A while back, I had posted about starting a meditation practice. I’ve been continuing on that practice since then and have a nice daily practice of it now. As I’ve been noticing the changes having such a daily practice has had for me, I’ve been wanting to attend a retreat to see what one was like. I had a bit of an idea of what I’d experience from listening to Dharma talks and from listening to the experiences of my fellow Dharma Punx at Profound Existence and I really liked what I heard. And having just recently come out of a relationship, when I saw that the retreat was named “Resting the Weary Heart and Mind”, I was pretty much sold. So this past weekend (25 Feb 2011 – 27 Feb 2011), I went on my first meditation retreat at the Insight Meditation Society’s Retreat Center.
The way this particular retreat worked is you arrive mid to late Friday afternoon, get settled in, have dinner and then start in on the retreat Friday night once all of the paperwork and jobs are assigned (each participant in the retreat gets a housekeeping job as a way to practice mindfulness in an everyday task). Once that was settled, we had our first sit and meeting with the teachers around 8:30. At which point, we undertook a vow of silence for the weekend, to help us keep focused on being mindful and reduce distractions.
The weekend was basically a series of sitting and walking meditations with some instruction and Dharma talks mixed in with the sitting meditation. Saturday was pretty much all sitting and walking meditation outside of meal times. While I was aware that the retreat was basically a structured schedule for meditation, it’s something else to see it on paper and experience it. It never actually felt overwhelming, but once I stood face to face with it, the thought did cross my mind ;)
Even with that being said, I really enjoyed the weekend. Due to all of the focus on mindfulness, Saturday felt like one of the longest days I’ve experienced. Time really seemed to slow down when you’re working at being present in every moment of the day. In particular, somewhere in a mid-afternoon sit on Saturday, when we were focusing on sounds, my mind really seemed to slow down or take a step back. All of the sudden, the thoughts that always pop into your head didn’t show up as often, and I was much more aware of them when they did rather than getting lost in a thought and realizing minutes later where my attention was. This image of an expansive black circle popped into my head during that time, as if the awareness and newer degree of quiet were related. Like the circle represented the mind as a blank slate, and the thoughts would float up into the bottom of the circle, get acknowledged as thoughts and fade away. From then until our break for dinner, the mind pretty much stayed in this state even through a walking meditation.
The retreat really helped me to realize that the practice is about focusing on the body, not so much just the breath. I hadn’t really been as aware of that before. While there have been times I’ve been focused enough on my breath that I feel like I could count the hairs in my nostrils simply from the sensation of the air moving through them, it really hadn’t clicked or felt like that it was necessarily part of the body. The combination of the walking meditation into the practice and the guided meditations that focused on the body sensations really helped this click for me. Though in some ways the walking meditation almost felt like cheating because it’s easy to be aware of your feet when one of them is hurting every time you step on it ;)
As I’m still fairly new to Buddhist meditation, I’m still figuring out which parts of it make sense for me. Some of the concepts about karma and rebirth I’m still undecided about, mostly related to the multiple-actual-lifetimes concepts rather than the idea that each moment or mind-state is a birth and a death. So it was kind of interesting and fun to see how my mind responded when these topics came up in the Dharma talks over the weekend. Initially, there was a kind of knee-jerky awareness in how I responded when the topics came up. But as the weekend progressed, I was mostly able to just notice when one of these topics came up and acknowledge the current state of difference of opinion without my mind coloring in that difference with judgement, fear, or simply not knowing. This has long been a stumbling block for me (having trouble believing in something once the brain starts to question it), so it was nice to see once again that the brain can change even the more stubborn or ingrained patterns.
As we left on Sunday, one thing that I noticed and perhaps was a bit surprised on was how happy I was afterwards. I’ve been noticing my level of overall happiness increase as my practice continues, but I thought some of that was in part to normally using loving-kindness/metta or compassion meditations in my daily practice. And while there were one or two of each of those meditations in the weekend, the weekend was mostly focused on being mindful and being aware of your body. So it kind of caught me as a bit of a pleasant surprise to notice that level of happiness from mostly just being aware of the body in present moment. Granted a number of the books I’ve read and the Dharma talks I’ve listened to talk about this, but I think it had slipped into the back of my mind until I actually experienced it myself.
I am glad decided to do this and am very grateful that places like IMS exist to allow people to further their practice and work at discovering for themselves what being in the present moment, even for a split second, can do. I eagerly await the next retreat I go on (with as little suffering I can generate in relation to that eagerness :-P).