“How many lifetimes have you been practicing the dharma?” asks a wiry man from Maryland as I plop down in the seat next to him. It is day three of the Mahamudra intensive and we are formally done with functional silence (talking only when necessary) so this question catches me doubly off guard.

I smile and laugh a little to myself and Sandra introduces me to the man, William, who has traveled to meet the Khenpo that our sangha will be eating dinner with tonight. It has been three long days, four retreat nights, thirty-six hours of practice, ten hours of talks, countless mantras and chants, and finally, we enter “the real world” to indulge in feast and empowerment with this enlightened Tibetan lineage leader. Tomorrow morning I will drive home and start my day, my tasks, my writing, my reading – all of it – with a wider spiritual view.

William looks at me through his thick glasses, a long white ponytail of hair curves from the back of his neck spilling onto his shoulders. He is waiting for my reply.

“To be honest with you, I don’t know the answer to that question,” I say, surprised that he seemed so serious, “but I’ve been practicing at the meditation center for about two and a half years.”

“Not too bad…you’re on the quick path then, if you’re doing Mahamudra,” he says with a lightness only attributable to someone who has not been in functional silence for three days (as I said, he merely traveled down for the dinner, as a special guest – not for the whole retreat).

All of this, I suppose, is equivalent to Buddhist small talk. I play along and speak cordially, but really I am noticing how thick my awareness is in the moment. It is difficult to describe but it is a lot like being in a room full of people who are all talking at once and feeling like you can hear what all of them are saying, while at the same time, you can drop what they’re saying in an instant and rest in the silence of their speaking.

While William talks to me, three other people gab loudly in the car, and Buddhist pop music booms out of the stereo. These are all senior practitioners, people who have been studying and practicing for upwards of forty years. I am amazed at how the transition seems so quick for them, while I flounder around like a fish out of water (only in my own mind though), unable to connect with the hustle-bustle. But it occurs to me that there probably is no transition for them; they are able to hold this appearance-emptiness state of mind for long periods of time. I am still learning, what a fortunate circumstance.

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