On the Razor’s Edge: First Time at MPE
Last summer, I went to Magyal Pomra Encampment (MPE). If there were any program where the Buddha’s teaching that the dharma is based upon experience rings true, this is one of those. Self-secret. Yet somehow, I feel compelled to share some of my experience.
I was scared to go and didn’t know why. No one would tell me why I should be scared. Fellow Dorje Kasung would say, “Oh, don’t worry. You’re going to have a blast,” and non-kasung would say, “Why would you want to go to encampment?” I couldn’t really answer that question. All I could say was that I wanted to be closer to the Sakyong. I wanted to dive deeper into a practice that I knew was so close to his heart. But truthfully, I had always felt a certain amount of resistance to Dorje Kasung practice, yet also felt extremely uplifted by it. I decided to take the leap and see for myself.
I arrived at Shambhala Mountain Center full of open heart. I had just completed a week long solitary retreat (mandala practice) and felt ready to give. I was all smiles. I expected an orderly registration line at the front office, complete with a binder. But when I pulled up, there was no one in sight. I knocked on the office door, which was closed. The young staff inside had no idea what I was supposed to do, “Encampment? That’s not one of our programs; that’s Shambhala International.” So feeling unsure, I headed up to the encampment grounds. I already felt that even though I was open, I wanted things to be predictable, and to go a certain way. My fear started to creep back in.
I arrived at the encampment grounds where people were still setting up. No one could tell me what to do or where to go. More space. “Should I put my bags down there?” I asked a woman relaxing on a chair with her legs stretched out in front of her. “You could if you wanted, but it’s not really necessary right now,” she replied. A while later I asked a passing person who seemed to be important, “Should I drive my car back down?” “It’s okay for now. Just relax,” he assured me. Relax? I know how to sit on the cushion for a week doing ngondro – but relax in the midst of activity?, especially when you don’t quite know what to do with yourself? Not so easy.
The uncertainties and experiences which put me on the razor’s edge had just begun. By the razor’s edge, I mean a place where I could either tense up and get cut, or relax and be totally awake. After I got into uniform, I was constantly being put on the razor’s edge of my ego. Officers and NCOs were constantly on me. “Your pins aren’t straight.” “Tuck your laces in.” “Wrong shirt.” “Where is your cover?” My ego wanted desperately to rebel. I was so used to having my own style, my own choices, and I definitely didn’t like to be told what to do. My knee-jerk reaction was to respond by saying, “Screw you if my pins aren’t straight. Who cares?” But the atmosphere of kindness stopped me and my ego was left to feel insulted and exposed.
As soon as the program moved into full swing there was nowhere to hide. No little comfort zone. No “me time”. In fact, I was constantly uncomfortable. My tent was lopsided. My boots hurt my feet. I didn’t really want to be wearing wool socks in 90 degree (F) heat. I didn’t want to show up. I wanted to write in my journal, put on my flip-flops and go for a walk. But I was not really my own person anymore. It was as if I was slowly surrendering my mind, giving up my need to have my own little personal space. And the more I surrendered the easier it became.
In civilian society, we are constantly given our own choices. We are always made to feel like individuals; in fact individuality is extremely important. We pride ourselves on being our own person with our own choices, our own likes and dislikes. We are true capitalists at heart. So once we are put in an environment where that is no longer relevant, it becomes very uncomfortable. I knew what it must feel like to be a communist or a soldier (minus the gun).
The days rolled on and I became more naked. Khaki. My ego’s need to look good was having a hard time surrendering. Now that all the clutter of my personal trick box was gone, I was left feeling exposed. No lipstick, no night cream, no sexy pants or push-up bra, just khaki. I felt so unattractive. I felt myself needing people’s approval. I needed affirmation that I was who I thought I was. And yet my sense of “who I was” seemed to become more and more transparent. I was left to be myself, the person I was when I was seven years old on the beach playing in the sand. Raw. Me.
MPE veterans were telling me that the more I surrendered the easier it would be and they were right. But surrendering is not easy. We think we’ve surrendered, but when we’re put in an environment like encampment, many old habitual patterns of holding on come to the surface. The ego is exposed completely, put under the blazing heat of the microscope. And it’s okay. But it hurts. It’s a ripening process. And the need to be gentle and loving in that environment becomes extremely apparent. If you were not gentle and you tensed up, you were stung by the aggression which was constantly manifesting in various forms, both in myself and others. The energy of aggression was exposed though, so it couldn’t really play itself out. After two weeks I was the color of dirt. Dirt and freckles. Me: exhausted and free.
On one of the last days, we sat with the Makkyi Rabjam (Sakyong) high on a hill above the practice center, on a rock overlooking the vast expanse of the valley. “Here I am,” I thought, “close to the guru. Rooted.” “Be yourself,” he said, “and then we can help the world.” At least that’s what I heard. And now I am back into the swing of my life with all my comfort zones at my disposal. The energy of attachment, aggression and all of the setting-sun’s tendencies are right there. I’m still on the razor’s edge. And yet I am still wearing khaki. I am learning to BE ME, fully and completely. Through Dorje Kasung practice, I am learning how to truly give and be of service in this world. KI KI SO SO!