Monday, August 9, 2010

Longest. Post. Ever.
(In which I learn to mindfully meditate.)

Warning: This is going to be a loooong post! Feel free to skip to the summary at the end...

Since I actually kept a journal from the retreat and many of you seemed really interested, I figured I'd offer up some excerpts from my journal, in order, so you could feel like you were following along on my adventure in mindfulness. Enjoy!

Day 1 / 6:45 pm
It's really hot here, so I guess it's a good thing I didn't sneak in any chocolate. I'm thinking I might have to sneak out to my car just for a little quality time with some air conditioning.

So the first thing I did upon arrival was close the trunk door on my head after getting my suitcase out of the cargo area. Literally. Talk about needing to be more mindful: apparently I have no awareness of the physical space my body takes up. Ouch.

I was just in time for an orientation session, and the first thing the nun said was that "we've gathered here to just stop. To stop running." At which point, I got inexplicably choked up. (perhaps from relief?) Perhaps I should have packed tissues.

I also learned the following: Where the bathrooms were; that we were to be silent during all meals, and from 8 pm until 1 pm the next day; and that when we hear a bell, we're supposed to stop what we're doing and come back to our breath.

So dinner was next, and my first experience with "mindful meals" which is basically eating vegan food, after taking the time to think about all the hands and heart that went into producing the food, and really paying attention to it. There's complete silence, and you eat so slowly that you actually put the fork or spoon down in between bites and try to see if you can chew a good 30 times. Apparently, if you chew brown rice long enough, it gets sweet. You wouldn't know that if you shoveled it in though. The silence was tricky in some ways--harder to know exactly where to go and what to do--but it took away the pressure of making small talk with a lot of strangers. The food was surprisingly good, considering I'm a meat-eater and junk-food-eater. I even learned to eat tofu. I didn't like it, but I didn't hate it either. There was also soup at every meal, but who can eat soup when it's so hot out!?

I noticed the adults who brought kids got to sit at different tables and talk and it made me wish I had a kid to bring. In fact, there are a lot of kids here. They seem more comfortable and confident than I feel and I vow to raise kids like that. Mindful teens who would find themselves at home here...or anywhere.

I didn't know if we were supposed to leave when we were done eating, so I sort of just lingered until someone else left, with a bow to the table, and I followed them. I don't really know what to do until the talk in an hour, so I go back to my room and text Michael a little update to let him know I'm settled, and head to the volleyball court, where the monks are starting a game of volleyball. (Again, it's clearly too hot for that.)

I'm so glad I made that emergency stop at Wal-mart (shhhh) for a water bottle. I have several at home and forgot to bring them. But EVERYONE here has brought one, and there aren't cups at meals, so it's pretty crucial. I feel like I've done something right, at least.

9:20 pm
So far, I'm not really feeling any different...other than a bit uncomfortable. The orientation talk explained a little more about the practice and tomorrow the real fun 5:30 am. AGH. How can you be mindful at that time of day? And it's SO hot that I'm not sure I'll be able to sleep. And with 7 of us sharing this small room with bunk beds, I'm pretty sure I won't get a wake-up shower either. Especially since we can't talk, so we can't ask if it's okay if we tie up the bathroom for 20 minutes. I think I might have to skip an activity to shower at some point. I'm wishing I brought less modest PJ's because it's too hot to wear pants.

Or clothes.

So far, I haven't used my cell phone to get online. I tried once, but it was taking so long to load that I had time to think better of it and abort. That part might be hard for me.

I figure it's okay to text Michael though. I like knowing he's out there in the world.

In air conditioning.

Day 2 / 9:15 am
Waking up wasn't as hard as I expected, since I wasn't really sleeping. I slept fitfully--hot and constantly aware of the short hours left for sleeping. Walking mindfully to the meditation hall this morning, we all looked like very slow lemmings. Sort of creepy.

It was hard to get comfortable during the sitting meditation. Everything was suddenly itchy. I was able to achieve a pretty deep relaxation (for maybe 10 of the 30 minutes) but it made me crave sleep. Why can't we meditate laying down? It'd be much easier to get comfortable.

We had exercise after meditation, and I did yoga, of course--staying within the only comfort zone I see in the immediate future. I especially appreciated the shavasana at the end, laying in a spot of dappled sunlight near the orchids and the altar.

It was standing yoga, and in the middle of it, one of the men toppled over, having apparently passed out. He came to explaining, "I don't think I slept very well last night." He sat off to the side for the rest of the class. Who knew standing yoga could be so dangerous? After yoga, it was off to breakfast.

I piled my oatmeal high with cranberries and nuts and I was glad--it was the most bland, watery oatmeal ever. Nothing like my less-healthy apple cinnamon instant from my friends at Quaker. But I did okay with the bread and jam and some fruit slices.

I snuck in a super-quick shower before meeting my group for our "mindful working" meditation (which is code for chores without talking.) We got compost, trash, and recycling, which is gross but quick. We also help carry out the food for lunch and dinner, which is heavy. And dangerous, if you're a giant klutz like me.

We have 40 minutes until our Dharma presentation and the meditation hall is slowly filling. People seem to come early to practice on their own. I just came early to take pictures and get a nice mat by the open doors, so the breeze can come tickle my neck. I like that.

I have to say, I'm in love with the bells. I think they produce the deepest, most peaceful sound that just resonates, bouncing around all the free space I've opened up in my body and mind. I want my own bell.

When I meditate, sometimes I envision a meditation room in my mind. If I notice myself thinking of something, I gently sweep it away like a dust bunny I'm fond of and go back to appreciating my clean, empty room.

Is it weird that my happy, meditative place is a clean room?!

10:00 am
I have an urge to go sit in my car, just to be someplace comfortable and mine. Though I recognize that this practice should allow me to be at home, comfortable, anywhere. To make anyplace "mine."

There are people tucked in every corner, learning against every wall. Reading, writing, staring into space. Meditating. In some ways, I feel like these are my people.

And I LOVE LOVE LOVE the silence. Freaking LOVE it. It takes away all the pressure of small talk and creates so much space that it feels physical. When a little kid suddenly talks to his mother, I nearly jump out of my skin. I have to take a conscious moment to replace my irritation with compassion. It must be hard being a small child here. But I think about how neurotic I am about my space at home being clean, aesthetically pleasing, and organized. It makes me feel on top of the world, like I can handle anything. When it's not, I'm overwhelmed with life and can't handle ANYTHING. It never occurred to me that I could create that same sense of space WITHIN my mind. Holy shit. This is a BIG, powerful thought. I'll have to meditate on that.

6:45 pm
After lunch, there was some time for rest and deep relaxation on the schedule. I wasn't sure if it was meant to be guided or personal, but my body was begging for a nap so I took one and was glad for the rest.

Afterward, we had 1.5 hours in our "family" groups, discussing our "practice," struggles, reflections, etc. It was a good opportunity to practice compassion and patience. We are in the "young adult" group which seems to be 18-30 year olds, but there's only one other 30-year-old and I find myself feeling a bit old. I recognize myself judging the younger retreatants as idealistic so I tried instead to just appreciate where they were coming from. They're all really nice, at least.

One pixie-like woman (who reminded me of Winona Ryder for some reason) said that she thought it was wonderful, me doing this retreat for myself, and especially with being a dorm parent because all the girls in my dorm would be looking to me as a role model. And I felt like crying, just hearing a stranger acknowledge that.

I shared my love for noble silence, and also a few things I was struggling with...mostly how to bring any of this home. Mindfulness is a lovely, rewarding process but seems impractical. At work, for instance, I often find myself juggling several tasks and thoughts at once, and it seems unlikely that I could mindfully devote myself to one at a time and still do my job well.

There were suggestions of downloading a mindfulness bell application (which I now have, actually) or taking mindful meditation walks in the middle of my day, neither of which strike me as being so very helpful. But also there was this novel suggestion: sometimes you do need to do 3 things at once, but you can be mindful of that too. And also this: take your moments of mindfulness where you can--brushing your teeth, walking to your office, etc. breathe deeply. Notice everything. Recite a mindful mantra. Be in the present moment. Those moments can carry you through the more harried parts of your day. Just be mindful of the harriedness too.

The other thing i hear a lot of here is this: "It isn't good. It isn't bad. It just is." That's something I'll bring back with me and I think it will be one of my new personal mantras. There are sometimes I could use some practice accepting things as they are.

There's also been a lot of talk about how to know when to put in effort and when to let things be. Unfortunately, I'm not sure I found clarity in the answer, though I really wanted to. Something about meditating and noticing your stressed you are, or how loose. Maybe it doesn't make sense to me because I'm always stressed. One of the brothers noted that we don't always need to fix things. According to him, we can watch a big mess in the making and send compassionate, loving thoughts in that direction, and then let it go.

REALLY? That's possible?!

(note: my boss did not agree with this philosophy when I applied it to our current publication project.)

I find myself resisting a lot of these ideas. I like them and do WANT to believe, but it just doesn't seem realistic mostly.

Here's one difference I have noticed already though: this morning I woke with a bit of dread, thinking three more mornings to wake up here before I can go home. I want so badly to be out the other side of this experience, but I do not find myself so eager to be in the present moments of it. (This happens to me a lot, actually, so i'm not surprised. But I also know from experience, that this feeling often signifies a Significantly Rewarding Experience.)

But this afternoon, during walking meditation, I realized I wanted more time. More time for noble silence, for journaling, for walking by myself through the forest, stopping to rest and sit and be. My body and mind both crave the peace. Ironically there is always something next on the agenda, and I don't want to miss part of the experience either, so my mindful retreat is feeling a little rushed actually.

I heard the deep relaxation was amazing, so hopefully tomorrow I won't need the nap and can go to that. For now, I'm going to see if the bookstore is open--it almost never is--and then head to the meditation hall for "sitting meditation and touching the earth." Whatever that means.

9:30 pm
I made it through the 30-minute sitting meditation and only glanced at my watch at the very end! I feel very proud of myself. Now it's time to get ready for bed--in noble silence, of course. Today I learned how to use silence to create space, especially in discussions. Some people need time to gather their thoughts and courage (not me, obviously) and when we (by which I mean I) jump to fill the silence, I'm silencing those people. Not all are jumpers as I am. I need to learn to sit and wait, and wait some more. I think this will come in handy with the girls in the dorm and meetings at work. Sometimes I just get so impatient.

Coming back after evening meditation is a neat sight to behold. Many people carry flashlights to shine on the path in front of them, and they look like they are floating in a pool of light that carries them along. Glowing. Spiritual.

Day 3 / 9:40 am
There were too many people vying for the bathroom this morning and I wound up having to nearly run to the meditation hall. Felt a little sheepish, speedwalking to meditation. But I settled in and made it all the way through without looking at my watch at all. Real progress!

I challenged myself to try something new and traded yoga in for "stick exercise" which was kind of like Simon Says, since we're still being nobly silent and the sister leading us can't explain anything. it was beautiful to watch but didn't seem much like real exercise, so I ducked out a bit early and found a tree to sit and read by.

In some ways, being silent makes you have to pay attention to people more. You can't just ask "does anyone need to use the bathroom before I shower?" Instead, you have to watch people. Are they watching the bathroom door? Do they have towel in hand? It is the same everywhere...paying attention to people and trying to give them what they need. You'd think being able to talk would make it easier to do that, but it doesn't.

I'm really tired today, even though I slept a bit better last night. (It rained and the humidity broke, so it's not as stifling.) I'm thinking I might rest through mindful working period. I know that's not in the spirit of things, but we have a big group, and there is not much work. Also, I can still put the lunch food out and contribute that way.

10:15 am
Well, I slept well for about half an hour before being woken by a teen and her mom arguing outside. She claimed this place was not normal, she was suffering, and she wanted to go home. I got up and shut the window. Didn't they get the memo about noble silence??

Time for a presentation called "Beginning Anew" which does not sound promising. Then lunch...then deep relaxation, which is sure to be my new favorite part of the day.

I'm still feeling quite tired. Like my body will never get enough rest. One weekend I just want to sleep as much as possible and just see if I even have the capacity to feel well-rested.

[I'll spare you the details of the presentation, because it was a bit cheesy for me. Very chicken soup for the soul-ish, though there were some useful thoughts.]

1:00 pm
You're going to think I'm crazy, but I wish there was LESS talking. 16 hours a day of silence proves to be not enough.

5:55 pm
I skipped the mindful walking to go on my own walk in the woods. I had noticed benches scattered throughout the forest and thought it was a shame I hadn't had time to sit. Of course, once I found one I liked, I started taking pictures. Because, you know--I'm really good at just staying in the present moment and not clinging to it like I suffer from severe memory lost and need to freeze every memory on film.

The group Dharma discussion felt a little like group therapy today, but it was pretty cool to watch strangers open up so much. And also to hear men especially--even ones that were just sort of tagging along with a girlfriend--express being so touched by the experience.

When it was my turn to share, I told them about how I cried during orientation when she said we were gathering here to stop. But also that I haven't been able to stop even while here. I keep rushing to get to the next activity or free time, like there isn't enough free time in the world to satisfy me.

My resistance to stopping is kind of fascinating, especially since I love it when I do stop. I mean--it's easy here, right? Or it's supposed to be--I left all my work at home. So how will I manage once I do get home and I'm buried under work? Will it help to commit to ten minutes of meditation a day? I have doubts that I can even really meet that commitment.

It's definitely clear to me that I need more solitude, not that that comes as a surprise.

I guess that's why they call it "the practice." It takes a lot of practice. And I guess my life gives me a lot of opportunities to practice what I've learned here: stopping, for one thing. But also noble silence, and deep, compassionate listening. Direct communication. Accepting things as they are. Not feeling like I need to fix things or control things to come out a certain way. Speaking in a quiet, calm, measured way, and letting people find the answers in themselves.

Yep, lots to practice. But instead of feeling overwhelmed by it, I feel a little excited. I've been known to say that conflict is an opportunity to get to a better place. And now I feel like every experience in my over-stressed, harried life is an opportunity to practice. I'm excited for the girls to move back in, actually-which might surprise you to hear. But I have new tools (not the least of which is the new mindfulness bell I plan to buy.)

I guess maybe I am feeling a little more centered, but at the same time, I don't feel so different. I don't feel like I've had some huge breakthrough like others in my group seem to. For someone who cries at EVERYTHING, I've hardly cried here. I'm trying not to be impatient. I know change doesn't happen overnight. Or even over 4. But I'm worried that I'm not opening up enough--that I have a wall up that's so firmly rooted that I don't even know it's there. I feel a little disassociated.

I know what it feels like to realize a real deep truth about yourself...when it catches you by surprise and dislodges something that you didn't know was stuck, and suddenly there's space, room for a fresh breeze to float through, clearing the air.

I haven't really felt much of that here yet. And I can't tell if my near-constant desire to run away and be by myself and skip the activities (and sleep!) is a cop out or something I really need to listen to.

How can I not know something so basic about myself? Sometimes, I'm a stranger to myself.

The dinner bell is ringing, so I better try to find my way out of the forest. After stopping and breathing.

8:15 pm
I'm listening to one of the ladies describe "right speech" and she says that when she talks to her teenager, she asks herself these questions first, to ensure she is practicing right speech:
  1. Is what I have to say going to annoy, antagonize, or offend her?
  2. If so, is a health or safety concern? (usually not really)
  3. If so, is it the right time to say it?
  4. Am I the right person to say it? (sometimes my husband is)
  5. Will what I have to say cause or relieve suffering?
She emphasizes, that if she does say it, she is mindful of her tone of voice. All of these seem like helpful things to keep in mind with the girls in the dorm.

9:00 pm
There's this vague sense of discomfort I have on some level...there are so many people here, including myself, who are doing things without knowing why. Bowing to the alter, to the meditation pillow, and each other. Singing about the Buddha and the Dharma. Stopping when the bell rings. Forgive me, but there's a fine line, I think, between religion and spiritual practice and a cult. Which isn't to say I think Buddhism is a cult, of course. But it is weird, in a way, for all of these people to suddenly try on Buddhism for a week. And disrespectful, too. Maybe it's really just me. It's a bit reminiscent of being on my Birthright Israel trip--there are vague religious undertones, and things you do just because you're told to and you don't really understand why. And they let you pretend to be one of them for a while, with a subtle agenda to convert you. I don't know...I guess I just have a deeply ingrained gut instinct resistance to anything resembling organized religion. Maybe it's just me.

Day 4 / 9:05 am
I'm finding myself getting really irritated at all the people not engaging in and allowing for noble silence. I want to experience more of the real, true, deep silence.

And they're ruining it.

10:45 am
One of the sisters just went up to chant, carrying a tiny baby and beaming. And then I realized they can't have babies! And they'd make the best mothers!

We're in a Question and Answer session, and they let the kids and teens ask questions of the monastics first--anything they're curious about relating to this practice.

The kids' questions:
  • Why do we have to take off our shoes in the meditation hall?
  • What happens to your soul when you die? (ha!)
  • How do you start becoming a monk or a nun?
  • I know that monks and nuns love animals, so why don't you have any pets here?
  • Do you know who's in charge of the whole monastery? (laughter from the community) Wait--so nobody's in charge?! (nope)
  • Why do you shave your head?
Teens' questions:
  • Dear community--I was thinking of the five mindfulness trainings, and I was wondering if working in the stock market is considered gambling? (ooh--good one)
  • In other religions there are divine books such as the Bible or Koran. Is there any sort of equivalent book from the Buddha?
  • What does it mean to know yourself and be comfortable with yourself? How can you get to know yourself without worrying about other priorities and your future path?
Trust me, the adult questions weren't nearly as interesting. Except for one that asked about how to create healthy boundaries for yourself while still being open hearted and compassionate. Unfortunately, there wasn't time to answer that one! I needed that answer.

One thing I did like, was that the monastics cautioned against easy answers, acknowledging that "we want concrete answers and guidelines, but life is not that simple. It can be messy. The Buddha talks about intentionality. We have to weigh the difficulties and benefits. Then we have to look into our own hearts and conditions to decide." The Buddha is big on the wisdom already within you.

A nun offers this, about a hopelessness about certain issues in the world: "Falling into despair seems like a luxury. It's abandonment of the practice and our responsibility toward the world."

She told a story about a beach where thousands of starfish had washed ashore. A little girl came across them and started trying to save them, throwing them back in the water, one by one. Someone comes along and tells her that she can't save them all and won't be able to make a difference. She picks up another star fish and says, "It will make a difference to this one." And throws it in the water.

They ended the talk on this note: The practice of meditation is to generate mindfulness, compassion and wisdom.

Day 4 / 10:00 pm
This was a roller coaster day. During the group discussion, all I wanted to do was run away. Everything people said seemed to irritate me. And I was frustrated because I didn't experience the life changing things others did with the "practice." And I felt like I was in some church youth group with everyone testifying how their practice saved their lives. It just felt like too much. And I felt like an outsider, a poser. But it was funny--someone referred to a practice of showing yourself compassion--they suggested having a conversation or tea with your five year old self. So I asked myself, if I were me, watching me, right now, what would I want me to do to make me feel better? (Did you follow that?) And I pictured myself gently leading myself over to a quiet place in the grass and putting my arm around me, gently smoothing my hair.

And then a few minutes later the monastic sitting next to me reached over and gently patted my shoulder a few times. Weird.

I went on the walking meditation but I didn't really meditate. Instead, I asked myself a lot of questions to try to figure out why I was in such a low mood. And I found the oddest thoughts popping into my head and making me tear up. Thinking about showing my 5-year-old self compassion. A college friend getting my favorite ice cream in the middle of the night when I was sick. And a dream I had last night, where I was pregnant and miscarrying and trying DESPERATELY to keep that baby inside of me. (I woke up feeling so panicked and stressed, despite the fact I'm nowhere near pregnant!)

At the end of the walk, I felt oddly better and resolved to stay engaged in the present moment when my group got together to rehearse our skit for tonight even though I didn't want any part of it. It made me feel old, like I was at summer camp.

But I was able to get into it, and though I thought the final night of skits and songs would be lame, it wasn't at all. The teen group BLEW ME AWAY. I wish I had taped it. They performed an Oasis song but changed the lyrics to reflect the week of meditation, including a bunch of inside jokes. I hope it winds up on You Tube so I can keep it. And all the performances were clever and funny, referring to things that happened this week, poking gentle fun. Suddenly, I felt part of something that just a few hours earlier I had felt so outside of.

And our group's performance went really well, actually.

And the final performance--they had this idea to introduce "hugging meditation"...hugging the people in the front row and having them pass it on to someone behind them. And I thought there's no WAY people would do this. And they didn't at first. But I kind of wanted them to, because four days without a hug might be a personal record for me and I was missing human touch. And then--people surprised me. All of a sudden total strangers were hugging each other in this heartfelt way that somehow managed not to seem too cheesy. It was really beautiful.


I was thinking earlier that they should make t-shirts that say "I drank the kool aid at Blue Cliff Monastery."

Though, actually I've resisted buying any souvenirs in an effort to live in the present moment and not try to cling to this. I can bring this home without something tangible. It's hard for me though. (Ask Michael) I've gone to the gift shop four times already, fingering the t-shirts with inspirational messages, and the mindfulness bells...

Oh! But speaking of letting go, I didn't even set an alarm this morning. And I still woke up. ha!

I'm feeling a bit punchy and wound up to sleep. Which is too bad, since I have to be up extra early tomorrow to receive the mindfulness trainings and my new Dharma name. (Confession: I really decided to do this because I want to see what name the monastics decide to give me.)

I do not want to wake up early tomorrow though, since I haven't been sleeping much at night.

It's weird--just today I started feeling really connected to some of the people here but now it's time for noble silence until we leave and we didn't exchange contact information and I don't know their last names. So maybe I just have to let them go too. It feels a bit weird to share something like this experience and just...let everyone go.

Day 5 / 10:00 am
I'm feeling pretty good about this retreat as it draws to a close. I'm tired in one sense--no surprise there after waking up at 5:00 each morning and bunking with 6 others. But I also feel refreshed. I feel like I've created some space in my mind and heart. And like I've found some clarity and some inner wisdom and a lot of tools. I'm excited to test them out in the real world...I do remain a bit skeptical of the powers of simply breathing, but I guess we'll see.

But also, I want to go home. (I know, I'm supposed to feel at home no matter where I am.) But I want to feel Michael's hand in mine. I want to sink into my own bed. (For a long, long time.)

This was a good retreat in many ways, but there were too many people here. And it's tiring being around so many people for so long. The collective energy is nice sometimes, but now I'm craving some place less crowded.

Things I'm Taking With Me (summary)
  • The idea of creating space with noble silence
  • Deep listening
  • Coming back to compassion, and responding with compassion
  • "It isn't good. It isn't bad. It just is." (acceptance)
  • Breathe. Stop and breathe.
  • "Anything can be the 'bell'--even the girls' screaming in the hallway can be the sound that reminds me to stop, come back to myself, and breathe."
  • Not everything needs to be fixed, and certainly not by me.
  • You can watch a mess in the making and send it compassionate, loving thoughts, and then let it go.
  • When we get riled up/wound up/angry, there's a good chance we're not reacting to something in the present moment, but rather to some deeper hurt in our past. It's best to stop the conversation and breathe until we figure out what's really going on with ourselves (or the other person.)
  • Speaking in a measured, quiet, calm voice goes a long way.
  • Speaking less and leaving room for others to fill.
  • Pay attention. Especially to others, so you can learn to listen to what they're really saying, and not be distracted by what they're saying. =)
  • The idea of how misguided it is to think that chasing some goal, whether a plasma tv or job title will bring you happiness. Rather, learning to live in the present tense, fully and mindfully, living in accord with your values, will allow you to find happiness in each moment. Which will allow you to naturally create the future you want. (hmm...still thinking on this one.)
  • How you can turn anything into meditation--even eating an ice cream sandwich.
  • The idea of that clean room in my head...and my ability to create space inside rather than being a neurotic control freak about the space I inhabit.
  • And, a commitment to (and ability!) to meditate for 10 minutes a day
All in all, I feel like it was really worthwhile. I'd like to do similar retreats in the future, but if I were going to recommend something to a friend, I might suggest a slightly less intense start (not as long, and not at a monastery...maybe at more of a relaxed, Kripalu-type place.) I might also really like a total silent retreat for myself at some point in the future. There were definitely some vaguely uncomfortable aspects for me, and times I wanted to go home so badly...but the experience shined a light on some of the things I need to work on (my constant talking, even in my head, my impatience, and my unhealthy attachment to a certain outcome which leads to my sometimes controlling tendencies.) And I did learn some tools to at least try to move forward.

And I did make it through my first work day back without getting wound up. Despite there being several situations that would have left my blood boiling a week ago.

And I did my ten minutes of meditation.

And yes, I went and bought a meditation bell. I plan to use it at dorm meetings as well. =)

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