I haven't written all summer mainly because I went on a silent retreat for 18 days in July and I just got used to it; shutting up for that long becomes a new habit and such a relief from the continual small talk that takes up so much of our energy. I loved it but not great for performing unless it's mime. The course was led by Joseph Goldstein, one of the people who brought meditation to the West after studying with the Dalai Lama in the 70s.
I was always curious what the effects of a long silent retreat would be? Would I be enlightened? Would I have a nervous breakdown? You have both experiences but they alternate minute by minute. Just when you think you've reached Buddhahood because your mind is clear, the familiar negative thoughts smash in and shoot you down; reminding you what a jerk you are. Practicing mindfulness for ten hours a day is like going to a mental boot camp. The Iron Man of mind endurance. I swear it would be easier to bike up a mountain range and swim the Channel than sitting so many hours with without any distractions.
When I first arrived and saw my humble dorm room with the sliver of bed, found out the bathroom was co-ed and that we wake at 5:15 (not a time I even knew existed), I thought, "I'm out of here". There were no phones allowed, no Internet, no reading, no nothing. I was so desperate to do something, I started looking at the rocks and picking out which one I liked best (a desperate substitute for shopping). The next day I'd return the rock I chose and pick out a new one. You're just lumped there listening to your thoughts; the good, the bad, the ugly. You want distraction and you want distraction bad.
It wasn't always sitting meditation, as soon as forty-five minutes were up, we did walking meditation for forty-five minutes, then back to sitting and so on, until lunch, dinner or bed. The exception was after breakfast, when we had clean up time. I got the dishwashing shift, which again made me think, "I'm out of here." But after a few days, I found I had an innate talent for separating forks, knives and spoons and putting them in separate holders. I loved it. I broke my silence one day to tell a co-worker on my dish shift to "back off" when she tried to elbow into my job of organizing cutlery .
The first few days of the retreat were gruelling. Sometimes a day felt like a year as my thoughts declared war on me and kept a steady stream of bad reviews. I finally had to talk to one of the staff telling her that I was frightened that I was heading into a state of depression. She said I should imagine a sign at the end of a town on the road that reads "You are now leaving the state of depression." She told me to be patient and stay with it. She told me that no skill is easy when you first start, but the pay offs come later.
To be continued next week
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