OK. I was not expecting that.
I just returned from an eight day meditation retreat.
Meditation takes many forms. This retreat focused on “insight meditation”, a type of Buddhist Meditation brought to North America by Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg and Jack Kornfield via the Insight Meditation Society in Barre Massachusetts. The creator and leader of this particular retreat, going on for something like 20-30 years, Mary Jo Meadow, was a student of Joseph Goldstein as well as a Professor of Religious Studies and a psychologist.
During the formal sitting meditations, the practice goes something like: you focus on the breath. When you notice you are thinking about something – anything – you note to yourself that you are thinking and return your focus and awareness to the sensation of breathing. (Other body sensations and emotions come into play too. The practice is subtle; simple and complex at the same time) Sittings last 45 minutes. There were five sittings each day.
I was more or less expecting that. But the instruction that “we are ALWAYS “practising” was, well, a bit of a shock. When the sittings were finished the meditative state was to be maintained either in formal walking meditation or some other meditative practice.
There was no “relief”. Sure, reading, checking e-mail, listening to music were out. That I expected of a silent retreat. But the idea of maintaining the practice at all times hadn’t occurred to me. I’d wake up hoping I’d “let my mind go wild” over morning coffee only to realize that, to understand this type of meditation, I’d need to find an object of meditation. Instead of thinking about what I’d be doing after the retreat I was supposed to constantly return my attention to the warmth of the cup in my hands or the taste of the coffee on my tongue.
Mealtimes were a particular challenge. You can probably guess what mindful eating entails. I’ve spent a lifetime rushing through meals. I still remember my best friend Michael Goodson at the age of 8 looking at me in astonishment after I’d wolfed down a Big Mac. He had taken maybe a bite and commented with great wryness he liked to enjoy the taste of his food.
(I should interject here that there was no enforcement of all this, nor was there any way to enforce it. Probably in Monasteries there is a regime, but not here. The central question for me was, did I trust enough to follow the experience I signed up for. Was I willing to try this and see what happens. By and large I said “yes”).
The experience was, at times, crushing. I became quite worried – until the retreat leader told me not to pay attention to the stories of my mind – that I was a Humpty Dumpty of sorts. That I’d be broken apart by the experience and unable to be put back together.
I’m still here. I will continue with a daily mindfulness practice. I don’t know that I could ever do a retreat like that again.
I don’t know what happened in human history to make mindfulness so difficult. I believe it is the natural way to live. The way we were intended to live.
May you live with ease,
May you be safe from harm and free from cruelty
May you be healthy and happy
May you be prosperous
May you know Peace.