Erect spines & noble silence | Day 1
In light of the current disruptions and changes we are all living through together right now, an abundance of information and news about Corona, being confronted with constantly changing feelings of loneliness, anxiety, hope, fear and uncertainty, we thought some brain distraction might we well appreciated. So I decided to share the notes I made during my 7-day meditation retreat in Sri Lanka in January. I am still living on this wonderful week of silence and meditation with likeminded people in midst of a natural forest waking up before sunrise and literally emptying my mind more and more with each passing day.
For the ones who are into meditation and are wondering what kind of meditation we were practicing, we were doing the Saddhibatana meditation practice, which comprises the two traditional meditation techniques taught and practiced by Buddha. The first one is called Samatha and emphasizes concentration and the second one and more popular one is called Vipassana accentuating mindfulness. In Samatha meditation you strictly focus on your breath in order to enhance your concentration ability while in Vipassana you allow yourself to let sensations and thoughts come and go with the purpose of enabling you to see things more clearly, to look beyond your subjective perceptions and see how things really are. As with all meditation techniques, by and large it´s all about acceptance and letting go, surely worthwhile qualities in times like these.
Even though I heard of stricter time schedules, it was still quite tough to begin with, especially for someone who has been travelling for several months without any sort of daily schedule and commitment.
04:45 am: Wake-up gong
05:00 am: Sitting Meditation
06:00 am: Tea
06:15 am: Mindfulness in motion (yoga)
07:30 am: breakfast
08:00 am: Working Meditation
09:30 am: Walking Meditation
10:00 am: Sitting Meditation
11:00 am: Dhamma Talk
12:00 pm: Lunch
12:30 pm: Reflection / personal time
02:00 pm: Walking Meditation
02:30 pm: Sitting Meditation
03:30 pm: Tea
04:30 pm: Sitting Meditation
06:00 pm: Evening Snack
06:45 pm: Chanting
07:00 pm: Meditation
08:00 pm: Discussion
09:00 pm: Nighty night
The notes I am sharing with you are a small account of my thoughts, emotions, feelings, reflections and struggles each day. Nevertheless words are very limited in their ability to express what´s happening inside yourself. After all meditation is all about experience and the experience can never fully be expressed by words. Still if you find a line or two that resonates with you in one way or another or that might even motivate you to try out meditation yourself, then sharing my notes was worthwhile.
We will be sharing one day each week for the next 6 weeks.
Today is the first day of the meditation retreat. The silence is nice, but also really strange and difficult. I haven´t had a time schedule in eight months. I have always had a certain dislike towards time schedules, particularly if I did not draw them up myself. Yet, I´m very well aware of its value. After all I worked on a daily schedule for 5 years, a schedule, which I have more or less drawn up by myself though.
This morning I had my first full hour of meditation between 5 and 6 am. When I closed my eyes for meditation it was still dark outside. When I opened them again, the sun was rising. It was a tough 60 minutes. Sitting still. Trying to focus on your breath. Your back starts aching, sending you signals to move. You force yourself to sit still and upright. How long an hour can be! “It should be almost over. Where is the bell? Did our master fall asleep maybe? Come on! Concentrate! Focus on your breath!” I´m on my way to the next meditation session, right now. As with everything in life, it will probably get better with practice, I´m telling myself.
The second hour of meditation was better, but still long. The seemingly simplest thing turns out to be the hardest: Sitting still for 60 minutes and do nothing but paying attention to your breath. Just me and myself. And this is exactly the challenge, I´m starting to figure out. To just be and deal with myself. I thought I liked being alone. And now I have trouble sitting in silence for one hour?! But have I ever even tried to just be and deal with myself for that long? Sporadically meditating for 10 to 15 minutes or so, probably doesn’t count. And it was possibly rather sitting in silence and day dreaming than actually meditating. It helped me a lot, too. But this seems different. So no, I guess I haven´t really meditated before. I reflect a lot, I read a lot, I ponder and I sporadically write my thought down, just as I´m doing now. I´m not even sure whether I´m supposed to write anything down during this retreat. I do it anyway. I feel like I need to release some of my thoughts. Maybe I can more easily let go of them then. While writing these lines I remember a book I read a few years back: “Wenn du Buddha triffst, töte ihn.” ‘When you meet Buddha, kill him.’ Quite a provocative title, but certainly with a deeper meaning, which I won´t give away now. The author of the book is Andreas Altmann, who writes about his experience in a 10-day meditation retreat in India. He also secretly took notes, which he was not supposed to. (As we would hear on the second day, we were actually encouraged to write our thoughts down.) He claimed that if you don´t start meditating after finishing reading the book, you probably never will. Ha! And here I am!
We are learning that one of the main principles of meditation is to learn to let go of things, thoughts and emotions. Am I actually good at letting go of things, I´m asking myself? As a child I collected all kinds of stuff – bottle caps, lighters, Pringles cans, watches, coins, gemstones and a lot more. Further I had a hard time letting go of worn down clothes. And what about things that happened in the past, do I usually have difficulties letting go of them? I certainly didn´t cling to my old life when I decided to quit my job and start traveling for an unspecified period of time. I don´t hold a crutch with anybody and I consider myself a forgiving person. But am I holding true to those standards to everyone, including the people I hold dear most? What role do expectations play in this context? Is there a covariance between my emotional connection to others and the expectation I have towards their behavior? And if so, how can I let go of that? I don´t have a definite answer for these questions at this point. The art of letting go also has different shades I guess and depends on the subject, the context, the timing and above all on your experiences in the past on certain subjects – the so-called skeletons in your closet. So lets see if writing these lines help in letting go of my thoughts and clearing my mind in the many hours of meditation lying ahead of me this week.
One thing I noticed and observed immediately after the first half day is that being present on command is unimaginably hard. I mean we talk about its importance all the time. We mustn’t live in the past, nor the future, but right in the moment. A popular saying goes: “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift. That´s why we call it the present.” I always considered myself a person who´s living in the present. But am I really? I am present when I try to catch the wave and stand on a surfboard. I am present when I´m hanging on the wall trying to conquer the bouldering route. I am present when I dance salsa. I am present when I cook. But that´s either because I have to concentrate or because I am in the flow, isn´t it? I can think of a several other activities that set my mind free. When I run a marathon, when I cycle uphill for several hours straight, when I hike up a mountain, when I´m having sex, then I´m right in the moment, without any effort, most of the time at least. Why? Because these are monotonous activities and they require either mental strengths or you are being set in a mental state of flow. There´s no room for distracting thoughts. One other important factor that’s not negligible is: While doing all of those activities, I´m having fun! But when I´m not engaging in any activity, am I able to focus on the moment or am I distracted by things that happened last week or that might happen tomorrow? The past 8 months we were always occupied with something. How are we getting from A to B? Where do we sleep? What and where do we eat? Trivial questions, but the essential everyday questions of a traveler. No day is the same. No routine. No familiar faces. Different people every day. Being together with your partner 24/7. A daily life of extremes. You´re brain is always on alert. No wonder it is so hard for me to focus and to clear my mind. My mind doesn´t know how to relax anymore as it is always on alert for the next unpredictable circumstance. It was about time to give my mind a break!
Everyday between 11am and 12pm we are taught bits and pieces about the history and philosophy of the origins of Buddhism and Buddha´s meditation practices. In order for us to get into the meditation routine as fast as possible, we learnt about the five factors that hinder you in successfully mastering meditation. These are thoughts about pleasure, anger, laziness, restlessness and doubt. And you will only know how many of your thoughts actually circle around these Big 5 once you tried meditating yourself. It´s literally mind-blowing when you realize what´s going on in your head. However, there are also 5 things that support you in mastering meditation. These are mindfulness, concentration, energy, trust and wisdom. These factors are very much interrelated with each other and it is very easy to downplay them as we all have heard and read about them countless times. And now here I´m sitting and thinking: How mindful am I really in everyday life? How mindful am I in the interaction with others? How mindful am I of my surroundings? How high is my level of concentration when I´m focusing on a particular task? How easily am I distracted? Am I aware of my energy levels? Does my energy curve resemble a wavy line or a big sinus curve with huge ups and downs? Do I know when I have to recharge? And do I know my energy sources? Are my thoughts filled with trust or doubt? And when I experience doubt, do I recognize it and am I able to convert my thought in more trustful ones? When I make decisions, do I mainly rely on knowledge, which is information fed to me from the outside, or do I trust my inner wisdom, which is nourished by my past experiences? Meditation is supposed to bring us closer to those five pillars of truth, so that the meditator can start implementing them in his or her life. While I´m contemplating about all of this, the tender feeling overcomes me that I´m just starting to see the effectiveness and the power of meditation.