausted, fatigued, unmotivated, lethargic
-hyper-focus, surges of energy, keep “doing” to distract
-immune system depleted, other illnesses starting, chronic illness flare ups
(thanks to Trauma&CO for this list)

At the Edge
photo by rattenpatten

hough I have practiced Insight Mediation for over 30 years, sometimes more consistently than others, it has certainly informed my work in somatic psychotherapy and many of my other interests. It is my go to grounding practice and it’s gotten me through serious hell over the years.

My poetry stems from this place of navigating the inner life in some hope that it offers something, something beyond just my personal experience. I want to touch what is common to us all out of my own personal reckoning. I think it is because I so want to belong to something larger than my own suffering. I have been considering lately that poets must all want that connection. Why else would we open our hearts for all to see unless we believe there is value in common humanity, hope and healing in recognizing the deep hearts beating inside each other.

With a new poetry collection at the press (to be released 2.1.21), I struggle with artistic anxiety related to having it read by other writers who will give feedback and endorsements, having it go to permanent ink and wider distribution, and I notice shame popping up in moments. I want to unsay all of it and hide under the covers. But it's too late, contract signed and so I hope I have achieved a connection through those words, which were born out of such personal places.

Now that it’s done and all the parts sent off, I am in a fallow of sorts. This means resting, rejuvenating, stopping the production, waiting for what is next to emerge. It’s a hard place for me every time. I signed up for a little online course about being on fallow ground. I am learning how to rest, how to be still. So my words have been few this summer, and I just barely scraped together a poem per month so far. They are spare, as if to not add too much to the symphony of summer beauty and the overwhelming chaos of the world currently.

Bear Creek
photo by RPodunovich

May - States of Water
at Bear Creek

snow awakened, now
the river flowing, its waves
dancing cascades, crash-

visions held in ice;
            are timpanis and tumble
            of rushing spring thaw.

Pink Sunset
photo by RPodunovich

June – Tending
at my garden

Irises bloom
and seen or unseen,
purple courses their veins,
staining my spare imaginings.

All summer
            I will sleep as much as I want,
            let the days be long and untangled.

To all the moments of sunshine,
to every blossom that opens
and everyone I ever loved,
            from deep in my slumbers I whisper,
            “I love you now more than ever.”

All those words I wrote so furiously last year,
black beetles that scuttled on paper,
are now mosquitos swarming against starlight.
They meant everything and nothing at all.

I rest now,
let long, warmth drenched kisses of sunlight
stroke my skin with heat and ease,
            with the healing singe
            of billions of years of fire.
I yearn for the monsoons to arrive.

July – Sabbatical
my home in the universe

comet Neowise
let me pet its long, bright tail.
my bones are starlight.        

-Renee Podunovich, Summer 2020