I recently attended a silent week of meditation and mindfulness near Ottawa, where I worked at paying attention, observing my reactions to what was going on, and managing these reactions.
Paying attention during the 4 sessions of sitting meditation each day, interspersed with walking meditation, was greatly assisted by the expert guidance of the Buddhist monk leading the retreat – Bhante Rahula - who I’d sat with several times before. His teachings, during meditation and during a dharma talk each afternoon, made a huge difference (http://bhanterahula.blogspot.ca/).
He taught about mindfulness of the body, the first of 4 foundations of mindfulness taught by the Buddha. During every waking moment of the day, we were encouraged to slow down our movements, really pay attention to what our body was doing, label in our mind what our body was doing (say “sitting, sitting” or “walking, walking” with our inner voice) and feel the body’s posture, breathing and every movement. This constant focus on body awareness was supported by Bhante’s expert yoga sessions twice a day.
By disciplining my mind to pay attention, I was necessarily thinking much less because the mind can’t do both at the same time. My mind became less available to rehash the past, rehearse the future, or judge the present. I encouraged my mind to just “be” – to empty itself of thoughts and pay attention rather than ruminating. It gradually lessened its habitual tendency to think/think/think and became much more quiet during the week.
Of course, the retreat conditions support a quieter mind because there are fewer distractions and decisions to be made. We don’t talk to anyone, except for administrative issues (“I’ve locked myself out of my room – could I borrow the master key?”) or discussing our practice with the monk during 10 minute interviews. We don’t use any electronic gadgets or read because these would be mental distractions (but I “cheat” a little and allow myself 30 minutes each evening of Buddhist literature). And, what and when we do all day is set out in an agenda that begins with a bell-ringer walking through the dormitory at 5 am and ends with the last meditation adjourning at 8:30 pm.
These same simplistic retreat conditions, however, also create a challenging environment. We can’t do “what we usually do”, which creates dissatisfaction in the mind. Retreats have been described as “learning to be content with discomfort”. It’s sort of a “boot camp” training in how to “keep your cool” under stressful conditions. And the better I get at it, the “cooler” it feels. It’s satisfying to think “I can do this. I can just pay attention to what’s going on without going nuts – without having any reactive emotions” (or, at least not having strong ones).
And, so, it’s a week of watching my reactions to big and little conditions – not being able to call my wife, missing the morning paper over coffee, and having to sit very still for a whole hour – and “catching myself” before I begin complaining with the usual colour commentary in my mind. Instead, trying to approach each situation with an open, curious mind to really see what’s going on inside my head and heart and body. And, occasionally experiencing an interesting insight into a personal negative mental habit, reflecting on it, and perhaps resolving to approach my shortening Ife a little differently – a little more like a curious novice than someone with strong preferences, fixed views and images of self-importance.
It’s not an easy week, but well worth it. It’s like lifting weights at the gym. In this case, however, it’s using weights for my mind rather than for my body. And, you know? These mental “reps”, like the physical “reps”, have a lasting, nourishing effect. That’s why I keep going back for more.