Kay Ryan #2: building ships wonky

The first fear
being drowning, the
ship’s first shape
was a raft, which
was hard to unflatten
after that didn’t
happen. It’s awkward
to have to do one’s
planning in extremis
in the early years —
so hard to hide later:
sleekening the hull,
making things
more gracious


KAY RYAN: We’re building the ship as we sail it

One of the unexpected things about my stay at Crestone was how psychological it was.
I had gaily turned up thinking that I’d be hanging out with my friends in the snow, meditating beautifully, feeling the space all around me. Instead, I turned up to a strictly silent, very sober Zen sesshin where we sat for 9 hours a day in regimented rows and ate and slept and moved in a highly controlled and very muted atmosphere.

I’ve been on vipassana retreats before but the juxtaposition of my expectation (cosy, lying down, embodied) with the reality (chill, sitting-up, hopelessly in my head) gave this one much more impact.

Despite sitting for 21 days at a stretch my practice never really took off as I had fantasized. I slogged through the long sits and tried gamely to follow the instruction. But practices like yin-belly breathing, earth descent and darkness practice that had flown on angel wings all the year previously seemed clipped and clumsy during this Dathün month.

Neil McKinley, Reggie’s senior teacher who was leading the first week, gave us Pema Chödrön’s advice: “Start where you are” and I took this on board. “This is not going to be a glorious time of practice. Ok. What is it?”

What it was was a plummet, featherless with broken pinions, down into an icy abyss of a lot of childhood stuff. Or rather the reified remnants of thoughts and fears left in my system from over 40 years ago.

In a brilliant but simple device, these strict vipassana retreats with zero distraction (no writing, no reading, no speaking, little movement) cause us to crash headlong into our most primitive selves. The child or baby that hates being restrained, told-off, punished roars to the fore. The poor facilitators who set up the rules and enforce the ‘container’ of the retreat become the target of 120 people’s atavistic rage at authority, at parents, at the impinging World in general.

In my specific case I spent a good eight days raging at the teachers, at Dharma Ocean, at Reggie, at the Lineage and indulging in endless internal speeches in my head where I would stand up and point out everything that was wrong with this place and this way of practising. I knew better and these angry monologues became more and more desperate and vituperative as the days wore on. I knew better. I knew better…

Eventually something cracked. I saw that it was not really anything to do with this beautiful place or these kind-hearted people – but to do with me and the darker echoes of my childhood. A lot of the dark places I had explored in therapy came crisply and simply into focus. And I saw with weary clearness that although I had spend time with my therapist and in the caverns of Ayahuasca, inhabiting the pain of those states, I hadn’t really extended my awareness to the defences and mental-gymnastics my little self had set running in the back ground.

My endless speeches and self-justificatory defences (like a defendant in the dock would give) had been running since my 6-year-old self started thinking them. They were running in the background, submerged in the silt-water of my unconscious, but nonetheless colouring and controlling a lot of my relations with the world. I recognised that self-justification as a very deep habit of mind: the worried child who always feels that he has to defend his being in the world. And the silence and snowy stillness of Crestone was allowing it be heard, painfully clear.

In the end, I threw myself on the mercy of the Lineage. Reggie’s teaching is part of a long river of teaching that flows back through Chögyam Trungpa to the Kagyü teachers through the wisdom torrents of the Himalayas and the Indian North – ultimately back to the Buddha. And I recognised that I desperately needed to abandon my ‘I must do everything myself’ belief and throw myself on the compassion of others.

I sat down in front of the Shrine one evening, gave up all my defence speeches and asked for help. Then I went to bed.

The next I meditated as normal and set off, as normal, on my 2 hour walk up in the snowy hills above the retreat centre.
After stomping up the very long and tiring (high altitude) path, I came to one of my favourite walks, a long level, snow-white road that wound past the Zen Centre and was overseen by Mount Crestone (which Reggie had identified as the holy Mountain Protector, Ritrö Gonpo). I was walking and taking in the view and suddenly I noticed: it had stopped.

The endless, compulsive, furious voice of self-justification and defence had gone. How had I not noticed before? But here it was – a spacious, lovely, receptive Mind. A body moving through the snow, a few thoughts here and there – but that constant suffocating stream of thinking was gone. And, I’m glad to say, has still gone, back down the mountain, weeks later.

I don’t really know how it happened – perhaps as Krishnamurti says, “The seeing is the doing”. When I recognised that this childhood need to self-justify had been running in the background for so long, then it could be dismantled. It just needed to be seen. Perhaps it was the Lineage simply responding to my call for help. Or Ritrö Gonpo sweeping down the mountain with his sword, slicing through with pure awareness.

It definitely felt and feels like a relief. That mechanism of terrified defence that had run so long in the background ate up so much vital energy and got in the way of so many healthy connections.

When we are little people we make so many decisions and cobble-together so many Heath-Robinson strategies to make sense of and survive childhood. The fear of drowning (as Ryan says) is overwhelming for a wee one. And once the raft is made it’s hard to make it elegant and watertight. No wonder so many of us just paddle on in the hope that there’ll be no more highwater. Building a ship as we go along is hard.

I think Reggie might say that the whole project of ship-building is an understandable but misguided thing. Rather than trying to sleeken the hull we should beach it or indeed breach it on the rocks of the World and step off, into the wide waters. But I’m meanwhile happy to have scraped off the mile-deep layer of barnacles that my defensive monologue had built up on the underside. Crestone may not have made me a deep-sea pearl fisher but it has definitely made me a lighter paddle-boarder.

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