69. Bhavana Society 2001 Retreat
Having set all that up, I now return to my practice narrative, picking up the story with a seventeen-day Bhavana Society retreat I went on during the winter of 2001. I will take some time here to really describe that retreat, as it was important for me. It was the middle of my second year of medical school, my first marriage had unraveled, but that misfortune, though difficult and heartbreaking, could not dislodge the urgency I was feeling to meditate, and gave me the whole winter break to dedicate myself to practice. There were all sorts of interesting things I wanted to explore at that time, particularly some of the more kasina-based concentration practices. Up until that point, I would typically take such things as the breadth of attention of the various jhanas or their more standard qualities (bliss, equanimity, spaciousness, etc.) as object, but I really wanted to see what would happen if I got good at visualization, something I hadn’t been great at, with hit-or-miss results most of the time.
I spent about the first week doing standard vipassana, which by that point meant shredding reality into little blips and fluxions while investigating the heck out of those, as I was in yet another of the many “small path cycles” that I was going through and needed to finish that one up. I then spent about a day or two after the Review phase playing with the various formless realms that I knew well by that point, got nirodha samapatti to prove to myself that I could, as it always seemed like such a surprise that it would actually happen. Mixed in with my vanity about practice was and is the predictable flip side of profound insecurity and, frankly, the astonishment that these experiences and attainments were real, happening, and available to an otherwise ordinary and flawed gringo such as myself.
As an aside, I frequently encountered that odd sort of disbelieving after becoming a doctor, and would find myself driving to work thinking, “Am I really going into a hospital to take care of patients? I don’t know anything about that,” and then I would arrive at the emergency department and somehow know what to do. It turns out this sort of thinking is common in many people, particularly professionals, so it is not surprising it should apply to meditators as well.