This is the second of a two piece blog entry which discusses ” the logistics, my experiences, and the teachings at the Monastery”
To return to Part 1 discussing “Why I went” and “The journey there” Click Here
The retreat begins (opening words)
“The purpose of this meditation retreat is to learn, practice, and develop some basic methods and techniques which can benefit each one of us in our lives. We will be practicing and learning mental development. For most if not all of us here, there has come the understanding that there are some things in life that are not totally satisfying. Whether it be something physically minor like a headache or a small cut. Whether it be something physically major like cancer or death. Whether its mentally minor like getting upset when the bus is late, or mentally major like the grief that comes after the loss of a loved one. Whether it physical, mental, small, or large. Continually throughout our life we encounter situations that are not totally satisfying. Perhaps on occasion we have tried to ignore these things, but this is only a temporary measure. Perhaps other times we have tried to escape from these things. Whether it has been with alcohol, drugs, work, TV, or whatever, once again this is only a temporary measure. The roots of our difficulties are not eliminated in this way. If we can come to a deeper understanding of life as it ACTUALLY is. Not just what we think it is. Not just what we think it should be. But if we can come to a deeper understanding to life as it actually is, and also come to a deeper understanding of how we react to life. Then we will be in a better position to find deeper peace and happiness in our life.”
We reported to the meditation hall where we were told by one of our two teachers, Steve, that we would receive two hour long lectures each day.
Something about what he said and his manner of delivery instantly changed the tone in the room. Of course no one was talking besides Steve but it was suddenly pin drop silent as everyone’s body language adjusted and tensed up a bit. His speech conveyed that we weren’t here for fun. This wasn’t for people just looking for some cool experience to tell their friends about, this was serious. This was about making a change in our lives and using the techniques and lessons our teachers would share with us to help us better the quality of our lives and others that we share this wisdom with. This was about taking a step back and peering inside of ourselves to figure out who we really are and what it is we want out of life. For some, this was about facing those demons deep down inside of that they may, or may not have known about.
Our teachers went on to give us some background on how the retreat would work and some of the things to expect throughout our daily schedule.
RETREAT DAILY SCHEDULE
4:00 am Wake up
4:45 Sitting meditation
5:30 Exercises with Mindfulness
6:35 Sitting meditation
8:15 Working Meditation
9:00 Walking meditation
9:30 A talk given by the teachers and Sitting meditation
10:15 Sitting or Standing meditation
10:25 A talk
10:30 Walking meditation
1:00 pm Walking meditation
1:45 Standing or Sitting meditation
2:45 Walking meditation
3:30 Sitting meditation
4:15 Sitting or Standing meditation
4:30 Walking meditation
5:15 Light Dinner
6:15 Sitting meditation
6.45 Standing or Walking meditation
7:15 A talk
afterwards Optional Meditation or Sleep
We all had different chores to sign up for that we would be responsible for during the retreat. Some of the chores included: helping prepare food, cleaning bathrooms, and sweeping walkways. Mine was to help do the dishes in the cafeteria after lunch. The purpose of each chore was to help transition the lifestyle we were practicing at the retreat into the real-world once we would have finished our 10 day retreat. We were kind of like a self-sufficient community where if everyone does their part everyone’s basic living needs are taken care of.
Waking up at 4am everyday seemed dreadful at first but turned out to be amazing. For most people who are self employed and don’t have to be awake at a certain hour, getting out of bed at a reasonable hour can be daunting. With that said I know I am much happier and healthier when I am on an early schedule. The first few days I woke up exhausted, but with all the focus and concentration we were doing, falling asleep at an early hour was almost automatic. By the third night I was waking up at 4am with a ton of energy! Here I was wasting away years trying to get on a good sleep schedule and BOOM, with a few days of gutting out the morning grogginess, I was on a good sleep schedule. It was amazing how easy it was to fall asleep after a full day worth of concentration. This is a great example of how obtaining a great sleep schedule isn’t always dependent on “night caps” or drugs.
As stated in part one, I had very little knowledge on what meditation was. I just knew the basics of it, which was clearing your mind and being relaxed.
The first form of mediation we learned was sitting meditation.
1. You sit in formal sitting position, which could be cross legged, on your knees, on a kneeling stool, or on a chair for those who cannot sit on the floor. The main thing is that you are sitting up right with a straight back. You can place your hands somewhere comfortably folded across your lap or even place a small pillow on your lap to put them on top of.
2. You close your eyes and breath naturally in and out of your nose.
3. Try to observe your breathing, by focusing on each breath in and each breath out. If other thoughts cross your mind just acknowledge that these thoughts exist and let them pass
Seems simple right? Apparently that is not the case. As you begin you will quickly realize that it is close to impossible to not think about other things and that your mind just keeps wandering. As we struggled with this, we experienced our first realization. Acknowledging that our mind wanders aimlessly and that we have very little control over it doing so.
Note: As I speak about this subject, even those who do not meditate might still be able to relate. Try to think about the times you experience difficulty trying to focus on something whether it be poker, a book, or even a simple conversation)
I don’t have any particular study to reference and a legitimate way to quantify it, but it would not surprise me if people were unaware of 90% of their thoughts that crossed their mind throughout the day.
After we acknowledged and accepted that we do not pay attention to most of our thoughts, the next step was to realize what these thoughts were about and where they stemmed from. Our second teacher, Rosemary, spoke:
“When we start to meditate and try to develop concentration on the breath or the footsteps (during walking meditation). We find that there are certain thoughts in the mind that are causing us difficulties and problems. Which draw our attention away from the mediation object. We find that we cannot stay with the breath or footsteps for more than a few moments. These obstacles to concentrations also sometimes cause the building of stress in the body and the mind. Within the Buddhist teaching these obstacles to concentration are called The Five Hindrances.”
I can’t begin to describe how amazed I was that every single thought I had throughout the 10 days would always fall into one of these 5 hindrances. Sometimes I thought a few things did not fall into any of the categories, but eventually realized that I had not fully understood the root of what was causing these thoughts. I hear a lot of beginner meditators say they have never been able to keep their mind from wandering. Understanding and being aware of these hindrances is a major step towards being able to let go of these thoughts.
As you read about The Five Hindrances below, keep in mind the following Buddhists philosophy. Everything in life is impermanent; therefore attachment to any person, place, or thing, is ultimately counterproductive.
The Five Hindrances
Sense desire. A lot of our dissatisfaction arises because what we have in this moment is just not good enough. We want a better site, a better sound, the most delicious food, a better partner, we want to be admired, we want to be loved. We are continually searching for experiences that will satisfy us. It’s the constant feeling of lacking something, and we think that if we get everything we think we want that it will make us happy. Start paying attention to how often you use the words “ I wish” or “I want”. Even when we are somewhere quite pleasant like a comfortable hotel room or fancy restaurant I still found myself saying “ I wish they had this brand”, “I want another sink or outlet in this area” Constantly unsatisfied with what we have and wasting energy thinking about things that are out of our control and serve no benefit to focus on.
2. Aversion (not liking)
Opposite of desire. A pushing away rather than reaching for. When things are unpleasant to us, people like to have aversion to things. Its strong energy is stimulating and gives them a powerful sense of identity. But they haven’t realized the negative affect it has on the mind and body of themselves and others. Examples: Jealousy, judgment fear, prejudice, irritation, annoyance, anger
3. Sloth and topper
Laziness, boredom, inertness, sleepiness, and not wishing to put forth energy. Sloth and topper creates aversion, which uses up the little energy we had, which creates a negative cycle. There are differences from sleepiness that arises from boredom and stress as apposed to sleepiness that is caused form a long hard day of concentration and work.For those of you who already have a basic understanding of mediation and awareness techniques, use broader awareness techniques rather than small detailed awareness when you experience these feelings. Pay attention to your physical body when you get tired and just fix the things that it is causing because you are actually making yourself MORE tired by doing these things. For example, when we are tried of sitting or standing up right you may start to slouch or lean to a certain side in some sort of posture that is inefficient and exerts more energy making you even more tired. Just be aware of the physical changes your body is making and re adjust them. It sounds easier said than done but as your ability to mediate becomes stronger you’ll be amazed as you find yourself being able to sit or stand in positions four or five times longer without feeling cumbersome.
4. Restlessness & Worry
Out of control thoughts with no rhyme or reason why they arise. Thoughts coming from the past or future, creating worry and fear of things that may never happen. Jumping into the past building up grief and agitation. All this may overwhelm the mind. Staying in the present moment and realizing that these thoughts are pointless and stressing your mind and body out will help you let go of them. “How long this flight is” “How annoying is that guy on the train” Thinking about these things bothers us, tenses up our body and serves absolutely no benefit as we aren’t changing the outside world in anyway by thinking about them. Focus more on each step and moment instead. Just acknowledge that these things are the way they are, and let them be. If there is some sort of action you can take to change something, then calmly do so. If there is not, then just observe and move on.“Restlessness arises, we start to have aversion, then a desire for a better experience… all this thinking uses up the energy in the mind and leads to sloth and topper. With sloth and topper its difficult to see anything clearly and then doubt and self hatred arises. This is call the multiple hindrance attack, a chain of hindrances.”-Rosemary
“Doubt” is one of the hardest to recognize and one of the strongest hindrances in westerners. Hesitation in the mind, a lack of confidence, and doubt about ourselves. Doubt from comparing ourselves to others and putting unrealistic expectations upon ourselves. Doubt about if we are wasting our time. Doubt about if this is the right path for ourselves. We start looking for reasons and justifications of why we shouldn’t do something.
Competitive drive, goal setting, and comparing ourselves to others that western culture teaches us creates ideals of what we think things should be. This leads to struggles, doubts and constant un-satisfaction, using this as a vehicle to drive us when in reality it just leads to cycles of hindrances that ware us down draining our mind and body.
The western mindset to achieving things usually depicts that everything should be a struggle and we should always want more. It also teaches us to focus on future goals and end results rather than to appreciate the journey along the way. Consider the following story:
There are two climbers standing in front of a giant mountain, which they wish to climb. One of them has influence and conditioning from a western culture, and the other from a more “meditative” and “awareness” mindset
The Western Climber:
They begin the climb the mountain and halfway up, they begin to get tired and slow down. As this happens, they envision themselves at the top of the mountain celebrating, taking pictures, and stamping their flag in the ground. This motivates them and they yell” AGHHHHH” Suddenly with a burst of energy they begin to rapidly climb until they get fatigued again and start to slow down. This cycle continues until the eventually reach the top of the mountain
The Aware Climber:
They begin to climb the mountain, paying attention to their breathing, and entire physical body. They notice each rock along the way and feel every touch. Anytime thoughts entire their mind they are aware and able to let go and anytime their body unnecessarily tenses up they are also aware and able to let go to not exert any unnecessary energy or stress on the body. They calmly and steadily work there way up the mountain until they peacefully reach the top.
I am a very competitive person myself who has always been very active in sports. I played Highschool Basketball and Track. I ran a 4:29 mile. I am no stranger to pushing myself to the limits, killing myself to hit goals, and being competitive as hell. My whole life I’ve always been used to the western approach and have always credited it to my success. When I first heard our teachers share this story with us I had an instant backlash to what they were teaching us, as it would contradict a mindset I have always strongly stood for.
Was this really a better way to approach life? First I thought this may lead to me accomplishing less but being happier and needing less. But as the week passed I used this approach and started finding myself with A LOT more energy and motivation to do things. I was able to sit and mediate and do my chores for a much longer period without feeling bored or tired. It just felt like I had an extra kick in my step. Not only was I happier, but I was also accomplishing more as well. Of course there may be other factors that led to this increased endurance but it all makes logical sense to me and it’s a mindset I have decided to adapt and experiment with in all areas of life moving forward.
To wrap up the discussion on hindrances I just wanted to further explain that it’s okay to feel and experience these hindrances, just be aware that they are happening. Indulging further in them or trying to block them out, are both opposite extremes that will cause difficulties. Try to adopt a mindset where you stop thinking “ I am angry, I want, I am worried” and change it to “ there is anger, there is desire, there is worry” That way you can start to accept that you are experiencing these feelings and focus more on the root of what is causing these feelings. Slowly with this line of thinking and understanding you will start to see these unproductive thoughts disappear from your life.
For the remainder of the retreat we went into very specific detail on how to deal with each of these hindrances as we struggled trying to identify and let go of them during meditation throughout the retreat. We practiced standing, walking, and guided meditations. We also covered a few other topics such as ADD and how to conquer physical pain, which I will save for discussion in a future blog entry.
There was certainly a lot of struggle throughout the 10 days. The most obvious struggle was just being frustrated with not being able to concentrate during meditation and dealing with the 5 hindrances that we were so aware of now.
On days five and six I was questioning so many things in my life that I didn’t know how I could return to the outside world again. I really took everything I was learning to an extreme as my personality naturally does. I questioned if I could ever play poker again. I questioned if I could ever be with someone or hangout with people who didn’t experience and understand the things I had just learned. I questioned the motives behind why I dress the way I do, why I like the things I like, and why I do the things I do. Realizing the power conditioning has over us, and our actions, can be quite disturbing. For the first time I felt like I could understand why someone would want to leave the outside world to become a monk and live their life abstaining from worldly pleasures, something that used to sound absurdly foreign to me.
In the end, I was eventually able to find peace. After the retreat my two friends and I moved to a small hotel we had booked on the beach. I sat down, back in the real world, and just took in everything I had learned and experienced over the last 10 days. At that moment I literally laughed uncontrollably in happiness not able to utter a word for about two minutes. It was like I was on some sort of drug, but that drug was just experiencing reality for the first time as if I had on tainted sunglasses my entire life. I was experiencing a new deeper found happiness and clarity. It felt like I just opened a secret door with a new path towards happiness. This was my moment, I will never forget that feeling……..