Sunday afternoon I returned from a weekend at Casa de Maria, a beautiful center in Santa Barbara, California with rolling hills, miles of trails, swimming pools, massage centers…
There were many people there for many different reasons. There was a women in business conference, a getaway for a Korean church, indivduals and couples looking to escape for a weekend… and then, me.
I was there for other purposes. About 4 months ago I signed up for a yearlong intensive training in Vipassana meditation. I’ve meditated informally for years, but felt I needed more direction and instruction. One of the program’s requirements is a certain number of day-long and residential retreats.
So there I was, with about thirty other aspiring meditators, at my first residential retreat. As I drove Friday afternoon along the coast and came upon the beautiful estate, I thought… “Here comes enlightenment!”
We settled in to our quarters (Three beds to a room? I don’t know about this…), gabbed over dinner (I know many of the participants from our weekly meditation classes) and arrived around 7:30pm to the open hall that would be our practice center for the next few days.
First things first: This would be a silent retreat. There would be no talking, and even no eye contact with the other participants. Next things next: “What we’re doing here is important, extremely important” one of the teachers said. “It’s so important that you shouldn’t take it too seriously.”
Our instructions were simple. When sitting, focus on the breath. Hold it gently like a bird. When you get distracted, which you will, go back to the breath. When walking, focus on the sensations in the feet. If that’s too complicated, focus on one big toe.
So then started 36 hours of meditation, minus some hours here and there for sleeping and eating. We alternated 30 minute periods of sitting and walking meditation into the night. We went to bed, slept as well as one can in a twin bed, when two strangers you’re not allowed to make eye contact with are in the room, and were back at 7am for more meditation.
We had breakfast, meditated. Had lunch, meditated. Had dinner, meditated, slept. You get the idea.
Life is intense
When starting out the weekend, one of the instructors sought to explain what we were doing here, why we had set out to do this difficult task when it would be much easier to watch TV or sleep or jog or do whatever else we like to do with our time.
Life is intense, he said. There’s a lot of grief, turmoil, joy, excitement, disappointment and loss that goes into being a human being, and it’s unavoidable. We were there to face the fact this is the nature of the human experience, and there’s not too much we could do to change it.
Our lives are operated by grasping at pleasure and pushing away at pain
Like most people, I spend much of my time thinking about what I want to get or achieve and what I want to avoid or change. It was interesting to watch this habit play out on the retreat.
At home, my desires are big – I want to pay off my medical school loans, to be a better therapist and psychiatrist, to buy a house, to be a writer, and on and on. I feel that once I have these things, then I will be happy.
At the retreat, the desires were smaller, but their power was not. At 7am meditation I was consumed with the thought of having a cup of coffee. I thought about it for the whole 30 minutes. I imagined how good it would taste, how much better I would feel having it. “Once I get that cup of coffee,” I thought, “then I’ll be happy.”
Then breakfast came, and I walked eagerly to the coffee stand, and I pressed the lever on the cannister and filled my cup, and sat back down, and anticipated that first sip as strongly as anything else I’ve ever anticipated in my life. And that first sip was… wonderful.
But then, after two or three sips, I was over it. My mind was already somewhere else. “I just want some eggs.” I thought. “Then I’ll be happy.”
This theme played out throughout the retreat. I just wanted a nap, or for the meditation to end so I could move, or for my back to stop aching, but once those things came, they didn’t make me happy the way I thought they would.
Whatever your habits and tendencies, these will be magnified at retreat
I wrote recently about Buddhist personality types – the idea that people tend to operate from one of three primary modes of thinking: 1) greed, 2) aversion, and 3) confusion.
As an “aversive” type, you can guess where my mind went a lot of the time. I judged everything. The person who showed up late and made a lot of noise, my cushion for being uncomfortable, myself for not meditating well enough.
I wanted to be a good meditator. At one point during a teaching session I asked a question about walking meditation.
“So, this walking thing, I know I focus on my feet, and if I get distracted I go back to the feet, but what about when something strong comes up, and I can’t focus on the feet, can I make that new thing the object of meditation or what?”
One of the teachers suggested making a strong effort to keep the focus to the feet. He gave a longer explanation about the nuance of walking meditation, to which I eagerly listened. Then he asked for the other teacher’s opinion.
This other teacher, who knows me personally from residency and meditation classes, gave me another way to consider the question. “You know,” he said, “You can also just not think about it so hard. You’re probably used to being expected to get everything right and are looking at meditation through the same lens. This is not something you can be perfect at.”
Bingo! Touché meditation teacher, touché. Anal retentiveness has been put in check.
Intention is everything
At one point I asked a question about how to deal with strong distractions. How to balance staying focused on the breath with not being too rigid or effortful in the whole thing. The teacher reframed the question.
“The mind will get distracted and lose focus”, he said. “It can happen slowly or instantaneously, but it will happen, and there’s not too much you can do about it. The important thing is your intention to come back to the breath.”
So again again, over and over and over, you find yourself in the middle of the thought, and choose the return to the breath. You sit down with returning to the breath as your honest and sincere intention.
Even with that intention, I found myself getting constantly distracted, which made me think – what does my mind do when I don’t set an intention for it? It takes me all sorts of crazy places, that’s where!
Every passing thought becomes a train to get on and ride for the next few minutes, hours or days. It’s no way to live. At some point you’ve got to put a rein on that whole thing.
Our lives are too hurried
The weekend at the retreat was… slow. Like really, really slow. A single day unfolded over what felt like weeks. It made me realize how most of our daily lives are way too fast.
During the periods of walking meditation, we would spread out around outside the hall, settle into our feet, and then start the process of slowly, carefully, intently lifting each foot, swinging, placing, lifting…
Each step would take at least a few seconds. At one point I peeked my eyes open, and realized we all looked like a bunch of zombies. Brains! Then I realized I was distracted and tried to go back to the feet.
There was this Korean kid walking to the pool, maybe 7 years old. He had his swim trunks on and was holding a noodle under his arm. He was looking at us like we were all crazy. He was just trying to get to the pool and here we were acting like complete weirdos and walking 0.05 miles and hour.
Seriously, though, as the weekend wrapped up, I found myself overcome with a feeling of sadness about returning home. Don’t get me wrong – I’m happy and I’ve got a great life – but it’s fast. Way too fast. I came back to dozens of urgent emails, voicemails from patients, errands I had to run, bills I had to pay, etc.
I’m sure it’s the same as a lot of people. We’re expected to handle massive amounts of tasks and information at all times. We’re constantly trying to drink from a fire hose. I don’t think human beings were meant to live the way that most of us do.
This. Is. It.
One of the goals of a meditation retreat is to be forced up close and personal with the nature of the human experience. As I sat and walked, I was witness to the insanity of my own mind.
I wanted things with an all-consuming desire, and then was unsatisfied when I got them. I became angry and resentful at my own discomfort when I had no power to control it.
This is it, though – this is what it’s like to be human. This, right here, right now, is the human experience. One of the reasons we meditate is to come to peace with this fact. We learn to accept it, then we learn to love it. Then we discover a deeper peace that’s beyond trying to get something or push something away. A peace that says, “I want this, and that’s okay, or “I hate this, and that’s okay too.”
I’ll let you know when I get there.
What about you? Have you been to a meditation retreat? What’s the experience been like? Leave a comment and let me hear your thoughts.
Photo by Jesse Bezz