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A post about sickness as purification after potent Dharma teachings.
The answer to the above question is an emphatic: “No!” Or maybe it should be, not for the reasons you are suggesting.
So often I hear the sentiment that after a potent weekend or a week or more of Dharma teachings (or retreat), that coming home, settling down and getting sick is the norm. Often times one might hear someone talking about potent, purifying practices. Well, in case you have not noticed, I disagree. And in this post I discuss my opinions about this subject.
The idea for this post came to me when I came back from Winter Retreat a while ago, and five or six days later I was floored by a nasty sinus infection. When I told a Sangha member about my illness, she said, “yep, it means these were potent teachings.” Whoa!? That is quite the causal statement!! Suddenly my sickness was caused by the Dharma… I’m not sure about that logic. I would rather attribute my sickness to several “temporary compensatory behaviors” I engaged in upon returning – for instance, I ate junk food, and then started an old habit of playing computer games. Sometimes I stayed up late. With or without potent teachings, I was on the fast track toward sickness with those activities in the virile-germ filled winter (in Virgina, winter time temps range from 15 to 50 degree Fahrenheit so flu season can be a bear).
I was thinking of shelving this topic for good, but then, yesterday I got back from the Kalachakra teachings in Wash. D.C. with the Dalai Lama, and someone asked me if I had gotten sick. Uh oh, here we go again. I’m hoping this is not something personal and no one else notices it. Am I (Kirby Moore) often sick after teachings? Although, seeing so many people sick after such profound teachings has me wondering… It has me wondering if there might be a parsimonious conclusion.
[On a tangent, away from my primary line of reasoning. At a teaching where there are at least dozens and most likely, hundreds of living Buddhas walking around, it might actually be best to push ourselves past our limits. Below I mention the importance of practicing Self Care, but if we have the chance to meet the Karmapa but we are feeling stretched and overextended already – it is probably best to go meet him! However, under normal circumstances (not involving His or Her Holiness) it is good to notice our body’s limits. This can prevent colds or flu from taking hold.]
Yes, I have several problems with this theory – the title of the post. First of all, it makes getting sick seem normal and acceptable after teachings. Not that there is anything wrong with getting sick – but after every teaching? [Temporary tangent: Maybe getting sick can be equated with purification, but on a side note I have heard that getting sick at least once a year is good for the immune system, or it can be an indication that we are processing something on a deeper level and the sickness is the body’s way of saying, “time to slow down up there!”] But I don’t think it should occur after every retreat we engage in. What if I had come back from Winter Retreat and eaten well and rested down. I can assure you, that with a healthy regimen, I may not have come down with anything. But we make choices and live with the consequences.
And on a similar note, here in the West, we are not really prepared to do full weekend or week-long retreats / practice schedules – even attending a full day of teachings can be a vast difference from our normal hectic lifestyle. In order to do a retreat, we act like monastics for a week, diving in deep, raising our frequency in some regards, slowing down in other ways. Sure this manic behavior could lead to our getting sick when we come out of it, but there are other options available. Who wants to be sick that often anyway?
We need to find balance. If red flags are coming up – as our body tells us we are stretching ourselves too thin – then perhaps we need to back off. Find a way to be balanced as we dive in to a full weekend. If we need to nap some, or sleep in, or stay somewhere that we can have personal space, then do it! And please, while we are at it, let us stop propagating this strange adage that most people get sick after potent teachings or retreats. It is possible that we are practicing solid self care and getting sick nonetheless – but I have rarely seen this to be the case.
There is a theory that I appreciate for when we are doing a retreat: we should gradually ease into it, then it should be the most potent in the middle and then we gradually ease out of it. This allows for a gentler pace. Think about it – how can anyone go from say 1 hour of meditation a day to 8 hours, keep it up for a week, and then try to immediately back it down to 1 hour a day as they get on with their busy work-lifestyle? This sounds like a recipe for disaster. If I know I have a retreat coming up, and I have the leisure time to do it, I spend two or three days ahead of it resting down. I purposely lie down for an hour, whether I am tired or not. This slows me down.
And then more importantly, the time after a retreat is crucial. How do we integrate what we encountered? How can we ease back into life as we knew it? If we are used to a fast pace, when we return from retreat, we are often faced with empty time. How do we fill that empty space? We have the space (you could say mental capacity) but we no longer have the container (provided by the Lamas or the sacred retreat space a.k.a. mandala) to engage in the deep practice with ease. So do what you can and then rest down. Sometimes it is tempting to turn on the TV or watch a movie or mess around on facebook, or write in our blogs, etc. Practice some self care and then maybe you won’t get sick. And yes, as per some comments to this post – wash your hands, don’t eat / drink after others, and imagine there are new strains of viruses on these new people from out of town. Then we might shape up, eh?!
Yeah I know the sutras talk about the importance of waking up early and practicing. But they also talk about kindness – and kindness to self is the most important type! If we can’t be kind to ourselves, how can we expect to authentically practice it with others? So instead of diving from work to retreat back to work, how about leaving a couple days open for a break. Take a day off. Then maybe the teachings can sink in deeper and we can embody them more fully.
By the way, knocking on wood, I am not sick yet after attending all the teachings by the Dalai Lama. I am practicing self care, I plan to continue taking care of myself and I am happy to rest down a little extra to integrate. But I have had much practice on this path of kindness to self. Yay! I wish the same for all beings. Thanks for reading my rants. 🙂