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Jul 15
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Running with the Mind of Meditation on Solitary Retreat

miksang photo by Charles Blackhall

by Fay Octavia Elliott

All joy in this world comes from wanting
others to be happy, and all suffering in
this world comes from wanting only
oneself to be happy.
~ Shantideva

The companion book I brought along on my first ever solitary retreat was Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche’s new book Running with the Mind of Meditation (RMM). I realize as I read it that the week-long vajrayana intensives that I attend seem to me the equivalent of his 26-mile marathons. This solitary retreat: none-the-less so. I can only imagine that the 10-day Scorpion Seal retreat I am preparing for will be my version of his 32-mile ultra-marathon. Throughout the book he describes how we can prepare for these events and how we can relax and enjoy the experience even though it may take all the endurance we can muster.

“Running and meditation are very personal activities. Therefore they are lonely. This loneliness is one of their best qualities because it strengthens our incentive to motivate ourselves.” (RMM 48) It all begins with our motivation. What is my motivation to practice and why am I all alone at this retreat? I ask myself this question the first day of the retreat knowing the answer will keep me going when it gets more difficult towards the end. The Sakyong tells how he remains enthusiastic through 10-day or month-long 18-hour sessions of liturgical chanting and meditating because he knows it will be of benefit to others. His enthusiasm becomes my inspiration too as I know these practices are a benefit not just to me but to all sentient beings, especially my family, friends and students.

Reading last night, the Sakyong described how we use the four dignities: tiger, lion, garuda and dragon to train as warriors on the Shambhala path. While the dignities may be practiced progressively when we begin our Shambhala training, they are also all-inclusive and overlapping all along the way. This retreat is a window into the dignities practices as they apply to my own vajrayana path. I hope you will enjoy sharing the experience with me.

“During the tiger phase, we work on developing the strength and focus of our mind. With mindfulness and gentleness, the mind develops the ability to know what it is doing.” (RMM67) The Sakyong explains how important it is to build a base level of fitness and capability for running. He was advised that it would take about two years. I can see how the practice of ngondro is a way of building our base as Vajrayana practitioners. Completing each set of practices over time strengthens our mindfulness, discipline, commitment, motivation and connection for the Shambhala lineage.

The Sakyong devotes a whole chapter to gentleness, “…it is gentleness that allows us to finish a marathon, not putting pressure on ourselves….Gentleness is ‘just doing it’ in such a way that we can do it again and again.” (RMM 86) As I grow weary on day 2, I am reminded to be gentle with myself. I still have a long way to go. He likens this capacity for gentleness to developing limitless love and compassion. When he mentions Nelson Mandela, I am reminded of something I recently read about Mandela in the book Buddha’s Brain. Mandela was so loving toward his prison guards that they could not continue to mistreat him. So the authorities kept changing the guards and Mandela kept treating the new ones with loving-kindness. Not surprisingly, one of his former guards sat in the front row at his inauguration as the the first black president of South Africa.

After I complete my chants and raise windhorse, I offer the energy, light and love to an ever widening circle beginning with my own lineage and extending out to all sentient being throughout the three times and the ten directions.


“Happiness is a direct result of not struggling with ourselves so much …when we are no longer struggling with ourselves, we are more content, more at peace and thus happy. We may not necessarily be more enlightened.” (RMM 103) The Sakyong describes how one day he put on his running shoes with the delight of the snow lion. It seems to me that happens somewhere along the way in ngondro, that we get a wind of delight or start to feel things are finally going well. For me this happened in each section as I built a base in that practice, but also that there was some moment in the overall practice — things started to ease and a rhythm developed in the practice with the daily commitment to “just doing it.”

Mark, by Fay Elliott

I am half-way through the personal days of werma practice and have finished two weeks of group practice. It seems like there is less struggle and more ease. I notice by day 3 of this retreat that my mind is settling down and not struggling so much. On this third morning, the call comes in that I have been waiting for. My dear friend Mark died in hospice last night. His bedside companion said there was a hint of a smile on his face as he died. Sitting here I smile whenever I think about it. I try to imagine what he was seeing as he left our world. Perhaps the dralas escorted him on his journey. Mark’s three-year journey with cancer has been an amazing opportunity for his family, friends, and Windhorse team to love and support him and one another. I feel so blessed to have been part of this experience.

As I sit here over two hundred miles from the Shambhala Mountain Center (SMC), it is uppermost on my mind. There is a raging wildfire threatening the center. The Sakyong asks us to practice for the beings affected by the fire. For me the fire is personal because in less than two weeks I am supposed to take residence at SMC as their first chaplain. I don’t even know if there will be an SMC for me to go to. I worry about my friends, the stupa and the center’s future. The fire keeps interrupting my visualization. So I send my practice and energy to the residents, retreatants, and all the sentient beings being affected by the fire. I visualize an ocean of dralas blanketing the fire and putting it out.

There is a chapter on pain in the book. The Sakyong advises that, “…in meditation we experience physical pain as well as pain from thoughts and emotions, but we cannot let this suffering completely rule our minds. If we do, the pain sabotages any benefit we might gain from our practice, and the whole session becomes a meditation on suffering.” (RMM 116) For me this is very relevant to my practice as I experience daily chronic pain even when I am not practicing. During meditation, I sit in a chair and use various props to accommodate my body. Today there is a new wrinkle, a painful muscle spasm over the right side of my rib cage. The spasm is the result of an old surgery and is usually dormant. It woke up this morning during yoga, and now the spasm keeps coming back during my sitting practice. I play with my posture and finally complete my visualizations pacing back and forth among the rooms. I have learned that by staying focused on the practice, my mind is less distracted by the mental suffering.

I heard Pema Chodron say once that the middle is always the hardest part of a retreat regardless of its length. I crossed the middle line this evening and feel very happy. My shamatha practice this morning seemed more stable and despite the new wrinkles, I maintained my stability and completed the day. I decide to fast from eating, reading and writing tomorrow to remove even more distractions from my practice sessions. Tonight I will read the chapters on garuda and look forward to an “outrageous” day 4.

Stay tuned for part 2 of this article, which will describe the rest of the journey through garuda and dragon…coming soon….

Having just completed her degree at Naropa University, Fay Elliott is now heading off to Shambhala Mountain Center to be the first chaplain in residence there.

For more information about Running with the Mind of Meditation, click here.

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1 response to “ Running with the Mind of Meditation on Solitary Retreat ”
  1. Fay,

    This is beautiful and will be of help to others on retreat or trying to get their practice started.

    As an aside, when I read the book, I decided to try to ride my bike faster instead of just coasting along. I like the challenge of going faster.


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