As some of you may know, I went directly from the farm to a 10 day meditation retreat at Chom Tong Meditation Center. I left two days ago, and after some re acclimating to society, I'm ready to regale my trip into the internal.
If you guys are anything like I was, you have no idea what to expect from a Buddhist meditation retreat. So I will give you guys some logistical details and tell you about some of the folks I met before heading into the personal, mental side of things.
The meditation center consists of a dining hall, two areas of small houses (one for women and one for men), and various buildings to mediate in. The food was actually quite good. I heard from some meditators that this is not the case at other centers. We were blessed with a community that gives many alms to the center, and thus were nourished with a variety of curries, soups, and rice dishes. We received two meals, at 6 am and 11 am. At each meal we silently said a prayer that really resonated with me. The just of it was to eat solely to sustain yourself. The purpose of eating is not to put on bulk, not for pleasure, but merely to eat what you have been given to keep surviving. A code we could all live by.
My room was pleasantly sparse. A simple bed with rigid mattress and a basic shrine were all the furnishings. We each had our own bathrooms, complete with hot water if the pipe outside happened to be in the midday sun. Despite limited sleep (10 pm to 4 am), I usually felt comfortable, tucked up against the white-washed walls and wrapped in two warm blankets.
As far as the meditation goes, everything was a new experience to me. The center practices Vipassana, or insight, meditation. I'm just a newbie at the concepts, but here's what I gathered from my time there. One of the central concepts in Vipassana is mindfulness. This is achieved in a few ways. When I was consciously meditating, usually about 6 hours a day, I would walk for a set amount of time then sit for a set amount of time. The time increased as my experience grew as well as the points of movement while walking and the points of acknowledgement while sitting. So for example by the end I would do 30 minutes of each and while I walked I would think "heal up, lifting, moving, placing" and when I was sitting I would "touch" 8 points on my body as I acknowledged my breathing as well. As you are walking or sitting the idea is to be aware of all things happening to your body, feelings, mind, and mind object.One acknowledges the body through all the senses by thinking "hearing, hearing, hearing" when you notice a sound and "seeing, seeing, seeing" for sights etc. One acknowledges both good and bad feelings for example by thinking "happiness, happiness, happiness" when one feels happy. One acknowledges the mind by thinking "thinking, thinking, thinking" when ever a thought passes through (I did this one a lot. Who knew how much you can think about thinking??). The mind object was a little more abstract. There are apparently countless mind objects, but we were asked to acknowledge four hindrances: drowsiness, restlessness, doubt, and pain. During time outside of meditation practice, we were also asked to acknowledge body, feelings, mind, and mind object. With an increase in inputs, this was certainly a more challenging aspect of the retreat for me. The idea behind all this acknowledgment is to become aware of the present moment and be able to accept that all things good and bad are impermanent and will change eventually.
Overall I was able to acknowledge the physical distractions such as senses and pain reasonably well. Those of you who know me well won't be surprised to know that thoughts and feelings were much harder to move on from. My mind is usually jumping around like a bouncy ball and I'm more nostalgic than a Hallmark movie. So I was "thinking, thinking, thinking" and "feeling, feeling, feeling" all week long.
Each day we met with our teacher. Mine was a round faced monk who was full of smiles that pinched and brightened his face. With excellent English, he would give me advice and add time or steps to my practice. The speed is different for everyone, tailored to how one is coming along.
Beyond the meditation and mindfulness, I met with some fascinating people along the way despite trying to remain mindfully silent most of the time. While I talked with quite a few monks who were at the center for their own retreats, two Cambodian ones became frequent friends. One was passionate about organic farming, the other about planes, and both were of course full of wisdom in terms of meditation.
However, by far my best buddy during my time there was Maris, a Latvian, ex-Russian mafia, worldwide party animal turned peaceful mediation enthusiast. We must have made an odd pair, a short, young, hairy American and a tall middle-aged shaved Eastern European. We started on the same day and would walk to meals together and explore the compound while discussing all things meditation and life. There was one night I was walking along the shore of a large pond (my favorite place to walk) beneath the mountain sunset with Maris and one of the Cambodian monks, and I had a strange out of body thought realizing how unexpected and wonderful the scene and company was. This old Wisconsin boy has indeed traveled far.
I'll end this post with a letter I wrote after my closing ceremony at the center. I didn't write all ten days until this letter. This was hard, but Marco and Gaynor advised me to remember what I am supposed to remember and remove all external activities. I thought of the words for this letter throughout my time, and I'll admit it got perhaps a little over the top. And I was of course taught to move on from feelings of all kinds. Alas, my romantic heart was not to be denied. But I truly mean every word. Here is a copy word for word. Enjoy.
To All My Friends and Family,
Thank you. Thank you for being my constant distraction and inspiration during my ten days of meditation. You were all constantly in my mind and my heart. While that probably deterred me from meditating more often than not, more importantly, it meant the world to me.
While meditating and while doing anything else here, I was instructed to be mindful and acknowledge all thoughts, senses, and feelings I noticed. Very quickly, my most often used phrase became, "longing, longing, longing", the feeling I got in the pit of my stomach when memories came of all the wonderful times I have spent with you all. Excited thoughts of the times to come also entered my mind to the acknowledgement of "excitement, excitement, excitement." In short, my feelings revolved around all of you remarkable people.
You also played a crucial role in bringing my mind up from the dark depths of philosophy. One of the ideas one is meant to start to accept in Buddhist meditation is that everything is impermanent. One day later on in my retreat, this idea started to terrify me. I saw truth to the impermanence. If I stretched the timeline long enough, this whole beautiful earth will only be dust in some cosmic wind. If this is the case, then what does one strive for, what does one live for?
Of course the answer is all of you. Like a candle in a dark room, I realized that I know deep in my soul that spending time with, helping, and caring for those I love has always and will always be meaningful and give my life purpose. Indeed everything is impermanent, but rather that remove myself from that suffering, I choose to cherish every brilliant moment and person while not dwelling on the bad things in this world. Life is certainly short, sometimes far to short, but in that I find motivation to make the most of every moment with all the wonderful people out there.
So hope all of you are living life to the fullest. Enjoying the beautiful things and moving on with experience from the not so beautiful. For now, I am going to enjoy dinner and music, the two things I have missed most of all after all of you. I miss you all, and I can't wait to see you soon.
Love, love, love,