Introductory conversations tend to follow a pattern at retreat centers. These are places where people have gathered from all over in order to practice together. Everyone is very different and yet all fundamentally the same. We all sit and eat and sleep and suffer and chase our thoughts. Because we have spent a while studying the dharma, we know this, so when we introduce ourselves, we focus on the differences rather than the similarities.
“Hi, I’m Joe/Jane.”
“Hello, Joe/Jane, I’m Monica.”
“So where are you from?”
“Really!” It’s not actually a question, just a statement of surprise followed by, “Wow, I didn’t know we had any Shambhala centers in Nebraska.”
“We don’t. Nor in the Dakotas, or Iowa, or Kansas.”
“So where’s your closest center?”
“How far is that?”
“From where I live in Nebraska, it’s 550 miles.”
They look at me with faint amazement. I begin to feel a little squirmy and a little uncomfortable, like I’m dominating the conversation. After all, I don’t even know where they’re from yet.
Their good opinion of me increases aswe move into the next phases of conversation, "How did you get involved in Buddhism?" and "What do you do?"
“That takes some dedication. To do it all on your own, especially when you're so busy. To travel that far and to practice without a sangha, and then to come all the way here to Vermont for this program. Wow!”
I never really thought about it that way. After all, one of the other participants was from San Francisco. At least they have centers in San Francisco. I have been conscious of being somewhat isolated here, separated, but it never occurred to me to think of myself as dedicated. After all, I am Buddhist. It doesn’t take much dedication to be who I am (or am not, such as it were). I was Buddhist before I knew what Buddhist was. I never really became Buddhist, I just discovered a whole bunch of people already like me, which was great. They happened to call themselves Buddhists and that was fine by me. Sometimes I feel like the cuckoo in the robin’s nest who finally migrated and found all the thousands of other cuckoos already headed in the same direction.
It makes me think though, and worry a little, that my practice is influenced by being the only black goat in the herd. I keep seeking out the other black goats, and we hang out for a while, and I feel safe because I don’t stand out quite so much anymore. Then, at the end of the visit, be it hours or days or months, I go back to my original herd, which isn’t so bad, because goats are goats wherever you go, but I’m once again the only black one. I’m one of a kind, or nearly so, here in Nebraska and I’m one of a kind when I leave because wherever I go, I’m the only one from Nebraska. And I gotta admit, sometimes it’s sorta cool to be one of a kind.
That’s why I started this blog after all. I was feeling isolated, separated. It is now one of the few steady things in my life. I’ve been able to maintain it and to grow through it, to mature into a better writer (I hope) with a stronger love for writing than ever before, and to expand my knowledge of the dharma and meet wonderful new people. It seems that I have flourished in isolation. Yet, is that really the best thing for an introvert? It is the comfortable thing, to be sure, but that can be dangerous. Comfort goes a long way to enhancing our habitual patterns.
So I leave. I seek out other cuckoos, or other black goats, other Buddhists. I go from one extreme to the other, from being ignored to being interesting. No wonder I love spending time with the sangha. Being the center of attention, if ever so minor or fleeting, is a great high. No one would ever think Nebraska could sound exotic, but to people on the coasts, it seems to be. They know the middle of the country only from the writings of Willa Cather and Laura Ingles Wilder.
“Isn’t Nebraska flat?” they ask and I always laugh.
“No, Nebraska isn’t flat. It just looks that way from the Interstate.”
Does being alone affect my practice? Certainly. In an odd sort of way, I live in solitary retreat. Yet, I can also get lost in the whirlwind of mainstream American culture, absent of all those supports or reminders, except those that I construct for myself. I had better be good at constructing those supports. I had better remember to prioritize my practice. I suppose maybe I am dedicated.
Acharya John Rockwell taught the program I recently attended at Karme Choling in Vermont. He spoke a bit about exertion and how it is akin to joy, how Trungpa redefined the word exertion to encompass joy. I guess that’s a complicated way of saying it’s easy to do what we love, so we should cultivate our ability to love what we do.
Dedication is easy when you love.