“Noble Silence starts now.”
Finally, 10 days of not needing to talk to anyone. 10 days of quietude. 10 days of pure peace. I’m always talking, talking, talking at work, at home, to my friends, to my clients, to acquaintances, to everyone. Now I have 10 days where I can just focus on me and my practice. I think I’m going to really enjoy these 10 days. I had better enjoy these 10 days. After all, I had taken precious annual leave to be here for these 10 days. Last year, my annual leave was spent in Thailand. This year the only show and tell I have for my annual leave is at a Vipassana Retreat, so I hope at least I can turn up to work on Monday morning radiating to justify these 10 days of sitting cross-legged on the bare floor.
Is that my friend sitting over there? No, just someone who looks like her. There are a lot of people here at this retreat, but none whom I know. That woman over there looks like she’s a serious meditator looking for Enlightenment. That girl over there looks like she’s on holidays. That one over there with the braided locks and long hippy dress looks interesting, I wonder what her story is. She looks like she’s from an exotic place, maybe an artist or a traveller. She has this faraway look in her eyes, maybe missing her home overseas.
Better refocus; they’re starting the orientation. Sounds like it’s going to be a gruelling 10 days, but I’m up for it. After all, I’ve done three-day retreats before. What’s ten days? Hang on, what’s this about meditating at 4am? That means I have to get up at 3.30am latest. Two meals a day only? Is this diet camp? The schedule’s starting to freak me out. I knew we will be doing a lot of meditation, but I didn’t realise that’s all we’re going to do. What about some bushwalking, or late night discussion? Did he just say we have to sit for an hour without moving?
Oh no, what have I gotten myself into? Maybe I’m not ready for this yet. Why am I doing this to myself? I could be spending these 10 days chilling on the beach reading a book, or hanging out with family during this Christmas time. I could be using these 10 days productively. I feel so selfishly indulgent to just sit here cross-legged for 10 days.
This place feels cold, even though it’s the middle of summer. The rain just keeps coming. The sky is so grey. The building is so sterile and unwelcoming. As for my bed, it’s right next to the door, so each time any of the twenty ladies in this dorm leaves the room I can hear them. The food served for ‘dinner’ tonight was like gruel. I nearly cried when I saw it. I want to go home and have a proper home cooked meal.
I didn’t expect my mind to be filled with so many thorns. I try to put my negativity aside, and hope tomorrow will be a good day.
3.30. I look at my clock again. The digits look unfamiliar. I have seen 15.30, but haven’t seen 3.30 in a long time. The last time I saw 3.30 on that clock was when I couldn’t sleep. I rolled over and my back ached on the lumpy mattress. People were already beginning to move in and out of that door right next to my bed. Time to get up.
The cold is waking me up. I sit on my designated cushion and watch my breath. My mind is peaceful. This is easy. I’ve done this before. I’ve been to numerous retreats. Ten days is just three days extended. What’s the big deal? I don’t know why people make such a big deal about this. When I finish my retreat, I will call up my friends to tell them that 10 days really is no big deal.
Isn’t my mind supposed to be calmer on the second day? I think my mediation yesterday was better than today. Today my mind keeps wandering, getting lost in the thicket of imagination and memory. Where did my breath go? Come on mind, we have meditated before. You can do it again. Sit with me, on this cushion. Stop running to the past, stop planning out the future. Sit. Stay. Behave.
My aim is to be able to focus on the breath for one minute before it goes away. It’s just one minute. Surely I can do it. Breath, breath, breath. Notice the sensation. I’m noticing it, note, note, note. Then what? No then what. The whole aim is just to be here with the breath, no need for anything more. Stop analysing. Stop discussing. Just be. Whatever that means.
My mind is tired. It’s tired of fighting with itself, trying to exert control over this monkey mind. Although I’m keeping Noble Silence, my mind is not silent at all. It is a chatterbox that will not stop its commentary on everything it sees and experiences. If I keep doing this for the next seven days, I won’t make it to the end. I’ll be so exhausted, and I’ll drive me up the wall.
Stuff it. I’m just going to enjoy the sits. I don’t care about trying to perfect every meditation session. I don’t care whether I come out of this retreat glowing with happiness and peace, looking like the Dalai Lama.
I can’t help that I’m thinking at a hundred miles an hour. I can’t control these river of thoughts. The more I try to calm the mind, the more agitated and elusive it becomes. So from now on, if the thoughts want to come, I’ll let them come. I won’t stop the thoughts, but I also won’t chase after them either. I’ll just sit back and watch what happens.
I remember the Buddha’s analogy of the stringed harp. Before the retreat, my mind was chaotic and my mindfulness was lax. During the first few days of the retreat, my mind was too tense and controlled.
Now as I sit in the middle of these two extremes, I smile as I sit watching my breath with ease. My mind has quietened down on its own. I did not need to do anything for that to happen; in fact, it is in my non-doing, that it has slowed itself down naturally. My mind is slowly returning to its original state of calmness.
I thought I knew peace, but now I realise that the peace I had experienced is not peace at all. Even in this moment of calmness, I know that the depth of this calmness still awaits me.
As much as I hate to admit it, I am a creature of habit. Unconsciously, I have created my comfort zone, claiming the cushion designated to me as ‘my’ space and adorning my toiletries over the shelf above my bed as if it is my new home. I have happily slipped into the predictable rhythm of the days: waking up at 3.30am to the awareness of the lying body, walking softly to the meditation hall for my first sit for the day, enjoying the warm toast served for breakfast, walking mindfully along the meditation path before another group sit, tasting every mouthful of my lunch with all the time in the world, settling down for the long stretch of the afternoon sit, finishing the night with a discourse by the teacher that miraculously describes my experience for the day so accurately it dispels any doubts lingering in my mind about the practice. I lay my body to rest, and fall asleep like the end of a whispered word.
Today we begin sitting for an hour straight without moving. My first sit began with an itchy prick on my face, and not long after that prick grew into an unbearable itch taunting me to reach out and give it a nice long scratch. I start imagining me scratching it in relief, but I refrain from giving in. I watch on intently. The itch grows, and my mind immediately conjures up a big, fat, insect sucking at my face. I breathe deeply, and refrain from moving my arm…for a couple of minutes. Then I try to shoo away an insect that never existed. I’m amazed at how the mind plays tricks on me.
I continue to sit uneventfully until the close of the sit. A pain grows heavily on my leg, which grows until it feels like my leg was going to fall off. I couldn’t help it. I move my leg, and I felt a sense of relief rush over me.
In my second sit, I investigate this further. The pain in my legs arose again. I watch aversion arising towards the pain, but also a subtle grasping for comfort in the form of thoughts enticing me to just move my leg to free myself from the pain. When aversion or grasping was present in the mind, the pain became unbearable.
I breathe deeply as I hold onto my resolve. I had endured far more pain than this when my body had fallen ill; endured the pain because I had no choice. Just watch the sensation, don’t even label it as ‘pain’, don’t get caught up in it. I find solace in the breath as I watch on with equanimity. Equanimity – not pushing away what I dislike, not holding on to what I like.
So, freeing myself from the grasps of craving and aversion, I sat on, still, through to the end of the one-hour.
The mind is becoming more refined. I notice different sensations on my body that I usually am oblivious to. It’s fascinating. I notice these sensations as they arise, as they linger for a while, and inevitably fade away. I notice the thoughts that visit me out of the blue – without me conjuring them up – and then disappear on their own accord. I watch these processes all day, seeing their impermanent nature, realising that truly they are not mine to control.
I use a detached observation of the body, thoughts and feelings as they unfold before me, without analysis or identification. I watch how the thoughts and feelings create subtle sensations in my body, and how the sensations in my body create mental reactions. I see how these reactions arise so quickly out of habit. I slow down the mental process and stop the automatic reactions with simple observation.
I also see the discomfort that arises in the body. It dawns on me that this body is filled with pain and unease all the time, but we do not notice it nor acknowledge the pain. The body ages every day, and is breaking down at every moment.
In that moment, I see before me, anicca, anatta and dukkha.
The mind is sharp and subtle. It watches the bodily sensations with ease, unperturbed by thoughts.
Then, I see a small girl, about two years old. A middle-aged man picks her up in his arms, and she laughs with glee as she throws her arms around his neck. He laughs with her, and holds her close. My heart bursts with a feeling of love. I try to just watch the feeling that is welling up within me, but it floors me. Tears roll down my cheek. I realise that even after twenty-five years, my father hasn’t stopped loving me. I let the love envelop me until it fills every pore in my body. With gratitude, I share the conditional love with my father, with my family, with every being who has ever come into my life, and every being I have yet to meet.
Today is my last full day for practice. I feel a sense of inspired urgency to make the most of the day. I feel an immense gratitude for the retreat organisers and volunteers who worked tirelessly and unconditionally to make this retreat possible for the benefit of so many.
I spend the day contented, enjoying each moment. The mind is radiating with calmness, joy and equanimity. I feel so at ease and free from worry. I feel brand new.
Today, we reach the end of the retreat. We pick up our cushions in the great meditation hall and stack them neatly against the wall. The designated spots we each held so possessively to during the retreat are now replaced by one open space. The meditation hall is now a blank canvas, and any demarcation would be absurd.
We break our Noble Silence. As I leave the meditation hall one final time, I hear a flutter of voices. I sense a slight aversion to the chatter within me, preferring to return to the calm quietude that enveloped me when I was on that cushion.
I return to the dorm and my eyes meet with the girl who has been sleeping in the bed next to me. For a moment, we just look at each other, before we burst out laughing together.
“I don’t know what to say after being silent for so long!” My voice is foreign to me.
“I know,” she replies, “I have forgotten what my voice sounds like!”
More girls join us, and before long we are sharing our experiences of the retreat and our backgrounds with one another like old friends. I feel as if I have gotten to know them through these ten days, even though we haven’t said a word to each other.
Some participants travelled great distances – all over Australia and some from overseas – for this retreat. Some are practising Buddhists, whilst some have never meditated before prior to the retreat.
I laugh to myself when I recall my earlier judgements of the participants: the serious meditator is a yoga teacher (hence the excellent posture), the girl on holidays is filled with Dhamma knowledge, and the braided hippy worked deals with complicated commercial matters all day.
Not surprisingly, each practitioner had their own unique experience of the retreat, their own blockages they had to work through, and their own Dhamma insights. Some found the loneliness and isolation difficult to bear, some disliked the lack of precise instructions, and some found the sitting posture the hardest to endure. Many (if not most) had to confront their own personal and emotional issues.
For me, I had to deal with my expectations of the retreat and myself, with doubt, with my hubris, with my judgmental (and talkative) mind. Truly, each practitioner, each retreat, each sit, and each moment, is unique. The above account is my Vipassana journey. What’s yours?
Published @ THE UNDER 35 PROJECT
Beautifully written! I sat the 10-day retreat from the end of 2007 to the beginning of 2008 – nearly 5 years ago, already. I must admit, I didn’t have any real problems with the content of my thinking, but with actually maintaining the meditation posture for that period of time. In fact, I think I only managed it once in the whole period. And I found the hunger pains hard to cope with – my (pampered, middle-class) body did not like the regimen one bit! But I got through it, in the end, although I must also own up that I have never managed to maintain their recommended schedule of ‘sitting one hour, morning and evening, every day’.