4 am: I woke up, and got out of bed – stiff. But not sore. Looks like my 11 months of yoga training have served me well. Yay!
4:15 am: I enjoyed a screamin’ hot shower. Nice.
4:30 am: Thirst kicked in big-time. I knew I didn’t drink enough water yesterday, but now I’m realizing how significant that deficit was. I now know what to bring as a donation item to future retreats I attend: bottled water.
5:15 am: I did my usual morning situp/pushup/yoga routine, and it felt fantastic. My body loves to move. I felt tight, tense muscles elongate and relax… it really was quite beautiful.
5:50 am: The morning bell rang. Time to head to the meditation hall.
As I walked to the meditation hall, I passed by a bay window looking out on a lake. The sky was still quite dark, but enough light was present that I could make out forms, and see the waves of the lake hit the shore line. The view made me stop walking; and as I gazed at the scene, I realized (admitted?) that life certainly would be simpler – and I truly would be happier – if I quit my present life, and joined a monastery or convent. Now, don’t laugh – I really am being quite serious. As a child, I wondered how I could join a convent; but then I learned you had to be a nun, and we weren’t Catholic, so I just assumed that I couldn’t pursue that option. Had I know then what I know how (i.e., that I really could enter a convent – just a Buddhist one instead of a Catholic one), I truly believe I might have done it. Seriously.
Alas, that wasn’t my path – so I have to believe that my life was meant to have some ‘other’ purpose; that I am meant to be doing ‘something else’ while living as a householder. But I just don’t know what that ‘something else’ is. I wish I did know; I think that information might have the power to transform my life. However, in the absence of that information, I’ll just keep plugging along, and do what I can to stay open to whatever might come my way; and then do my very best in whatever situations I find myself as a result – and trust that everything will work out exactly as it should. I’m trying, anyway…
6 am: The other retreat participants and I all sat in the dusk of the pre-morning sun, the room illuminated by candlelight. Everyone was silent; then the teachers entered the room without speaking as well. We all took our seats and closed our eyes – and I focused exclusively on the present moment. I didn’t try to control my mind, or the meditation session as a whole; I didn’t try to force my heart to be full of love or my mind to be full of peace; I just sat, and breathed, and did my very best to just be with whatever arose. To not think about the future (immediate or long-term), to not reflect on the past (recent or distant), but to just hang out in the right-here, present moment. Surprisingly, I was actually able to do that for relatively sizable stretches of time. And when I did, it was so lovely. And when I didn’t, it was uncomfortable, and at times even painful. But I was able to stay really present for the majority of the sitting – and so it went by relatively quickly and peacefully. This meditation session was an amazing lesson and reminder.
7 am: Breakfast. Hot tea is so soothing, and comforting.
8 am: The schedule indicated that we were supposed to have a teaching from 8-9 am; so a few minutes before 8 I made my way to the meditation hall. 8 am came and went – and no teacher. Hmm…. 8:10 am passed by – and no teacher. 8:20 am… 8:30 am… 8:40 am… and with each passing minute, I grew more confused, and more irritated. I stood at that big window overlooking the lake, and stared through the glass at the gray sky and the choppy water. (Funny how the external weather mirrored my internal environment…) I stood, and I stared, and I rocked back and forth, then side to side. I tried to let go, and to accept; and it was really difficult. My mind kept going back to questions (“What’s going on? Where is the teacher?”) and judgments (“This is wrong! This is irresponsible! This is a waste of my time!”), and I saw – and really felt – the pain of those mental states.
At 8:57 am I paused, breathed deeply, and said to myself, “Well, Stef, you’re here on this retreat to meditate, right? So, you might as well go into the hall and sit” – so I did. Literally one minute later, the teacher arrived, sat, and began the instruction session. No joke.
9 am: The teacher gave a talk on the hindrances. And just like yesterday, both the timing and the content of this talk seem to be perfectly pointed to me: I’m being plagued by, well, all of the hindrances. The solution to overcoming the hindrances is to not fight them, but instead to just be aware of them, let them play out, and then gently return to the present moment once they have passed through. Nearly every hindrance (or thought, or emotion) has a life span of less than a few seconds; these items are only able to last longer when we cling to them, feed them, perpetuate them. If we simply let them arise and pass on their own, they will move through our minds very quickly. It’s when we try and push the hindrances/thoughts/emotions along that we get ensnared and entangled, and actually cause them to stick around a LOT longer than they would otherwise. So, notice, allow, watch, then return to the present moment. That’s all. That’s enough.
It’s really, really hard to do.
9:20 am: Meditation. So many hindrances came up – at various points in the meditation I wanted to cry, and at other points I wanted to puke. (I’m not being melodramatic; at multiple different points in the hour that passed I felt tears at my eyes, and bile in my throat.) Yet, the second I returned to the present moment, I felt instantly okay – almost peaceful. It was so fascinating to experience! The answer really is the present moment!
10:20 am: The monk showed no signs of stopping the meditation session, so at the hour mark I simply got up from my seat and gave myself a break. At 10:30 am I did walking meditation on my own in my room – and it was so beautiful, and so peaceful, and so deeply lovely. Quite the contrast to the meditation I had come from just minutes before.
11 am: Q&A. Various students asked questions regarding meditation practice, and Dhamma, and Bhante G’s perspective on a few different Buddhist topics. The story that most intrigued me/caught my attention was this one: The question posed was related to pain, specifically the pain people often experience while sitting in meditation. Bhante G said that during his initial training as a monk, he was required to sit on a concrete floor for hours at a time, without a cushion. As you might imagine, he reported that the pain was intense. He said that he still has calluses on his ankles. But he made it through his training, and was then able to sit in half-lotus position for meditation for hours at a time, without any pain. He continued with the story: “Then, at 65 years old, I thought, ‘Here I sit in half-lotus; why not full lotus?’ So I train. After two minutes of full lotus I was in so much pain – I thought my leg would be amputated because of no circulation! But I train. And I train. And I train. And now, at 83 years old, I sit in meditation in full lotus for hours, no pain.” Damn – 83 years old, and sitting in full lotus for hours at a time? This is one cool cat.
11:30 am: Lunch. As we were about to break for lunch, two retreat participants entered the meditation hall, carrying a tray of food. Bhante G explained that one tradition some people observe is to make an offering to the Buddha before eating a meal. The monk then said, “The people who have donated lunch today would like to adhere to this tradition, so we will do it.” His tone was slightly put out, as if to say, ‘Oy, really? You want to do this? But it’s so formal, and unnecessary… but you brought the food, so okay, here we go….sigh…’ It was quite humorous to me. Bhante G then led the group through a brief (3 min) chanting and bowing and offering sequence, then the two retreat participants placed a plate of food at the foot of the Buddha statue at the front of the room. It was cool for me to observe this small ceremony (I had never seen anything like it before); but I also wondered, ‘But then what do they do with the food?’
Anyway… we all headed upstairs to the kitchen, where I enjoyed a fantastic meal. Oh my gosh, it was so good. I ate steamed, chopped kale topped with yellow lentils; sautéed mushrooms and onions; seasoned seitan; cut mixed fruit topped with vanilla yogurt; and hot tea. Ahh… it was so delish!
12:30 pm: Private time. I spent about 30 minutes writing a yoga sequence. Why, you ask? Here’s the story:
Apparently I wasn’t the only person disappointed by no yoga yesterday. Seems that in the evening, one of the participants approached the monk, and expressed displeasure at not having yoga after so much sitting all day. From what I gather, the monk told the participant that he (the monk) didn’t know yoga, so that he (the monk) couldn’t lead a yoga session; but if he (the participant) could find a yoga teacher, then he (the participant) was more than welcome to coordinate a yoga session for today.
So the participant must have had his eyes open for someone who looked ‘yoga-ish’; and I guess I stretched at one point in the morning (I don’t remember doing this specifically, but it is very possible that I did; I frequently stretch after an extended period of sitting), so the participant approached me and said, “I think you might be a yoga teacher. Bhante said that you could teach a session for us today. Will you?” I smiled. Note that he never asked if I actually was a yoga teacher; it was just assumed that because I’m thin and stretchy and bendy, I must be. Hilarious. Anyway… he asked the question, and I suspected that people would really appreciate having some yoga today (especially after 2 days of multiple long seated meditation sessions), so I said that yes, I would teach if he/Bhante/other participants wanted me to do so. The man lit up into a big smile, said, “Thank you!”, and nearly skipped off to tell Bhante.
And that’s how I found myself writing a yoga sequence during my free time, never having actually taught a real yoga class before. Looks like this week is all about new experiences for me!
1:30 pm: We were supposed to spend 30 minutes in seated meditation; but about three minutes into the session, I started to doze. I realized (admitted) what I really needed was sleep – so instead of fighting or denying my body, I gave it what it was asking for. Hmm… doing what I need, instead of what I think I should; this is big progress for me. Wonderful.
2 pm: Sitting meditation. For nearly the entire 45-minute session I watched my mind engage in a very gentle back-and-forth between drifting from awareness, then returning to the present moment. Drift, return, drift, return – but it was all judgment-free, so it was freeing. More progress. Lovely.
2:45 pm: Tea break. I drank some tea. That’s all.
3 pm: Teaching. For an hour the monk talked to us about mindfulness. And he shared a lot of excellent wisdom. But by this point in the retreat experience I was starting to feel overwhelmed with information, content, and experience; so of all the information Bhante articulated over the course of the 60 minutes, I really only remember two points:
1) The purpose of mindfulness practice is to purify the mind. (So that one can be free of greed, anger, and delusion, and ultimately reach the state of full liberation, nibbana.)
2) All of the answers we will ever need to know are inside of us. We need only look within, and we will find everything we need to be fully liberated.
While these are ‘only two’ points (out of probably 10 or 15 that were made), I think these are pretty valuable ones.
4 pm: Yoga. Okay Stef, let’s see what happens here…. Fifteen people (out of approximately thirty total retreat participants) showed up to the session, eager to do yoga. There was an even number of men and women; and while three people were probably in their late 20s/early 30s, the remaining twelve individuals were in their 40s, 50s, and 60s. Half of the group said they had never done yoga before. Okay…. A wide variety of ages, body abilities, and experience levels. Piece of cake, right? ;)
I had created a semi-gentle yoga sequence (as I wanted to do movements that allowed for, supported, and even encouraged easily connecting breath awareness to body movement), and I chose to teach the session by demonstrating the movements I wanted the participants to do, while simultaneously talking through step-by-steps of how to complete each pose. (For example, “Inhale-lift-your-arms-above-your-head, exhale-move-your-arms-down-to-a-T-and-forward-fold. Inhale-halfway-lift-keeping-your-back-long, exhale-forward-fold-aiming-to-touch-your-chest-to-your-thighs.” [And so on.]) The teachers at my yoga certification program would likely be completely appalled by this approach (they believe a yoga teacher should use verbal cues exclusively, and do minimal [and preferably zero] demonstrating during a class), but I felt doing this was absolutely necessary given the audience I was working with, as well as the very tight time frame I had to try and squeeze the session in. And – it was terrific. Teaching this way felt completely natural, and beautiful, and wonderful. I think I just found my teaching style. : ) Selfishly, it felt awesome to just MOVE, and my body hummed with pleasure as I led the group through cat/cows, sun salutations, graceful warriors, and motion in general. These 45 minutes were the most joyful I had on the entire retreat – and the most mindful.
5 pm: Sitting meditation. During this session I continued to grow deeper and deeper awareness of my mind slipping, sliding, and resuming mindfulness. I felt myself grow much more settled. Still. Present. Interestingly, whenever thoughts started sliding away from mindfulness (into mindlessness), my physical head started to hurt – like a tension headache. Then, when the mind returned to the present moment and mindfulness was restored, the headache went away – instantly. So throughout this session I had mini-episodes of tension headache pain, then poof – gone. Then pain, then gone. It was really interesting to observe – and a very effective practice tool. Not necessarily ‘pleasant’, but very effective. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, pain is one of the ways I learn things quickly.
6 pm: Chanting for 10 minutes, then a ‘tea break’ until 7:30 pm. During the break I ate dinner (that I brought in with me from home; though I will say that this retreat was fully stocked on the food scene – they provided nearly a full meal for the evening ‘snack’), then read a cute little book from the retreat center library. It felt really nice to just sit, read, sip tea, stare out the window, and relax. Feel contentment. Enjoy life.
7:30 pm: Q&A. Bhante is a fantastic story teller (not surprising; he’s a terrific author), and has an incredibly jubilant air about him. Even at 83 years old, his smile is boyish and cute. It’s lovely (and genuinely liberating) to be in his presence. The focus of this evening’s Q&A session was a re-visitation of the topics of impermanence, dissatisfaction, and not-self. [The Buddhist ‘trinity’, if you will.] At one point in the discussion Bhante stated, “Some people have wedding rings. Some people have earrings. Some people even have navel rings, or nose rings. One thing we all have is suffering.” A very cute way to convey an important Buddhist concept.
9:30 pm: Bedtime. Bhante said that the ultimate goal of our practice was to be mindful always. To that end, he encouraged us all to fall asleep with mindfulness, so that we could then awake with mindfulness, so that we could then be mindful during all of our conscious moments. Clearly I can’t do the whole ‘mindful in every conscious moment’ part just yet, but I did do my best to fall asleep with mindfulness. I’m not sure if I ‘succeeded’ or not, but at least I did try.
(Click here to go to Day 3. [If you’re interested in seeing how this whole deal plays out…]) ;)
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