What I Did During Her Three-Year Retreat
By Alan Gladstone
I was asked to share something of my experience while my wife, Susan (Loden), was on three-year retreat at SCOL from April 2015 until June 2018. Among the retreatants, she was the only one who had left a spouse outside the cloister gate. It had been my intention to also attend that retreat. I retired from my law career on 1/1/15, and on 1/3/15 we headed off to Bodhgaya, India, where we, among several other prospective retreatants, received from Gyaltsab Rinpoche, during five days of ceremonies, the Shangpa empowerments needed for the various retreat practices. Those empowerment ceremonies were translated into English by Lama Eric. While in Bodhgaya, we had group audiences with H.H. Karmapa, Gyaltsab Rinpoche, Jamgon Kongtrul, and Khenpo Rinpoche. Toward the end of the audience with Gyaltsab Rinpoche, he stated perhaps prophetically, “and if you are not able to go on retreat, practice as much as you can and be a good person.” We also took excursions, guided by Lama Eric, to a few nearby pilgrimage sites, including Mahakala Caves, Vulture Peak ,and the Nalanda University archeological site.
Shortly after returning to Portland, in the midst of making final arrangements for the retreat, it became clear that my mother, whom I had moved to Portland eight years earlier, was entering the final phase of her life. She was becoming quite frail and was dependent upon me for many things, especially emotional support. After discussions with my teachers, I made the decision not to attend the retreat, but offered my full support to Susan, blessing her decision to attend and rejoicing in her commitment. After several trips to SCOL to set up and prepare her retreat cabin, the day of the Sealing Ceremony arrived. Lama Tsang Tsing presided over the ceremony, and, despite the large crowd in attendance, my heart retreated into its own solitary cave as Susan walked through the gate in the South Cloister fence. Our only communication for the next three years would be via “snail mail,” with the unanticipated reward of reviving the romantic art of letter writing.
Despite my many worldly responsibilities, I resolved to maintain a robust practice, engaging to the best of my ability in what I came to call “semi-retreat.” Under the guidance of Lama Michael, I set up a daily practice schedule in my newly repurposed shrine room, my own cloistered space in what had been the basement guest room of our house. Jef Gunn had custom built a beautiful meditation box for me, where I sat for multiple hours each day amidst my altar, various thangkas, and my sadhanas and practice implements. The view from a large window took in the city below and distant mountains; it was the portal of my hermit’s cave.
I guarded my mornings carefully, preserving the time between rising early and noon for a series of practice sessions, which changed periodically over the years. After doing chores, getting some exercise, and attending to my mother’s needs, I would return to practice in the late afternoon and evening, including some dharma reading and study before bed. During the first year, I focussed on completing Ngondro, along with the various other practices included in Bokar Rinpoche’s Mahamudra Program, which I had learned and taken to heart over the eight Mahamudra seminars I had attended at SCOL and at Bokar Monastery in Mirik, India. While I jokingly referred to myself as The Hermit of Upper Hall Street, I maintained some level of involvement with the KCC sangha for the duration. I regularly attended Sunday pujas at KCC, first at the old house on Monroe Street and then at Skidmore, where I became a fixture, regularly seated in meditation a half-hour early at the left corner of the first row of cushions. I often also attended the Wednesday evening Chenrezi practice, and for about a year attended the semi-monthly Mind Training group.
Of course there were many ongoing sources of inspiration and guidance. To my great good fortune, Lama Michael had agreed to meet with me each month, often coming to my house. We discussed the dharma and the questions that emerged, as he skillfully pointed me deeper into the practices. Sometimes we shared a meal or discussed new practices that I might undertake. On occasion we even discussed KCC business, particularly in light of my ongoing efforts to satisfy the United States immigration authorities’ inquiries about Lama Tara’s activities and the legitimacy of her role as a retreat teacher and the multiple entries/exits of the border governed by her religious visa, which I had helped to procure in advance of the retreat and renewed during the third year.
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During the first year, my mother’s health deteriorated. There were multiple nighttime phone calls reporting her ambulance trips to the emergency room; also many doctor appointments and multiple hospital visits, interspersed with ever-longer stays in skilled nursing following hospital discharge. I was able to work daily visits into my schedule. Finally, in March 2016, she was discharged from the hospital to hospice care, where she died three days later. I spent many hours at her bedside, talking gently and calmly, assured by the hospice nurse that she could probably hear me. I had previously asked her if she minded if I recited Tibetan prayers, to which she responded with a smile, “Sure, whatever works.” A few days later, I accompanied her body to Florida, where she was buried next to my father after a brief graveside ceremony attended by me, my brother and his wife, two cousins who live in Florida, and a rabbi. My brother and his wife soon came to Portland, where we emptied our mother’s apartment and donated many of her possessions. With a sense of relief that marked the end of her many months of suffering, I was able to resume my regular practice schedule, but with some additional new opportunities.
In August 2016, I attended an eight day silent residential retreat guided by Lama Eric. That September, I traveled to Taiwan, where I attended the Yidam Seminar and retreat under the guidance of Khenpo Rinpoche. During that retreat, Rinpoche granted me an extended interview, during which he initiated me into a second Yidam practice. Lama Eric skillfully translated those interactions, and later provided personal instruction on the practice sadhana. Thereafter, I returned to my hillside urban cave with some new tools in my belt.
Inspiration and support came in many ways, not the least of which was my great new friend the mailman, who would even sometimes ring the doorbell to announce delivery of “another letter from your sweetie.” Those letters were a lifeline (heart line) between Susan and me, and ranged from descriptions of mundane occurrences to shared quotations of deep spiritual significance. Over the course of the retreat, we each filled a box with the other’s thoughts and feelings, made manifest by pencil and paper. And there were also the treasures she sent: fallen oak leaves, tiny dried flowers, small pieces of tattered prayer flags that had succumbed to the wind in fulfilling their purpose, and unique miniature art works sent on special occasions.
I was able to visit SCOL numerous times during the retreat, and was always welcomed by the dedicated and loving staff members. During one year, several KCC practitioners and I participated in a series of Milarepa Tsoks conducted in the staff quarters shrine room. I was also welcomed for a few personal practice visits, during which I spent mornings practicing in the staff shrine room and afternoons roaming the land and stopping at favorite spots for some extended sitting sessions. During those visits I was always careful to avoid locations where I might be seen by any of the retreatants, especially Susan. I had some routes around the back way that allowed me to sit only yards away from the cloister fence nearby to Susan’s cabin. During those arranged visits to SCOL, Susan always knew that I was there, sitting within sight of her cabin knowing that she knew I was there, and that she knew that I knew.
When Susan entered the retreat, our twin grandchildren were only one year old. I did my best to help maintain their connection with a grandma who lived in their imaginations, regularly visiting them and Susan’s son, his wife, and our older grandson, especially on holidays and birthdays. A couple of Susan’s siblings also checked in with me periodically. I was happy to have and to have grown those relationships. And I was also grateful for the ongoing connections with some of my KCC family, in particular those who would reach out to me with support, share an occasional meal or a walk, or a visit and dharma discussion: Lama Michael and Tara Sullivan, Lama Tara, Adele and Michael Hilsen, Jeff and Sally Alworth, Bill Spangle and Dora DeCoursey, Zopa Herron, Erik Fromme, Cathy Neumann, Bonnie McLean, Peter Wood, Julie Hurlocker, Sally Mead and Diane Lucas. And, I am thankful to SCOL staff who welcomed me, took care of Susan and the other retreatants, and put up with my many emails alerting them about the arrival of packages I sent to Susan: Peg Swift, Marie Maretska, Jake and Abby Cummings, and Anthony Kimple.
That I missed Susan deeply is the mundane view. The trust that our relationship would endure, even deepen, was the seed from which it grew and blossomed. We learned that we are connected in a way that is beyond physical separation, a glimpse of what will inevitably come to pass. I end here with a poem I wrote for Susan for the first Valentine’s Day of retreat. And yes, I also sent chocolate!
Courting in the Bardo
I’ll know you
even without a body or name
A string of impressions
not completely unlike now
Dreaming similar dreams
of imaginary selves
I’ll ask you
for a chance to do it again
—Alan Gladstone (on Valentine’s Day, 2016)