Wednesday, 6 April 2011
Sssshhhh! (Part 2)
Going on retreat isn't entirely new to me as I've been on two previous occasions . On those earlier ones there were occasionally times when I had to shut up but didn't have to sustain this self-enforced lack of communication over any length of time. But during the second one we were silent for a whole afternoon and this whetted my appetite for keeping schtum for longer.
I chose to go to Gaia House mainly for the deep and meaningful reason that it's near my home - so close, as already mentioned, that I nearly arrived back at Lovelygrey Villas when I got lost! Alright, I'll confess that it's not quite the whole picture. The centre's also got a good reputation which unsurprisingly, as a discerning human being, I took into consideration too. I chose my particular retreat as it emphasised silent practice and also because the leaders, Noah Levine and Vinny Ferraro, didn't look at all like conventional authoritarian teacher types. In the flesh they reminded me of the Hairy Bikers, except they didn't have much hair on top...oh! and they were American...and they didn't cook....and I'm not sure that they rode motorbikes either. Well, perhaps they weren't like Si and Dave at all but I hope you've now got the idea that they didn't come out of the traditional white robed monk mould.
Now others who'd been on silent retreats themselves laid emphasis on the emotional challenge that they expected me to face. 'A long weekend? Well, that's enough for all sorts of issues to come to the surface'. No wonder I went into the place with a sense of foreboding. But I came out after summarising my experience with the world 'happiness'. It wasn't as if the break provided something akin to a relaxing spa retreat. I shared a sparse room, ate a simple diet, commited to an hour of daily work and did not even have my usual distractions of a pile of books and some craft materials. Although sitting meditation sounds like a bit of a slacker's dream it was actually a physically gruelling experience. And at the end of the day, I didn't even come anywhere close to a mystical experience that might have been seen as adequate compensation for the joint and muscle pain and lack of luxury.
Others on the course however seemed to find the retreat emotionally challenging. Particularly when the teachers talked about fostering kindness towards ourselves and others, there was a bit of sobbing and the number of notes for Vinny and Noah that were posted on the noticeboard seemed to explode exponentially. Cries for help I wondered? Yet, I did not find the topic upsetting but found joy in the fact that I've already gone some way in learning not be self critical and hey! it seemed to be working. I found that I already had enough self love to accept my imperfect wandering mind.
I shared this with Noah in my only chance to talk during the retreat, a group interview with some of the other participants. He felt that perhaps I was now being too easy on myself and helpfully likened meditation practice to a lute that constantly needs retuning. It doesn't only sound dreadful when its strings are too tight, but they could be too loose instead. So, I tried a little harder and hey, I think I've got a teensy weensy bit better at focusing on the moment. No deeply meaningful technique, I've just found that counting repeatedly from one to five helps me sustain concentration for a little longer before my 'monkey mind' wandered off yet again and pondered deep and meaningful questions like what was the link between Buddhism and a love of tattoos! And for those amongst my friends who doubted my ability to keep my mouth shut for more than five minutes without the use of jawbreaker toffee, I laugh in your faces, ha! You will be truly astonished to discover that I found the silence and near absence of non verbal communication intensely liberating with no need to expend effort on explaining myself, coming up with clever quips or expressing my wants or needs!