Contemplating the Rabbit Hole

There should be a rule against writing about meditation retreats immediately after they’re over.

In those first hours and days post-retreat, it’s as if I’m experiencing the world through a fresh set of eyes.  The cosmos have aligned.  Nothing could be a problem.  It also smacks of a certain smugness.

Take my first retreat.   Right after it was over, I went to the parking lot with the kindly woman who offered to drive me to Albany.  One of her tires was completely flat and her battery was dead.  It took a couple hours to work that out. Then, worried about her flimsy spare, she proceeded to drive 40 mph on the interstate for 4 hours.  After that, we went the wrong way and ended up yet another hour behind my designated rendezvous with Dave.  All the while we smiled knowingly.  “Life as it is, not as you want it to be,” we kept quoting our teacher.

Ever since I returned from my latest retreat, I’ve been keeping a list of  great things I wanted to tell you.  Like how I went for walks in the woods behind the retreat center each morning and discovered a forest full of pink Lady’s Slippers – wild orchids so vulnerable that I’d only ever seen one once before in my life.  I was going to draw parallels to life and tell you how wonderful it all is.

Don’t get me wrong.  There are so many beautiful things to say about the time I spent at the Insight Meditation Society’s Forest Refuge.  But one week post-retreat, the story looks different.

I’ve been reminded of the truly hard stuff over and over again in the past few days.   A 24 year old man who had once worked at Dave’s office was shot to death in the middle of the afternoon on the streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant.   Someone dear to me is struggling to control Lupus.  A young mom in the neighborhood has been diagnosed with an advanced stage breast cancer.  A photo of our 5th grade class posted on Facebook caused an avalanche of childhood friends writing with memories of our classmate who died of a brain aneurysm, and of the friend’s parents who were killed in a head-on collision with a drunk driver.

As if these things weren’t enough of a reminder of death, I used my date night with Dave on Friday to explore a new exhibit called “Remember That You Will Die:  Death Across Cultures”at one of my favorite places in NY, the Rubin Museum of Art.   We spent an hour looking at ancient ritual objects made out of human bones and haunting depictions of charnel grounds.  The only thing I could think at the end was, “My god, my husband is really a trooper for agreeing to this macabre idea of a night out.

I’m doing all I can this week to soak it all in and watch the ever-changing flow of accompanying emotions without following any one of them down a fantastical Rabbit Hole.

To do this, I’ve blocked out a chunk of time – 45 minutes or so – each day to sit down on a cushion and just watch.  It’s so much harder at home than it is on retreat.  But this is the heart of mindfulness, the “After the Ecstasy, the Laundry” kind of stuff as Jack Kornfield so aptly calls it.  He wrote in his book of that name:

We cling to some hope that in spiritual life we can rise above the wounds of our human pain, never to have to suffer them again. We expect some experience to last. But permanence is not true freedom, not the sure heart’s release.

Ordinary cycles of opening and closing are necessary medicine for our heart’s integration. In some cases, though, there are not just cycles, there is a crash. As far as we ascend, so far can we fall. This too needs to be included in our maps of spiritual life, honored as one more part of the great cycle.

If it’s the one thing I gleaned from the past two weeks, I’d say it’s a decent start.


Image credit:  “Down the rabbit hole” by Flickr user smath. via Flickr’s Creative Commons.

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10 responses to “Contemplating the Rabbit Hole”

  1. Kelly says:

    Hi Barbara,

    I can’t tell you how moved I am by your blog. I feel so lucky to have come across it. I’ve gone back and read each of your posts and have found each one extremely thought provoking.

    This specific entry is timely as I’m also coming face to face with so much sad news these days and trying to figure out a way to frame it that isn’t fear based or depressed.

    Thanks for taking me (a perfect stranger) along on this journey with you.


    • Barbara says:

      Kelly, I’m so glad you wrote. Now we’re not perfect strangers any more. I really love that you said you’re trying to “figure out a way to frame” the sad news. I think it’s the key, really — that how we respond somehow involves choice. I’m empowered by that most of the time!

      I look forward to seeing you again on this journey.


      • Kelly says:

        You’re right–now we’re not strangers and that is great (ahhh–the power of the internet!!). I was reading an article in Oprah’s May issue written by Catherine Newman and a line at the end struck me so powerfully, I have to share it with you (knowing you’d appreciate it):

        “The twinning of loss and love seems suddenly to explain everything: To devote ourselves properly to one another, we must brave love’s terrifying undertow, which is grief.”

        As a mother (of four), I’m so aware of this feeling…especially as they take their own steps into the world without me. But, this is true of everyone you care about—and she said is so perfectly.


  2. Sven says:

    Welcome back! After the Ecstasy the Laundry is a great book and theme to live by. Kind of like John Lennon’s “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” As long as we all inhabit our little “compost units” aka bodies, pain and death is just part of the spiritual experience. It’s ironic that the experience of bliss and ecstasy that is so coveted by spiritual seekers is probably most easily attained after we cross over, and yet we spend most of our time dreading and worrying about death.

  3. Barbara says:

    Here’s a little line that I know you’ll appreciate, Sven:

    “This thing called corpse we dread so much is living with us here and now.”
    – Milarepa

    You must tell me what you mean by “…the experience of bliss and ecstasy that is so coveted by spiritual seekers is probably most easily attained after we cross over….” I’m going to try to tackle some thoughts on what happens after death, and I’m so curious about your statement.


  4. Sven says:

    well, it’s hard to “know” what happens after we die in a left brain sort of way, but there are many accounts of an eternal consciousness that we are part of and that happens on a different frequency than our physical manifestation on this planet. Some of the readings and themes about this to check out are the Egyptian Book of the Dead, Akashic Records, and anything by Edgar Cayce. I personally also enjoyed a book by Linda Keen called Across the Universe with John Lennon in which she channels him from “the other side.” Whatever you make of it, it’s a fascinating and heartwarming read. Also, my studies and practice of evolutionary astrology has led me to the realization that our reality here on earth is only one part of the picture and that in fact we can live with less fear and more ease if we allow ourselves to tap into the endless stream of wisdom from “the other side.” Hope this helps, it’s really just the beginning of the conversation… 😉

  5. Barbara says:

    Thanks for allowing me to put you on the spot! I’ll have to check out some of these resources and see what they do to the different sides of my brain.

    Hey, I loved the “Beyond” affirmation in your book! I thought of that a lot on the retreat.

    I’m certain this conversation will be continued.

  6. Barbara says:

    Kelly, You must read “Oh, The Places You’ll Go” by Dr. Seuss to your children if you haven’t already! It’s right on topic, and you’ll love it too.

    Here are the words:


  7. Kosu says:

    Loved this post. Beyond spiritual materialism and smug, ‘cheap grace’. And yet the world is still so breathtakingly beautiful and somehow so are we, in all our crazy, irrational beingness. Such a lovely paradox…

  8. Any retreat from our day-to-day, whether silent or otherwise, is akin to hitting a reset button. Getting lost in a book, returning to the world after a few days sick in bed, or traveling near or far alters our reality while we are in it…while we feel as though we are someplace else.

    Senses and emotions are heightened when we go through a transition – rabbit hole or otherwise – and what may have been lost in the river of daily life comes to us with sharp clarity. “Time to pay attention,” it cries. Feel it, be with it, and most of all, sit still whenever you can…even if for a mere three minutes.

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