Twice a year, I am one of thirty students who participate in a six-day spiritual retreat (or Intensive, as we call it) that involves almost continuous engagement and interaction, from early in the morning until late at night. For most of us, these Intensives are the high points of our lives. They are periods when we unhook from the rest of the world and dive deeply into a state of presence with one another.
We engage in meditation, inquiry, and exploration into each Intensive’s focus, as defined by our teacher, and the power and profundity of what comes into awareness over the six-day period is always awe-inspiring. We emerge with new understandings about ourselves and the world around us, as well as a kind of charge that shifts our state from ho-hum existence to the simple joy of being. The afterglow will often last for weeks or months, and for myself, I find that I do some of my best creative work in the days right after each one.
In the weeks prior to each of these events, you can feel the energy and excitement building. But this year, as we began preparing, the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, and it became increasingly clear that our late-April Intensive would have to be conducted virtually rather than in person.
At that point, we were only just learning about Zoom—a virtual meeting platform that has now become a ubiquitous and integral part of everyday life for many of us—so that we could hold our school’s weekly group meetings online. Once the realization set in that the Intensive would also need to be virtual, we immersed ourselves in tutorials, tests, and practice sessions in an effort to create an online experience as powerful as the in-person Intensives we were used to.
As soon as the Intensive began, any misgivings we might have had about the shortcomings of meeting online were replaced by sheer astonishment at the level of connectedness and intimacy possible when one is completely present in the interactions happening “on screen.” It was about as different from a typical Zoom business meeting as a spiritual retreat at a retreat center is from a corporate meeting in a boardroom. What was quickly learned is that it is not the place we meet that matters, but how we are with one another, no matter “where” we meet.
Certainly, there was the necessity of shifting how we do things in the virtual world, but we found that there were a remarkable number of available options that paralleled our in-person experience, and made the process equally fulfilling. Sharing music and video clips, for example, was easy to do with the built-in screen-sharing capacities, so we could listen and watch “together” from our separate screens.
And Zoom breakout rooms with pre-assigned participants substituted for physical breakout rooms in which to conduct smaller group activities, while Zoom breakout rooms with randomized participants substituted for dining tables, allowing us to sit (in front of our screens) with a different group of people for each meal. Where we would normally go for a walk with a friend after a meal, some of us arranged to call another student and talk while we walked, so that the general experience of walking together was similar—just on different roads.
But what was perhaps the most amazing aspect of all was what happened as we meditated together. We know from quantum mechanics that there really is no separation, and that time and space are in fact simply constructs. But the appearance of this thing we call physical existence seriously calls this into question. When we are in each other’s physical presence, it is quite obvious that you are there and I am here. We take these bodies to be who we are because it sure does look that way!
Yet when we meet on a virtual platform, it becomes clear that the bodies are not where the interacting is happening. There is something else—something beyond the actual forms—that meets the ‘others’ in attendance.
So much of the spiritual practice conducted around the globe down through the centuries has existed to help loosen this conviction that we are these bodies. It’s a challenging task because the evidence to the contrary given by our senses is so strong. Put everyone’s video up on a screen in front of you though—a screen made up only of pixels, and only microns thick—and it would certainly seem that once one closed one’s eyes, those ‘others’ would have no effect on one’s own meditational experience. However, that’s not what happened. If anything, we were more connected than we are when we are meditating in the same room together.
So, this was the real teaching of this recent Intensive. Many of us entered the process with a shade of dread at the idea of six days in front of a screen, on a platform where we normally conduct frequently boring business meetings. Yet all of us discovered that it is possible to use this medium for an entirely different kind of relating—one that transcends the notions of self that we’ve been working to see through for years, and in some cases, decades. The medium actually proved to be an asset rather than a detriment, and the whole experience, as well as the afterglow, was at least as profound as our in-person gatherings.
Rumi’s words come to mind to bring home the meaning of what we experienced together.
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’
doesn’t make any sense.
I think that’s where we were over those six days—in a field far beyond this physical existence that we take to be so real. That’s where the real Reality resides, and it has nothing to do with any ‘thing’ we might anticipate or look for. It’s right here, where we are, who we are, when we let go of everything we think we know—Beginner’s Zoom.
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