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A Year In A Cave

When my husband and I first got married, we met a Tibetan Buddhist monk, Khenchen Konchog Gyaltschen Rinpoche, in Washington DC. Not just any monk, now an exalted master who is now back in India, an Abbot leading the Drikung Lineage of Buddhism. But when we met him, he was just starting out like us, finding his way.

One of the stories he told us was that, before he was fully initiated as a monk, he spent three years, three months, and three days on a spiritual retreat in a cave in the mountains of India, where his order was based. He could not leave the cave; monks left food for him every day. This was a tradition for all the monks in his lineage. He claimed that he had been weak and sickly before he went on that retreat, not in good health. His meditation practice developed substantially because of his time in that cave. When he emerged, he no longer had any medical or health issues. That was when his order knew he was ready. They sent him to America to learn English and spread his great wisdom. When we met him, he was a paragon of happiness and humility, yet possessed great insights about Buddhist philosophy, human consciousness, and spiritual development.

Driving home to Baltimore after visits with him, my husband and I would joke to ourselves that when we were older, we would go on a cave retreat of our own to seek enlightenment, maybe in Tibet. Well, guess what? Like billions of other people all over the planet, the past year of social distancing let us go on a retreat in our own residential cave. Our intention fulfilled; Door Dash to the rescue.

So what did a year in a cave teach me? Well, as a confirmed member of Workaholics Anonymous, I forgot how to commute to work every day, and then I remembered how to cook, garden, write, and watch action movies and funny TV. As I spent more time in the garden meditating about what it all meant, deeper insights into my own persona and history started to surface.

I realized I had never dealt with some inherited mundane tendencies. I had always joked to others at work that being an academic was a risk factor for becoming obsessive compulsive since it is inherently a quest for perfection, sort of an illusory goal. Now here I was at home, unable to do any serious work until the patio was swept off, the dishes were done, the plants watered. Was I actually OCD or just a procrastinator. Or both. Is ritualistic behavior a stress response? Or is it a personality disorder? And here I always thought I was a free spirit like my mother, not a control freak like my dad.

My family history held the clues. The realization that I came from a family with various disorders took root in my consciousness. Was I becoming like them? A neatnik, as my mother said, disparagingly. We also had slobs, hoarders, oppositional characters, and a whole bunch of drug addicts. In our collective maladjustment to the physical world, were we all just balancing each other out?

As a young girl, I remember cleaning up a lot after people, throwing out many things, and complaining about other people’s messes, both physical and social, and getting yelled at for doing so. The OCD me. This pattern repeated itself often throughout my life. Is this what Khenchen meant? Taking stock of what made me ill at ease in the larger world that I found myself in? That I chose?

Let the healing begin. All those unconscious propensities we manifest when we are unconscious of ourselves and others. I remembered a core teaching of Kenchen. It’s not only about who we are, who we are with, or what they might provoke. It’s about how we respond to each person or situation, accepting and knowing ourselves, learning to recognize the triggers in other’s behaviors, accepting others as they show up, not as we want them to be.

But then there is that little annoying aspect of myself that just made my re-acquaintance, that shadow self-hiding out all those years, now paying me a visit in my cave. My OCD heritage wants to be let back in. Easy enough to love those who are not us, but what about aspects of us that we do not love? Maybe it’s the same strategy after all. Loving those aspects of oneself that are less than perfect, accepting them all the same, and maybe that is the transformation from within that leads one to wholeness, to healing.

So my year in a cave is ending. Never easy, but on the whole, good. It made me more conscious. The world is now shifting on its axis; the stars are realigning. We are evolving into a more just, equitable, kind, and generous world. Conscious change is good and starts and ends from within.

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