In early June, thanks to a generous fellowship from the Hemera Foundation, I went on a week-long silent meditation retreat held by Dharma Ocean at Stowel Lake Farm, on Salt Spring Island. As the Hemera Foundation notes on their website: “Meditation retreats provide a supportive training environment in which healthcare providers can cultivate mindfulness, compassion, and personal well-being, qualities which can extend into their professional lives and help them build a community of fellows whose professional lives are informed and supported by contemplative practice.” I am grateful to the Hemera Foundation and to Dharma Ocean for the deeply transformative retreat experience that they gave me.
One transformation I’ve noticed is that since the retreat, I’m better able to catch myself when I’m thinking that I should be doing something else. I’m then better able to bring my attention back to what I am actually doing. For example, as I write this, an antsy feeling rises in my body, and a thought suggests, “It’s nice out – I should go outside – I’m wasting the good weather.” Rather than abandoning my project and going outside, I accommodate the antsy feeling while continuing to write. This discipline is possible because while on meditation retreat, I very frequently endured extremely strong and compelling sensations that suggested that I should be doing something else, and sat through them without moving so much as a single muscle. While doing this, I became much more familiar with what that antsy feeling looks like, feels like, behaves like, where it comes from, where it goes, when it arises, and what it wants. Now, in my daily life, I can notice it and decide how to respond when it arises, rather than perceiving it as a compulsion and giving it the power to dictate my behaviour.
I’m also better able now to pay mindful attention to whatever I’m doing in the moment, whether it’s closing my hand around a fragrant tea bag, shuffling a sheaf of tax papers into order, looking into my son’s deep brown eyes and seeing the child that he once was in the young man that he is today, or sitting with my weight supported by a chair. Prolonged meditation in the retreat showed me that what I’m actually doing right now is what I’m actually doing right now. It’s where it’s at! Paying attention to it is real and connecting. It’s impossible to be bored! Ever. Each moment is an experience of immeasurable richness. Irritation and impatience transform into delight and gratitude.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m no saint at this. You’ll see that clearly if you read the following account of my retreat experience.
Meditation Isn’t Relaxation.
-Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche
When I arrived at the farm for the retreat, I met about 30 people, all strangers to me, who had gathered from far and wide (BC, Alberta, Ontario, Washington State, New York, California, Oregon, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Colorado, and Costa Rica, to name a few) as participants or staff in the retreat.
Participants were to spend our days in silence – no talking, no reading, no writing, no communicating with notes, no phoning home, no electronics. We were advised to stay within the confines of the ‘container’ that the program had created, which meant we were not to leave the farm. We were housed in various lovely dormitories, yurts, and bathhouses, and we were given wholesome, nourishing, and delicious vegetarian meals made with fresh organic farm produce, and unlimited herbal teas.
I have been a meditator for several years now. Before the retreat, I was adept at sitting and meditating for 15 or 20 minutes, or even up to 45 minutes. But when I saw the schedule for the first full day of retreat, pinned to the board in the entrance hall, and I counted up the practice times to total NINE HOURS in that single day alone – I was afraid. I wanted to run – not sit.
Under the guidance of a senior Dharma Ocean teacher and a team of Dharma Ocean assistants, we were to meditate from 7 to 8 a.m., from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., from 3 to 6:30 pm, and from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m.
I knew that, as the teacher of my teacher’s teacher had said back in the 60’s, “Meditation is not relaxation – it’s provocation.” I had felt the tears slipping down my face enough times in my home meditation practice, as I sat and experienced difficult thoughts, emotions, and sensations, to know that meditation is CHALLENGING. Nine hours a day? Unthinkable. Nuts!! Yet, we were about to do it.
Meditating on a schedule like that was so astoundingly difficult that in order to manage it, I was forced not to think ahead of myself – to not look forward or back, but simply to do what I was doing NOW. Can I do this now? Yes. OK. Do it. If I think of the hours and days ahead or past, it will be de-stabilizing. Just do it Now.
This has a strange effect on my sense of time. After a while, I don’t know if we are in the pre-breakfast session of the fourth day, or the post-dinner session of the sixth. It really doesn’t matter.
What matters is, “Where is my attention?”
As per the instructions of my teacher, the purposeful and consciously chosen focus of my attention is all that matters, whether it is on the breath coming in through all the pores of my body, or the depth and vastness of the Earth, or the Earth energy coming into my lower belly on the breath, or the energy coursing up through my central channel and showering down over my whole being.
What matters is managing to sit motionless through the tremendous, nagging, urgent irritations that present themselves one after the other, one on top of the other, relentlessly. The physical pain. The unpleasant emotions. The thwarted urges. The frustrations. The horrendous agitation.
I want to scream, I want to pound on the floor, I want to clout my meditation teacher as he sits so smugly at the front with his perfect posture and his serenely closed eyes, not reaching for the damned gong to end this torture session, not reaching for it yet, not reaching for it now. Oh, how deeply and completely I loathe him.
I can’t do this. I can’t carry on. I’m about to be reduced to a whimpering heap! “Where is my attention?” Who cares? Shut up with that! Let me out of here. My concentration was shot four hours ago.
But I am here, doing this, now, and resisting it is hurting ferociously. Let me take this one breath for my Ancestors, who are living within me and whose suffering has not been resolved – may this breath bring them peace at last. May the energy of the deep and vast Earth stream into my Ancestors through this breath like a healing elixir.
Oh! Ecstasy is mine, the tears flowing down my face are tears of joy, compassion, connectedness, and liberation.
Space and the awareness of space. That is the basic message. Thank you. I understand now. Sob.
But as soon as the gong sounds to indicate that the meditation session is over, I want to complain about this outrageous ordeal with my fellow participants, and I can’t, because we are bound to silence. With no venting, the energy of my complaints surges around within me.
Forced (is that true?) to spend my breaks in silence, I contemplate my anger, complaints, and desire to vent, and realize that venting isn’t actually therapeutic. Rather than being a way of letting the anger go, venting actually gives it more life: it wraps it in word form and spreads it from me to my unfortunate listener. The anger doesn’t diminish in me when I utter the complaints – it actually embeds itself further in me as I give myself over to its expression. By complaining, I become anger’s translator, house, vehicle, and driver.
But I still yearn to complain. The energy of anger swirls within me. I blame my teacher. Contemplating this in my silent break, I am aware that my teacher has done nothing to warrant my anger. In fact, he is doing what he is supposed to do, and he is doing it well. I signed up for this, and he is delivering it, and with great competence and heart, too. I realize that I am projecting my anger out and attaching it to my teacher in order to avoid taking responsibility for it myself. “If only my teacher were different,” I am thinking, “I would not be so uncomfortable.”
“Uncomfortable” really does not begin to describe it.
Later, after Silence is lifted, I hear from a fellow meditator that they are wildly irritated at another participant. It is interesting to me that I also observed the behaviour that this person finds so obnoxious, but that I’m not really mad about it. My anger is directed at someone else! This drives home for me the concept that we are each responsible for our own emotional states – blaming others is misguided. I take refuge in the teacher’s quote of Chogyam Trongpa’s lion’s roar: “Every mind state is workable.” Please, let it be so.
Back on the cushion after a dinner of truly delicious, gas-inducing lentils wrapped in chard leaves, the gong sounds and the meditation session starts. I focus my attention on the depth and vastness of the – searing pain in my shoulder! Swearing aloud would relieve this torment. But the Earth is deep, and vast, and the Earth energy is – good God, my hip radiates agony, all the way to my knee! Oh, oh, oh – the heat of all this pain is building within my body — it’s popping in my head — my nose is sweating. Gasp, pant. I can’t take it. “Where is my attention?” The Earth is deep and vast. Yes. Inhale – Mother Earth streams energy into my lower belly. I am being fed. Exhale – Mother Earth absorbs my tension. I am being cleansed. She accepts all, unflinchingly, openly, spaciously. The tension of my resistance flows out of me and into her on my outbreath, and She loves me anyway, She and I are one after all, there is no separation, and She accepts my tension and in Her complete acceptance the Ugly is transformed and imbued with all the Beauty of Life, and it comes up again through Her cracks and fissures as the tender shoots of plants to bathe in the warmth of the ever-loving Sun.
Wow, that’s amazing. I really am good at meditating. (I crack one eye open and peer around the Shrine Hall.) Oh yeah, I’m doing much better than that person over there who’s scratching their leg, or that one over there, who’s slumped forward with their face squished into the floor, crying softly. Why did they even bother to come here? Gotta wonder. (I shift ever so slightly on my butt.) Yup. Hmm. You know, after this is over, I will approach composting with renewed vigor. Meditating on the Earth has shown me that Composting is a sacred act! I must remember that. (Without moving my head, I cast my gaze down at the notebook in which I am allowed to write only on those rare and unscheduled occasions when the teacher speaks.) If only we were allowed to write things down. That drives me crazy. My hip hurts cruelly. Cruelly! (I shift a little again.) I wonder what time it is. Dare I sneak a look at my watch? NO! I refuse. WHERE IS MY ATTENTION? Leave me alone! I can’t follow the teachings any more today. I’m done! Done! Okay, okay – so be a rebel. Focus on your heart. Ha! That’ll show my teacher – he doesn’t have control over ME!
My heart is moving within me. It’s so soft and slippery. And my shoulder hurts. My heart is squeezing, it’s pressing. My hip hurts. I can feel my heart throughout my body — press, squeeze, slip, softness, strength. The Pain!! And now the heart and all the pain areas are in focus at once, and it’s a glorious symphony of sound, and visually the heart is in the foreground like a living jewel against the exquisite backdrop of pain-illuminated bones, and the pain is a blessed superfluity of Earth energy, calling my attention to the celebration of Life! Oh, swoon! Press, squeeze, slip – GONG!! No. This can’t be over. GONG! I never want it to end. My face is soaked in tears of awe and gratitude.
The last gong of the night sounds at 8:30, and my three room-mates and I silently get ready for bed just as fast as we can, even though it will still be light for another hour. Waiting for the shared bathroom, I pull the curtain away from the side of the window above my bed so from my pillow I can see the tops of the big wild conifers, a slice of sky, and the comings and goings of the sweet barn swallows whose nest I can see in the eves above my head. A room-mate emerges from the bathroom and, in an act of deliberate kindness, closes the curtain for the night, almost as if she is tucking me in. She snuggles into her own bed. Another room-mate is in the bathroom. I wait. My turn comes, and I brush my teeth. When I get back to my corner, the level breathing of the sweet curtain-closer shows me that she has fallen asleep. I pull the curtain back again and gaze out until I too am asleep.
Vivid dreams! In one, I am pregnant, in my fifties, and very calm about it. In another, I wish I hadn’t filled Barbie dolls with dog poop containing the seed of those awful aliens from the Sigourney Weaver movie, but it’s too late now – the kids are playing with them. Other participants are having vivid dreams, too, which I hear about after Silence is lifted. One guy dreams he sees himself washed up on the shore, with fetal wings or fins, and he says to the team of approaching people, “Don’t do a post-mortem on him yet.”
And the alarm goes, it’s 5:14 a.m., and I want to get some exercise before a day of meditation. I slip over to the dining hall and have an apple, a banana, and a cup of dandelion tea before heading out to walk briskly up and down the dirt roads and grassy paths of our container, the inner farm yard. Bald eagles, cavorting ravens, and swooping swallows abound. A family of ducks swims on the charming little slough. Steam rises from a pungent compost pile in the early morning sun. Composting, I remember, is a sacred act.
It’s now 11 days since I got home from the retreat. I’m signing up for weekly meditation classes with that excellent teacher. 😊