Monday, July 29, 2013

Spiritual Retreats are Like the Ocean...Dip a Toe or Dive Right In

I wasn't supposed to follow this path. I was brought up as a good Catholic girl. Mass every Sunday and regular reminders of how I would be punished by God if I didn't behave. However, in 1988 I discovered Buddhism and for the next nine years I studied the ideas and practices of Buddhism.
Venue of the 1st UK Kundalini Conference
Brighton Dome, April 2013

In 1996, I decided that it was time to throw away the books and commit myself to some serious practice. India seemed like a good choice as it was where the Buddha became enlightened. Who knows? Some of its magic might rub off on me!

I signed up for a 10-day retreat, Vipassana, or insight meditation, a supervised silent meditation practice. I arrived at the Thai monastery and queued up to register with 200 others. I was curious about the kind of people doing the same thing as me and I noticed they all looked pretty "normal." I can remember seeing some people walking in the grounds looking down at the ground. Why are these people looking down when it is such a beautiful day? I wondered.

Conditions were primitive. Judging by the number of straw mats on the concrete floor, there would be nine of us sharing a dormitory.The  day began at 5:30 am with a mixture of silent sitting, standing and walking meditation. The day ended at 10.30 pm. There were two meals a day, with fruit to eat during the afternoon. The only times the silence was broken was for a one-hour dharma (teachings of the Buddha) talks and two small group sessions. For the first couple of days, the different people on retreat intrigued me. I found myself mentally selecting those I would talk to when the silence was broken and we were allowed to talk.

Many people find one form of meditation easier to do than another and I was no exception. For me, it was the walking meditation that I found easiest, partly because the grounds surrounding the monastery were beautiful, but also because I found the sitting meditations very difficult. On some sittings I thought that the bell to signify the end of the session would never ring. Each meditation session was 45 minutes long. On day six I became aware that I was getting extremely agitated. The silence was beginning to get to me. I tried to fight it, to no avail.

By day eight I really thought I would have a nervous breakdown if I continued. At the end of day eight, I resolved to give up the fight and leave. The moment I made that decision I experienced a deep calm and peace; the moment I stopped fighting with my mind I achieved inner serenity. Surprised and delighted, I decided to stay and finish the retreat. This was a valuable lesson in two ways. First, it taught me how strong the mind is. Second, it taught me that peace comes not by fighting but by surrendering. The strangest thing of all was that after spending so much time waiting for the silence to be broken so that I could speak to other participants that when the silence finally was broken, I knew what I wanted to say, but somehow the words wouldn't come out. I was speechless!

On the spiritual path there are always temptations and tests and mine came on the last day. It came in the form of the idea to continue and do another 10 days. My reasoning was that since I was in this lovely state of calm, another 10 days would be immensely powerful. But I had promised myself that I would do 10 days and I decided not to break it. I will never know what I might have accomplished by staying for another 10 days, but I felt I would have been staying out of a kind of spiritual greed so it was better to be incredibly grateful for what I had been given and move on.

Silence has a powerful spiritually transformational effect. In silence the mind has nowhere to go and it eventually gives up to reveal a hidden state of peace and calm. But it doesn't do this easily. For me, a silent retreat was essential in breaking the hold the mind has over consciousness. Before I did the intensive 10-day silent retreat, I had been on the occasional weekend meditation retreat and had meditated a little every day, but it was subjecting my mind to continual silence, to the point where I became so agitated and distressed, almost to the point of exhaustion, that I finally gave up, inducing a complete shift of consciousness.

Looking back at that retreat: what I went through was a street fight with myself (my mind) and this is what I believe it takes to become spiritually awakened, to get into a street fight with yourself. But who wants to do that?

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