“The best advice I can give you is to not resist the schedule” my mom said when I talked to her on the phone while driving up to IMS in Massachusetts for a 4-day silent meditation retreat. And she could know, as she has attended a 10-day Vipassana retreat in Thailand with an – if possible – even more rigorous schedule. I had seen my schedule online the day before, which had induced an opportunity to practice with all the five hindrances (for those, see one of my previous blogs). I noticed aversion (“Why do the retreat days have to be this long? I’d like to deepen my meditation practice but not necessarily sit for more than 5 hours a day!”), clinging (“Maybe I should just stay home.”), restlessness (I figured I should at least make a head start with the amount of time I was meditating, but I couldn’t get myself to sit and do it. I kept walking around the house, tidying up, packing and doing useless things instead.), sloth and torpor (I suddenly felt so sleepy the whole day, which was also a good reason to not sit and meditate) and doubt (“I don’t think I can sit for that many hours a day. What if I’m in pain all the time?). Needless to say, I had actually been feeling a lot of resistance.
I had come up with a “survival strategy” though: every time the sitting would get really challenging, either physically or mentally, I would think of my husband who has gone through SERE school (a military training, which is also known as torture school…) or of women giving birth. Not that I have personally gone through either of these experiences, but they seem pretty horrible to me. If they could survive I certainly should be able to deal with some mere hours of sitting and doing nothing, I reasoned. Already during the arrival registration process I was put to the test. One of the friendly ladies who assigned the “yogi jobs” (the work as practice period that was on the daily schedule) asked “How about washing pots?” “It sounds awful” I heard myself say. So far for my strategy.
The first day started manageable, as there was no 6:00 a.m. sit. Breakfast was served at 6:30 and I didn’t have to show up till 8:15. But that was it for easy. First of all, resistance kicked in as soon as the first “sitting with instructions” session; we were asked to hand in our cell phones. Don’t get me wrong, the thing I had been looking forward to most was to turn off my phone for 4 days. However, I like to use my customized-with-a-soft-tone phone alarm to wake up to, and my meditation timer when I practice on my own. So even though I’d like to think the resistance was directed at the teachers’ assumption we wouldn’t stay off our phones if we didn’t hand them in (and of course, that was all in my mind too), it was actually about me having to let go of my habits. Once I realized this, I decided I’d try to wake up with the bell that would ring at 5:30 a.m. and use my watch to keep track of time while in my room. After all, wasn’t I attending this retreat to become a more un-attached and living-in-the-moment person?
The second challenge presented itself during the lunch break (which was advertised as “eating and walking meditation”). The retreat center is located in a rural area and has a fine and well-mapped trail system. I chose to walk the 3 miles “Loop” that seemed pretty straight forward: right out of the driveway and then three times left. Since the walk was meant to be a meditation, I paused at a little frozen pond and mindfully looked at the pretty pattern in the ice. A lady passed me. Assuming she was another retreat participant I gave her some space and waited a little longer before continuing my walk. I reckoned I could do the walk in less than an hour. When I had 20 minutes left before the next sitting meditation session my calm mind started to worry if I would be back in time. I had no idea how much further I had to go. I sped up my pace, which got me closer to the lady who was still walking ahead of me. Then my competitive mind-set kicked in: “I bet I can pass her if I walk even faster”. As we were going up hill by then, and she was slowing down, I passed her right before the road started going down again. Fifteen minutes left. I picked up my speed. “Ah, a left turn”. I walked even faster. At the next left turn I felt unsure. This should have been the main road, but it didn’t look like it. “This must be a road they didn’t put on the map I saw earlier” and I continued walking. Ten minutes left. Nothing looked familiar. The lady had disappeared. Maybe she wasn’t a fellow retreater after all. Then I saw the sign: Forrest Refuge. I panicked. Suddenly I realized where I was and it wasn’t right. I practically ran back in the opposite direction, to the turn I had missed. One minute late I plopped on my meditation cushion, sweating and still breathing hard. I had to sit still for another 29 minutes and tried not to judge myself.
I hadn’t calculated that my survival strategy would only work if I were present enough to remember it. During that first afternoon I was faced with how physically tired I actually was. I kept falling asleep, only to be woken up by the whiplash movement my head was making. I didn’t even get a chance to think of what it would be like to be tortured or deliver a baby any time I noticed discomfort in my seated posture. This was way more challenging than my lunch break walk and the pot washing (which, by the way, turned out to be not so bad after all. I actually enjoyed it. It felt good to contribute to the temporary community I was part of.) This required a better strategy; I just needed to go to bed early.
Despite my mom’s advice I started to question the schedule. “Why do they have us meditate till 9:30 p.m. if we have to get up at 5:30 a.m. (or, in my case, even earlier)? This is ridiculous. I am going to skip the last 2 sessions, meditate in my room instead, and go to bed at 9.” It sounded like a good plan but it didn’t feel right. Resistance had won. The wise part of my mind offered an alternative: “You are always ‘the good student’. You always comply with the ‘rules’. But you will feel much better tomorrow, and will get more out of your meditation sessions, if you get some extra sleep tonight. Just go to bed early because it will serve you well.” Instead of rebellious I felt smart and responsible. As if one of the teachers had read my mind, his Dharma talk that night was about judgment and discernment. Judgment is the voice in your head that says you are a bad person if you eat dessert after dinner. Discernment on the other hand is the wise one who reminds you of the fact you’ll feel much better if you eat dessert later, after your dinner has settled. He also suggested the day had already been long and we go to bed a little earlier that night. Knowing the last meditation session was only 20 minutes, and I would still be in bed on time, suddenly made me feel a lot less tired.
During the remaining days I flowed with the schedule as I did with my thoughts and feelings. There were moments of complete calm and clarity in my mind, and others with intense physical sensations. I watched my thoughts with amusement while random images were presented in my mind’s eye. I didn’t need my strategy anymore. Instead of thinking of something worse than what I was experiencing I was simply present. I was aware how instantly my heartbeat and body temperature went up when suddenly one of my fellow meditators fainted and fell out of her chair. While she was being attended to, I sat in silence (as instructed by the teacher) and witnessed the “fight or flight” response in my body come and go. During the evening sessions my legs hurt so much that I wanted to scream out loud. I wanted to stand up and run. But I didn’t. I noticed how the pain shifted, how it changed shape and intensity, and how it ebbed away after some time. “Nothing ever stays the same, and this too will pass” was the only helpful thinking.
On the last morning of the retreat, after we broke the silence, one of the teachers asked us what was the most surprising thing we learned during the retreat. I raised my hand and shared: “When it was suggested we try walking meditation with metta [i.e. loving kindness] I went outside and walked on the grass. I noticed how my foot soles softened. Instead of just walking on the ground, I felt a connection with the Earth like I had never felt before. I felt connected instead of separate. I then noticed how the softness of my feet transferred to my belly, and my whole body relaxed. I suddenly realized that if I could walk with metta I could also look with metta. I can see the world through eyes of loving kindness. What if everyone did that? Wouldn’t this planet be a better place?”
On my drive home my newfound insights were instantly challenged; a trip that should have taken 4 ½ hours took more than 6, because of traffic. Whereas I normally would have gotten frustrated and annoyed while resisting the situation, I now focused on my breath and looked at the other cars – and homeless people begging – with loving kindness. “May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you be free of suffering.”
Hugging my husband when I got home, I realized it felt like I had been away for a year. I felt different. Calmer. More present. I’m sure resistance – in the form of aversion or clinging -, restlessness, sloth and torpor, and doubt will present themselves again at some point. I hope I’ll look at myself with loving kindness and recall: “This too will pass”. Besides, I can always go back on retreat. Maybe I’ll go for a little longer next time…
The facade of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA
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