Meditation Retreat

4 Dec

My weekend retreat began similar to others I had attended at the Buddhadharma Center, in a pleasant suburban setting about 30 miles outside Chicago, Illinois. I arrived by car on a sunny, summer Friday afternoon with my sleeping bag, meditation pillow, mat and a small bag of clothes and toothbrush/shampoo and towel. I was grateful to again have an opportunity to practice a few days of Mindfulness meditation in a supportive and relaxed atmosphere.

As I walked into the renovated small church, now temple, I was greeted by the friendly smiling faces of volunteers who were going to provide us visitors with delicious Thai vegetarian meals as well as evening tea and cookies. One of the helpers showed me to the large room where the male meditators would be sleeping and, looking around the sparsely furnished room, I found a spot where there wasn’t an open sleeping bag on the floor and, firstly, I put my mat down and then on top of it, my sleeping bag. Next to my sleeping bag I set down my clothes bag.  No one else was in the room.

Shortly after setting up my ‘bedroom’ I heard a bell ringing which meant for all participants to go to the main Temple room. Leaving the ‘bedroom’, I put my shoes back on and walked up stairs where there were already about thirty people, men and women, young and older, sitting. I again took my shoes off and went into the Temple room, which, in the front, on a small stage, had a large gold painted statue of the Buddha, beautiful flowers on both sides and three monks in light brown robes were sitting quietly in front of the Buddha statue. With my meditation pillow in hand I found a comfortable spot, sat down on my pillow and quietly focused on my breathing and centering myself in this new situation after a three hour drive.

Everyone sat quietly. I heard birds chirping in the field outside. There was a pleasant smell of incense and the light whirling sound of the three ceiling fans. My meditation weekend had begun. After about ten minutes, one of the monks went to the microphone and greeted everyone and then gave a short talk on the five precepts, which is the basic Buddhist code of ethics, undertaken by lay followers, that we were expected to observe during the retreat. He said that the precepts were meant to provide a harmonious situation for the best practice of meditation and cooperation among all the participants. The five precepts are

  1. Not to harm living beings

  2. Not to steal

  3. Not to participate in sexually harmful behavior

  4. Not to lie

  5. Not to take alcohol or other intoxicating drugs

After this short introductory talk and ‘Taking the Precepts’, we all participated, for an hour, in first chanting and then sitting meditation. After that we had individual time during which I went to the Temple’s small bookshop where I browsed through the titles. With the again ringing of the bell, we were informed that lunch was ready for us so everyone went to the auditorium area where tables had been set up and we chose our lunch of Thai cooking, buffet style. Sitting at tables with our food, we all ate silently and mindfully. After lunch, the program had a pause and I went outside behind the temple where there was an acre of lawn with neat rows of different fruit trees. Sitting in the warm sun, I enjoyed my contentment of the moment.

So that day and the next two included the following: mindfully meditating on loving kindness, walking, sitting, yoga, chanting; Dhamma instruction by the monks followed by Q&A; individual time to read, write, think, rest, and eating nourishing and tasty vegetarian meals for breakfast and lunch and refreshments in the evenings. All activities were done in silence to help keep our focus on the here and now and to quiet the mind and body. As in previous retreats, I noticed a gradual transformation of my mind/body condition. With the meditation practices, the instructive Dhamma talks and peaceful environment, my mind/body began to shed the stress and tension of everyday life and I began to melt into a deeper state of present awareness and mindful absorption.

On the last day, in the late morning, during walking meditation, I chose to walk outside among the trees. It was a beautiful warm sunny day. I began my walking meditation by finding a place where I could walk unhampered for about ten yards. I started walking slowly, mindful of each step, keeping my gaze forward, right foot rises and falls, left foot rises and falls. Arriving at the end, stop, stand and turn, begin walking again. And so it went for about twenty minutes. Then, intuitively, I shifted to a standing meditation by just standing and gazing out without a particular concentration. At this moment I had a wonderful, profound transformative experience. I stood without thinking, without a subject/object split. I experienced a state of profound freedom and deep happiness and relief. I was ‘one’ with existence. I realized that my ‘happiness’ was dependent not on the external but on my internal state. I experienced a sense of timelessness. Without attempting to keep ‘creating’ my experience but only to continue to allow it, my ‘pure experience’ continued for possibly fifteen minutes until I felt the need to return to the schedule of the retreat. After that, my continued meditation and ‘mundane’ activities had a continued profound peacefulness and ‘selflessness’. When I ate, I just ate, when I walked, I just walked. I had a sensitive awareness of everything/everybody. Even in the rolling up of my sleeping bag, my experience was as the Japanese philosopher Nishida wrote, “In pure experience there is no prior or posterior, no inner or outer; no experience precedes or generates experience” and (there is) “not the slightest interval between the intention and the act.”. There was only the rolling up of the bag, an oneness of action.

After having had this lovely transformative experience, later the retreat ended, I drove home and went back to work the next day. However, my transformed understanding of ‘myself’, happiness and the ‘oneness’ of life has remained deep for me and has continued to be a spiritual inspiration, guide and direction in my life as well as has my continued meditation and Dhamma study. Practically, I have continued to explore how to relieve myself from the burdens of the ‘virtual’ self and the accumulation of objects which, in the past, was a vain and destructive attempt to find happiness in ‘things’. I now understand how to better resist the obsessions that our modern mass consumption society attempts to create in our minds. Also, I have since adopted a voluntary simplicity to my life both for ethical and environmental concerns as well as for my own happiness. I try to create environments –both physically and emotionally – which nurture kindness and wisdom. Last, but not least, I continue to try to be mindful, accepting, compassionate and sensitive to my own being and to other living beings.

Reflecting back on my meditation experience, I understand that there was nothing ‘special’ about its creation, indeed, only the correct conditions caused what took place. A deep, spiritual, life altering transformation is available to anyone who is willing to devote time to study and practice, have a “beginner’s mind” and finds wise teachers.

With metta

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The Buddha’s teachings are merely helpful means, ways of looking at sensory experience that helps us to understand it. They are not commandments, they are not religious dogmas that we have to accept or believe in. They are merely guides to point to the way things are. So we are using the Buddha’s teachings to grasp them as an end in themselves, but only to remind ourselves to be awake, alert, and aware that all that arises passes away. This is a continuous, constant observation and reflection on the sensory world, because the sensory world has a powerfully strong influence. Having a body like this with the society we live in, the pressures on all of us are fantastic. Everything moves so quickly – television and the technology of the age, the cars – everything tends to move at a very fast pace. It is all very attractive, exciting and interesting, and it all pulls your senses out. Just notice when you go to London how all adverts pull your attention out to whiskey bottles and cigarettes! Your attention is pulled into things you can buy, always going towards rebirth into sensory experience. The materialistic society tries to arouse greed so you will spend your money, and yet never be contented with what you have. There is always something better, something newer, something more delicious than what was the most delicious yesterday… it goes on and on and on, pulling you out into objects of the senses like that. Using wisdom by watching the impulses, and understanding them. That which observes greed is not greed: greed cannot observe itself, but that which is not greed can observe it. This observing is what we call ‘Buddha’ or ‘Buddha wisdom’- awareness of the way things are.  Ajahn Sumedho

In agreement with Ajahn Sumedho, I would just add that since he wrote the above passage in 1987, modern society has become even faster, more hectic and stimuli bound with the continual evasiveness of technology in everyone’s life. Of course, the newer technology includes mobile phones, computers, electronic games, computer social networking, TV screens everywhere, MP3 players, bigger, brighter high definition TV, DVDs, CDs, 3D movies, etc., etc.. The adverts and sensory impingements are becoming more sophisticated in their intensity and appeal as well as it’s availability. So his critique of not only the powerful impact of the growing hyper sensory world is very relevant but also his observation on the greed factor because adverts and the drive behind most of the technology is create desire and to sell, sell, sell. Rodger
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To continue this line of thought is a piece from Alan Watt’s book, “The Wisdom of Insecurity” while published in 1951 his observation is just as valid: “Thus the ‘brainy’ economy designed to produce this happiness is a fantastic vicious circle which must either manufacture more and more pleasures or collapse – providing a constant titillation of the ears, eyes, and nerve cells with incessant streams of almost inescapable noise and visual distractions. The perfect ‘subject’ for the aims of this economy is the person who continuously itches his ear with the radio, preferably using the portable kind which can go with him at all hours and in all places. (Of course, now update to smartphone) His eyes flit without rest from the television screen, to newspaper, to magazine, keeping him in a sort of orgasm-without-release through a series of teasing glimpses of shiny automobiles, shiny female bodies, and other sensuous surfaces, interspersed with such restorers of sensitivity – shock treatments- as ‘ human interest’ shots of criminals, mangled bodies, wrecked airplanes, prize fights, and burning buildings. The literature or discourse that goes with this is similarly manufactured to tease without satisfaction, to replace every partial gratification with a new desire.”

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