Small Boat, Vast Ocean: My Years in Solitary Buddhist Retreat (Paperback)
In this time of serial distraction, an engaged-in-the-world American woman chose to jump feet first into solitary retreat in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition -- lasting three and a half years. Small Boat, Vast Ocean brings the reader intimately into her unfolding inner and outer adventure. It's the story of what this quest brought forth from the psyche, how healing was found, then giving way to a pure spiritual journey. Based on her writing from retreat, the memoir is a collage of expository writing, reflection, essays, poetry, and observations of the natural world, offered in chronology. An intimate relaying of experience, it includes meetings with bears, scorpions, one cougar, and other adventures while making this oceanic crossing, soul's journey.
The sacred container of three-year retreat exerts particular pressures on the retreatant, sometimes bringing up deep issues of one's psyche, while simultaneously offering its very antidote: the practices themselves, and the time and space to allow that "medicine" to do its work. As well as individual issues to be overcome, there are those shared through culture and humanity -- attachment, goal orientation, the addiction to distraction, and concepts of duality. Yet this was no methodical vanquishment, but a gradually unfolding story, Berger meeting head-on what naturally arose, finding her way to journey's end.
After decades of immersion in the world of Tibetan Buddhism, Berger is well-versed in issues of "Buddhism coming to the West," which emerge here not only as reflections that arose during the retreat, but also in the adaptations made to the traditional form of retreat, and, as she calls it, "making the retreat my own."
It's this message of learning to trust -- oneself and one's innate wisdom, along with one's chosen spiritual path and authentic teachers -- which may be one of the most important messages of her book. After many years working, studying, and checking in with her Tibetan teacher, Berger shares ways in which she has made astute adjustments in her practice in order to further her progress on the path. Readers might make extrapolations to their personal practice, by using their own "intuition to improvise where informed improvisation is really required," as one inspired reader wrote.
Berger shows how all of this inner work clears the space for the greater work of giving up the usual concepts, some very subtle -- and that what you see is "real" -- yielding to the realization that we are the masters of all our perceptions.
Finally, Berger's journey is filled with wonder at nature. Where meditation leads to observation of the innate inner self, and to an understanding of "no self," here in long retreat, developing an acute sensitivity and merging of self with "other," Berger writes of nature with transcendence, with the eyes of an artist or a naturalist, or a mystic.