This Christmas and New Year I wanted to get away for a break and to refresh my meditation. A student at the group I run at UCL told me of the International Meditation Centre near Bath and I booked myself on to their 10 day retreat. I have been in London 12 years now since leaving the monastery and have not been on any long retreats in that time, so this was a very welcome return to a structure that was very like my life in the monastery. The morning bell went at 4am and we were mediating at 4.30 for the first of many 1 hour sessions during the day.
Apart from the first and last day we were in silence throughout. There were about 80 of us on the retreat, evenly split between men and women, yet the silence made it feel very spacious and took away the need to try and connect and talk, instead giving a feeling of a lot of personal space.
The meditation itself was intense. We were sitting between 7 – 8 hours each day. With plenty of gaps! You can see the schedule below. This really gave the chance to drop much more deeply into the practice. Following a more intensive meditation schedule thinking can really recede to the periphery and there is a tremendous sense of spacious awareness, a feeling of light and open attentiveness, the mind being calm and bright, honed to a single point of attention in the moment.
When the mind stops jumping into the past and future, there really is just this spacious present moment, that is not a fixed point in time, but an aliveness in the vibration of this energetic field of being.
The retreat really helped me to drink deeply from the joy of a calm mind. My body feeling alive and vital, mind calm and heart happy.
Leaving the retreat felt the hardest part of the whole experience! Retreats are what they are: a leaving behind of our usual life. They are not a way of living. Even in the monastery we did not live with this intensity all the time, we had to maintain the infrastructure of the monastery, which meant working as well as mediating. The skill of meditation is learning how to bring the lessons from these deeper immersions into the practice back into one’s daily life.
Over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing a few experiences from the retreat.
The first experience is the story told in one of the sessions which illustrates right effort. It was a Buddhist retreat so they were quoting from the Buddhist scriptures, which contain a plethora of stories from the time of the Buddha. This story concerned a monk called Sona. As a young man he lived a very luxurious life, so much so that he had fine down on the soles of his feet from never exerting himself. A king once asked to see this and marvel at his fine feet! Shortly after this the young man met the Buddha and became a monk.
Suddenly he left his life of privilege, wealth and ease and concentrated on the training of a monk. He was determined to gain insight. He was living in a hut in the forest, and used a track outside to do walking meditation. Reflecting on his meditation subject as he walked. His delicate feet were used to walking on silk, not the forest floor, and his walking track was soon covered with blood from his lacerated feet – but determined to see the profundity of the Buddha’s teaching for himself he kept walking. In his sitting meditation he strained for insight, but it did not come. Eventually he thought it was to no avail and he decided to leave and return to lay life.
The Buddha saw this and came to Sona, concerned for his well fair, knowing that if he pushed himself too hard his mind would not be able to soften and be receptive to the intuitive knowledge that was there like a bud waiting to open, but which could also wither in the intensity of his wilful effort.
The Buddha spoke to him in the following dialogue:
“Sona,” he said, “I have heard that you are not getting good results from your practice of mindfulness and want to return to the lay life. Suppose I explain why you did not get good results, would you stay on as a monk and try again?”
“Yes I would, Lord,” replied Sona.
“Sona, you were a musician and you used to play the lute. Tell me, Sona, did you produce good music when the lute string was well tuned, neither too tight nor too loose?”
“I was able to produce good music, Lord,” replied Sona.
“What happened when the strings were too tightly wound up?”
“I could not produce any music, Lord,” said Sona.
“What happened when the strings were too slack?”
“I could not produce any music at all, Lord,” replied Sona
“Sona, do you now see why you did not experience the happiness of renouncing worldly craving? You have been straining too hard in your meditation. Do it in a relaxed way, but without being slack. Try it again and you will experience the good result.”
Sona understood and stayed on in the monastery as a monk and soon attained awakening.
As you sit in meditation remembering this story can be a really great way to check in with the quality of your own effort: is it too wilful, or too unfocused, or is it in the middle – balanced and just enough?
This was a living part of how the retreat centre worked. In the first few days the retreat leader told us to notice the quality of our intention as we sat. Were we sitting with forced determination not to move? Were our knees hurting but from pride we would not move as we wanted to be seen to sit for the whole hour? He said that we are here to train our mind, not our body. If we find we reach a point where sitting is done with gritted teeth – then it is time to stand and move, he even invited us to go to the kitchen, make a cup of tea and have some cake!
This was a very different approach from what I have come across in other retreat centres, and it encouraged a softness that made it easier to rest into a deeply calm and focused attention. The teacher said that when effort was too much from sitting with gritted teeth, then there would be a lot of ego in the sitting, which would mean a lot of thinking. So this approach only makes for more thinking and distraction.
It did help! Giving myself permission to move, shift posture, make myself comfortable, allowed for a relaxing into the practice that then made it easier to sit in a stillness that arose from being present rather than as an effort of will.
If you would like to have a more in depth experience of meditation I recommend the centre. They run 10 day retreats at the end of very month. Their next starts on the 19th January. For details click here