Tuesday, January 01, 2008

My first Buddhist Retreat

A thought arises
Just a ripple in my mind.
Who dropped the pebble?

-A haiku that came to me during a sitting meditation at the retreat.

About a month ago, a regular member of my Sangha that meets on Sunday mornings announced that there was going to be a Vipassana retreat over New Year's weekend. It sounded interesting to me, so I took one of the registration forms he had, and looked up the website for the group that was sponsoring the retreat. So, after giving it a week's worth of thought and making sure I could get New Year's Eve off (New Year's Day is a paid holiday anyway) I filled out the registration form and sent in my payment.

The retreat lasted from Friday evening until Tuesday noon. I don't know what I expected, but I did not know what I was getting into. I had slight misgivings on the first day when I told someone it was my first retreat, and they said this one was a bit long for a first timer. For one thing, it was a silent retreat. I didn't mind the silence, but what made it really strange was the minimal contact we had with each other (There were about 20 participants.) The basic rules of etiquette were to be silent and stay out of each other's way--no eye contact either (not that this was enforced or anything, but everyone pretty much abided by it.) So pretty much we just stood back and gave each other lots of space.

From Saturday to Monday this was the schedule:
6:30 am: Wake Up
7:00 am: Sitting Meditation (We all meditated in one big room upstairs in the building I was sleeping in.)
8:00 am: Breakfast (The food was excellent.)
9:30 am: Teaching and Sitting Meditation
10:30 am: Walking Meditation
11:00 am: Sitting Meditation
12:00: Lunch
2:00 pm: Sitting Meditation
2:45: Walking Meditation
3:15: Sitting
4:00: Walking
4:30: Sitting
5:30: Supper
7:00: Sitting Meditation
7:45: Walking Meditation
8:15: Sitting Meditation
8:45: Dharma Talk
9:30: Sleep

Now, beings as I've never been in a sitting meditation longer than about 30 minutes, this schedule was quite a challenge for me. In fact, Saturday was absolutely miserable! I could never sit still for 45 minutes at a time and really got a lot of experimenting done with meditation postures. I'm quite certain I made a lot of noise. And on top of that, I had a cold with a runny nose, so I was needing to blow my nose about every 10 minutes at least. I think in every single sit I spent probably the last 10 minutes just wondering when she was finally going to ring that bell. By the end of the day I would be totally spend and irritated, but then there would finally be the Dharma talk at the end, and that would inspire me with enough courage to face the next 7:00 am sit.

Fortunately things improved a bit after the first full day. To the very end of the retreat I still could not sit still a whole 45 minutes, but I did start sitting still for longer periods of time, learned a few sitting postures that were tolerable to me for long periods and learned how to meditate in a chair from time to time. On Monday I was able to maintain a meditative frame of mind though the first two sets of sitting and walking sessions before dinner, though my concentration was pretty always well spent by the third sit in a row. I learned a lot of resisting the craving to move or just give up and go back to my room, and I learned a bit about where my mind goes when it does start to wander. Not bad for a fledgling meditator.

I also learned a lot about perception. There was a woman in the meditation room that I'd imagined looked at me crossly because I was making too much noise. Because I did tend to shuffle around quite a bit--especially on Saturday. But this morning after the closing when everyone started talking again she was just as talkative and friendly towards me as anyone else. It's amazing how your mind can convince you that you know what is going on inside someone else's mind. Actually I realised quite clearly that I did NOT know what she was thinking, but that did not stop that idea from popping up in my mind repeatedly. I told this to the teacher at the retreat when I had an interview with her, and she told me that there are several instances where people get odd ideas about other people at a retreat such as this. In fact, she knew someone at a different who had become convinced that one of the other meditators had fallen in love with her. Erroneously, I presume. :p

The friend that I rode to the retreat with has a way with words about these things . . . : "The difference between the summer and the winter retreats is that the summer retreats are hot, painful, and boring but the winter retreats are cold, painful, and boring." Bit of a wry sense of humor there. But he goes every New Year's and at other times as well. So he can't think it's all that bad. :)

It was quite the experience. Maybe next year I'll try it again.

1 comment:

Terri said...

It sounds like you had a very good experience overall. I've meditated for a number of years but never done a silent retreat so I tip my hat to you on that.

Getting over body mechanics is always a first hurdle - to find a position that can be held for an hour is not easy. Then there are the external distractions. You shouldn't feel bad for the sniffing, in fact you provided an opportunity to your fellow meditators, I'm sure they have all been in your shoes before if they've mediated for anytime. Sometimes I find that having more external noise can be helpful - allowing it to become white noise. Whereas the silence can easily boken by sirens, a bird chirping, someone snoring (yes, it happens), or coughing. Some suggest ignoring the noises, but I disagree, I like to acknowledge the sound and then move on. Trying to ignore takes effort.

These are all external distractions and with practice have less impact on moving your attention from its center. It's the internal distractions of the mind that are tricky. They're the ones that still catch me off guard.

Thanks for sharing your experience.