It has been a busy couple of weeks. With schools starting and work becoming more intense, I had to put my notes on the back burner. I am glad I found time today to continue the story of my ten-day silent meditation retreat.
Few years ago, when I was engulfed with myself and less aware of my inner loving self; my cousin "Butterfly" (I wrote about her couple of weeks ago), told me that I remind her of Lucille Ball's character in the 50's comic sitcom called "I Love Lucy". If you have not seen the show, try watching an episode or two on YouTube. I still don't see the resemblance in our personality, nor our looks, (except we both have curly hair and a big smile). Perhaps, my tendency to oversimplify complex issues and even add humor when things get too serious, triggered the similitude in my cousin! Lucy, in her show, always ended up getting in trouble and when she tried to fix things, she would make matters worse. The lucy idea helped me stay lighthearted during the retreat. This note should give an overview of my first three days and how I managed my urge to laugh in a meditation hall filled with serious meditators.
As you may recall, from my last note, as students we were not allowed to talk to other meditators or even look at each other. We could make an appointment with the Assistant Teachers, or reach out to program managers, for lodging and non-course related issues. You also may remember that we had no dinner served to us. We were served some fruits around 5 PM.
Our first full day started with the vibration of a Bonsho (Buddhist temple bell) that was rang at 4:00 am. In Buddhism bells are often used as a call to prayer. The ring of the bell can represent the heavenly enlightened voice of the Buddha teaching the dharma (truth). As new students, for the 4:30 am meditation, we had a choice to meditate in our quarters or go to the meditation hall. I chose meditating in my room on my bed, trying to minimize sitting crossed legged on the ground. Unfortunately, that first day, I fell asleep after the third breath. I kept waking myself up and continued breathing through my nose, without repeating any mantras or visualizations, and simply focusing on the triangle on my face, where my nose sits.
Our main goal during the first three days was to simply, shorten the leash of our mind. For instance, on the first day, my mind would wonder anywhere between 15-20 minutes about every possible topic. Questions like, did I pay that bill? Or did I tell my family to contact the office here in case of an emergency? I even planned the remaining years of my life in one sitting. Slowly, by the third day, my wondering mind was emptied. Especially, since there were no external stimulations like people, phones, and other daily distractions. The wondering mind was somewhat tamed by the third day and went out of focus only one to three minutes at a time.
At 6:15 am a second bell rang, which would release us from the agony of chasing our thoughts. Dressing to walk to the kitchen for a 6:30 breakfast was the favorite part of my day. (Breakfast is my favorite meal). A nice vegan meal, which included oatmeal, prunes, cereals, and toast was served. There was tea and coffee and all kinds of different milks. Enough food was available for all fifty women, while men ate in a separate dining hall.
The 700 feet dirt path to the kitchen would get dusty since some students walked so fast towards food. This somewhat annoyed me, as I really enjoy my slow reflective walks in the nature with my hands behind me. After breakfast, I would go for a walk around a pond, or what was once a pond. Now, it is more like a puddle, due to the drought in California. On day seven, as I was walking slowly, around the pond, I heard a puff of a wild animal. It sounded like a cougar's puff or even a bear. My heart rate soared, and out of fear, I did not even stop to look, I just started walking faster. I knew I should not run. When I reached a more populated area, I told myself, that is what you get for judging people who run in front of you to eat. Ironically, I encountered a cougar kitten on the last day on my way to the kitchen. He was about 20 feet from me, catching gophers and that’s when I knew, I had not hallucinated the puff of a wild animal.
By 8:00 am, we all had to report to the meditation hall and have a group sitting. This was when the Lucille Ball in me kicked in. Most meditators had one padded mat, and a pillow to sit on. I had a floor chair, 2 padded matts, 3 pillows, a blanket. The chair had to be assembled and the noise of the metal in a quiet room, which was quite embarrassing. Once I finally found a comfortable position to sit my bottom down, I still moved. Then the chanting would start. Later, I found out why the teacher’s pre-recorded chant sounded like a drunk man. I did not know, until day ten, that he drags the Hindi words in a manner so they would vibrate and penetrate our minds and calm it down. Regrettably, I found this quite funny, and not only it did not calm my mind, but it also made me more anxious to what the hell am I doing here? On the closing day, I paid attention, and felt the vibration, and was remorseful for not getting it sooner.
After the chanting, the teacher's recorded voice instructed us to continue breathing with focus on our nostrils diligently, ardently, patiently. The word ardently stood out among the three words he used at every sitting. It reminded me of a discourse I had read by M.S. Irani, where he said: “Meditation should not be approached with a heavy heart, as if one were taking castor oil. One has to be serious about meditation but not grave or melancholy. Humor and cheerfulness not only do not interfere with the progress of meditation but actually contribute to it…Meditation should be something like a picnic on the higher planes. Like excursions into new and beautiful natural surroundings, meditation brings with it a sense of enthusiasm, adventure, peace, and exhilaration.”
So, my laughing and being cheerful, though may have been annoying to some of the more serious women there, was actually helping me. Besides, I had no idea I had signed up for a bilingual class. So, after the pre-recorded instructions in English, the same would be repeated in a language that sounded like Vietnamese. On the second day when my tailbone started burning bad from sitting so long; I promised myself to never sign up for a bilingual class again. The language also reminded me of my nail salon, as my nail specialists are Vietnamese, and they always tend to speak quite loud in their language.
Then there were the five or six beautiful Nepalese ladies…One sat next to me and since she did not speak neither English nor Vietnamese, she had earphones with a recording that translated the teachings in her language. The earphone was loud, and she would replay things few times. That by itself was comical, as every time, I managed to pull the mind back to the nose triangle, she would raise the sound of her earphone, or take her earphone off, making crackling sounds.
The irony of coming to a silent retreat center in the hope to relax and catch my breath, and ending up with pain on my tailbone, while listening to a drunk man chant something I don't understand and tell me to breath ardently later, and then hear the same instructions in two languages, one of which reminded me of my mani-pedi experience was just too funny to ignore. After each sitting, I craved a pen to write about how I felt, or a poetry book to set me straight, a friend to talk to, and my phone!...My cell phone, I needed my phone to look up things and see why on earth I am so frustrated, and why can’t I sit still? I guess I was having withdrawal symptoms from technology. I meditate daily at home...What was happening to me?
After the morning group sitting, I went to my room. As I was entering my room, another Nepalese lady who resided across my room, looked at me, smiled and said a long and dragged out "hi". WTF? why is she talking to me? Do the rules not apply to her? Confused and baffled by her audacity, I bowed and placed my hand on my heart and continued to my room silently. I was quite irked from the group sitting, then this?
I fell on my bed and said, forget this S***T, I am going to sleep, go eat at the kitchen and stare at the walls in my room for the next 9 days. After all I had all my shampoos, soaps, and creams that I had never read the small prints on. Who needs this craziness? I wanted to go home so bad, but I had already committed and was not allowed to leave. At 11:30 am, another bell woke me up...I thought: Damn....There is no dinner, so I better grab lunch while I can. So, I started walking to the kitchen. Lunches were also vegan and surprisingly quite delicious.
After lunch, I went for another nap and had to report for another group sitting at 2:00 pm. The program managers would come get you, if you were missing for the three group sittings. There was one in the morning, one in the afternoon, and a third one at 6:00 PM. So, I got up and went through the process again. Same routine: floor chair noise, the back and forth with pillows sitting on which part of my body. Then the chanting, the instructions, the translation, Nepalese lady earphone, noise, and Lucy trying to move quietly to release the pain on her hip, and making loud noise, giggling, embarrassed...Then, back to my room for a third nap, up for tea at 5, walk to the kitchen, back in the hall for a third sitting at 6:00. Set up, sitting, drunk man chanting, instructions, translation in Vietnamese, earphone noise in Nepalese, giggles, peaking with one eye open. All of this, while working hard to control my mind and showing it who is the boss. :)
At seven pm, the TV came on in the meditation hall. That was exciting…We could sit comfortably, while Mr. Goenka (AKA the teacher) would talk and teach us the next steps of this meditation technique. He did it with such poise and added humor, that made this part of the day quite enjoyable. By 9:00 pm we were excused to go to bed or stay and ask questions from the Assistant Teachers (AT). On day one, I stayed behind to ask the AT what do the chantings mean? I was not impressed when she said, don’t worry about it, you’ll know on day 10. That was not very reassuring to me…So I went to bed more disappointed than before. Repeat this day 3 times, and that is when your cuticle remover tool, becomes quite an attractive tool to end your life... (I am just kidding, I would never end my own life, as I am too curious to see how I drop this body naturally).
What made it worst was my Nepalese housemate/neighbor who kept staring at me and wanting to talk. She even would sing while showering. Why is she doing this? The feeling of being annoyed combined by a sense of amusement by the craziness of this experience made me even more nuts. While I would laugh to keep my sanity, I was not in the mood to talk or look at anyone...anyway.
In my next couple of notes, I will share what I did about my annoying neighbor and the shift in paradigm I experienced towards her. I will tell you how my mind did everything in its power to divert my attention. I will tell you about my encounters with the program managers and Assistant Teachers. I will tell you how I experimentally learned about Anicca (AKA impermanence). I also will tell you how all of these annoying daily repetitions, carried me back to myself and reintroduced me to my Inner Loving Self. The idea of Lucille Ball and her humor sustained me from giving up and not taking things too seriously. That is why, I am so happy to continue with my humor. I hope you stay tuned and continue reading.
As always, I am grateful.