a chapter of Mindfulness Ontario
One year after attending the course on meditation and mindfulness (MBSR), I went on my first meditation retreat. It was an experience which, initially, was not particularly pleasant.
The retreat took place in Orangeville, north of Toronto on the May long weekend in 2000. With twenty other “yogis” – meditators - I was practising sitting and walking meditation. The daily highlight was a talk on Buddhist teachings, followed by the retreat leader Norman’s response to written questions. We weren’t to speak or engage in other mental activities involving a phone, radio, reading or writing. To help us restrain the urge to speak to others, we were to avoid eye contact with anyone. Our objective was to practice mindfulness – paying attention – in order to cultivate a mind that is more peaceful and less reactive. Any other mental activities were a distraction from this objective.
I had arrived Friday afternoon full of enthusiasm. I knew that, to advance in meditation, you should supplement your daily practice with an occasional retreat. I’d signed up for a week. But after three days, I’d decided to leave.
Part of my challenge in attending was giving up one-third of my annual vacation. “This had better be worth it”’, my inner voice said as I sat on my meditation bench on Saturday. An economist by training, I knew the “opportunity cost” of attending - all the enjoyable activities I could experience or all the useful tasks I could complete if I weren’t there. “Being worth it” presumably meant enjoying blissful meditations or experiencing important insights – the retreat was labelled as Vipassana which means “insight into the true nature of reality”. In truth, however, I didn’t have a clear idea of what to expect.
By the end of Sunday, the only insights I’d experienced were that it was difficult to stay awake, my lower back hurt, and each meditation session was murderously long. During each session, I checked my watch frequently, hoping that it would end soon. No blissful experiences or realizations were happening so far.
I found myself mentally reviewing lists of things I could have been doing if I hadn’t come. They looked much more attractive than sitting with my eyes closed and experiencing my breathing. If there were some offsetting benefits, it might “be worth it”, but I couldn’t find any. The retreat wasn’t living up to its “billing”, or so I thought. Perhaps it was poorly designed. I never considered my own responsibility, however, for this turn of events.
By Monday, I’d decided to leave. I felt an obligation to explain in person my decision to Norman and his wife Molly. I wrote them a note, stating my intention to leave on Tuesday after the small group session. Could I see them after the session? Their written reply said yes.
Eight of us were seated in a circle. In this single opportunity to speak during the retreat, Norman invited each of us to report on our experience, if we wished, and to raise any questions. He suggested a clockwise order of speaking, starting with the person to my left. This meant that I would speak last.
As I listened to the others, I realized that everyone was having difficulties of one sort or another. It’s often said that “meditation is simple but not easy”. It takes effort and concentration to keep remembering, when your mind inevitably drifts to other things, to bring your attention back to the breath, again and again. I began to feel a sense of community with the others. And I began to realize that the purpose of all the sensory and mental deprivations was to learn to “be” with whatever was going on in your mind. This was the basis for learning about yourself, your mental habits, and trying to cope with them. I was seeing much more clearly what we were doing, or trying to do. At my turn, I said that I’d planned to leave, but that this group session had changed my mind. I left the session with a new perspective, and a feeling of mental relaxation.
The rest of the retreat was much more pleasant, not only because of my new viewpoint but also because I “let up” on myself a lot. If my back was sore, I sat in a chair. If I was tired, I went and napped. I allowed myself one hour a day to read a book on Buddhist teachings. I removed my watch and just responded to the “gongs” notifying us of the next scheduled activity in the day.
I later realized that I had ignored many of the mindfulness attitudes during the retreat. Sure, l was going through the motions of sitting almost motionless and focusing on my breath. But, I hadn’t really applied the teachings of Jon Kabatt-Zinn - founder of the MBSR course – that mindfulness also depends on important supporting attitudes. The key ones were to try to accept whatever is occurring – externally and internally - and to investigate what’s happening. And acceptance itself depended upon other attitudes:
- letting go – of our thoughts about how things should be
- non-judging – since judgments keep us from fully experiencing the situation
- non-striving – not focusing on the end result because we can miss out on what is happening along the way.
Instead, I had arrived at the retreat with certain expectations, and spent my time comparing reality to what I was hoping for. When it didn’t materialize, my mind searched – without any wisdom – for an answer other than in my own mind. In doing so, I created a lot of stress for myself.
On the way back to Ottawa, I turned up the volume on Neil Diamond’s cassette and sang loudly and happily most of the trip. I felt that I’d experienced something very wholesome that I wanted to pursue. My wife later told me that I talked during the week-end about three times as much as usual. I might have been “making up for lost time” or just expressing my enthusiasm.
Subsequent retreats were more and more satisfying. I was becoming better at noticing, accepting and investigating whatever came up. As Yogi Berra once said, “You can see a lot just by watching”.