Following my Breath at Spirit Rock

I was happy to finally see and experience Spirit Rock Meditation Center, the West Coast home of Vippassana Meditation, with many well known teachers coming and going: folks like Jack Kornfield, well known teacher and author, and Joseph Goldstein and many others. Also wanted to attend this LGBT event to have that experience as well.

But. It was too much like a Bay Area rich people’s spa. My center in SE Washington is much more rustic- old creakier buildings, shared rooms, very simple meals, and quite affordable.

The meals at Spirit Rock were absolutely gourmet. I mean gourmet. Is that really necessary? And we each had a spotless quiet room in recently built buildings, showers and bathroms on every floor. The minimum of the sliding scale fee for accommodations is much higher than I was accustomed to. And the center is now expanding significantly with new construction to serve even larger groups, in the same beautiful and elegant style of architecture.

Interestingly, it was the younger folks who spoke up during daily discussion periods with the teachers. They felt very uncomfortable in these elegant conditions knowing that so many people don’t even have a roof over their heads. One of our teachers shared that another meditation center in Oakland, which is more embedded in the community and serves a lot of LGBT and folks of color, is struggling to survive. Why, we asked, do wealthy donors give money to Spirit Rock, located in one of the wealthiest counties in California, rather than to the small center that is dedicated to outreach to those who are less fortunate? Our teachers encouraged us to write to the Board of Directors and express our distress.

Did I follow my breath? Well, I didn’t talk for 5 days. I did go to MOST of the meditation sessions, although I stayed in bed for most of the 6:15 am and 8:30 pm sessions. And I really did try to follow my breath. The teachers’ talks weren’t entirely inspiring, although one was really good.

One touching moment- visiting the Gratitude Hut where teachers and students had hung pictures of their own dear teachers, both Thai and Burmese and Indian teachers, as well as the Western teachers. I was delighted and charmed to see a picture of a very young Rodney Smith, who became my teacher in his 60s and is now retiring, and a young Jack Kornfield, whose book A Path With Heart first introduced me and pulled me like a magnet into Buddhism.   It’s a terrifically well written, thoughtful, and engaging book that helps one truly understand Buddhism.

Rodney Smith (on the left) and Jack Kornfield (towards the right), young Americans in Asia on a quest for enlightenment

One young yogi at the retreat also expressed distress that we had “culturally appropriated” this Asian religion and perhaps this was an example of terrible colonialism. But our teachers told us, to my surprise, that their Asian teachers had begged them to bring Buddhism to the West. They said the dharma was dying in Asia and needed new energy. Teaching the dharma in Asia, one said, was like watering a dying tree. Teaching in the West, he said, was like watering a young sprout.

I’m glad I went but I was distracted by my own thinking, thinking, thinking! Should I move to Santa Fe? Should I move to Oakland? Should I stay in Portland and be happy with the beauty there? I checked out all the lesbians, of course, and had the usual fantasies. I did take away a deeper understanding of the importance of compassion and patience and acceptance. I don’t plan to return to Spirit Rock- it was too fancy for me. But I’m glad I went! And yes, Marin County is beautiful and wealthy and very very white and privileged. Won’t be moving there either.

I need poor people. Brown people. People who challenge me to think more broadly and generously and act with kindness and compassion. People who experience life through different glasses. People who bring discomfort, raise questions, challenge complacency. People who spur me to action. This travel life will not satisfy me forever! Within a few years I’ll be resettled (wherever that may be) volunteering and getting involved in community and some kind of social justice work.


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