Jan 16, 2015

Insights from Ten Days of Meditation

As the surrounding Thai countryside welcomed the new year with gunfire and fireworks, I laid my head down on a wooden pillow and tried to fall asleep before the 4 am wake-up bell rang. So began 2015, the first of ten nights at a vipassana meditation retreat.

Suan Mokkh International Dhamma Hermitage

To write one post about all the experiences, epiphanies, and difficulties of those ten days is impossible — so, I'll share with you one of the major insights I had near the end of the course:

One monk showed us a mandala (image of the symbolic universe) with the realms of hell all the way around to the heavenly abode of those who solely practice loving-kindness. He explained that even those in this heavenly realm suffer from dukkha (defilement) because they love “too much.” The Buddhist ideal is to be neither sorrowful nor joyful, but instead completely at peace ‘in the center, following the Middle Way.’

This was a crisis for me!

Before this retreat I would have told you I didn’t have any anger or fear (save for the occasional furry spider, of which the hermitage had plenty). Through the ten days, I realized that everyday my mood would follow a cyclical pattern of alertness, joy, contentment, boredom, anger, and sleepiness; emotions that play out in the background all the time, but I was quiet enough inside and out to be aware of them. I found that I did have anger, and I was especially afraid of anger because…

Everything I do stems from this fear of potential physical or emotional pain.

For the monk to explain that even loving-kindness can bring a kind of suffering, I had an inner crisis: if even compassion can cause harm, must I throw it away in order to completely protect myself from all forms of pain and suffering? If practicing peace involves strict discipline cutting off all your attachments, where does compassion for others spring from?

These thoughts began to form on the evening of Day 8. Day 9 was the only day that practitioners couldn’t ask questions to the coordinators during meditation break; I had to wrestle with these questions alone. And I did wrestle with them. I felt myself pulling away from Buddhism, as if it had hurt me with its truth, and I was going to avoid even such a thing that had helped me find peace and guidance along the path of spiritual awakening for years... Where could I turn now?

Then, I thought of my Takashina babies — those wonderful, joyful, full-of-love-and-energy elementary students I had the blessing to teach and play with in Japan. Every time they come to mind, I smile from way down deep in my heart. Was there suffering in my loving them so much? Of course; when I had to say goodbye, or when one of them was hurt, or when I thought of them going through the rigorous Japanese academic testing system, my heart squeezed with ache. Does this inclusion of “suffering” change my feelings about them, or how I would have been around them? Never, ever in a million years!!

So, if living in this world means that to give up suffering you must give up joy, I accept both of them. I willingly suffer to increase love for others, and willingly love to decrease others' suffering.

In other words, I choose to live this life!!!

I chose my life!! I don’t have to renounce the whole world — what a revelation! I was trying to be the perfect bhikkuni (Thai Buddhist nun) by shaving my head, locking away nearly all of my belongings, and even brushing my teeth with my fingers at one point because I saw a video once of Zen monks living that way.

I went to an “extreme” to learn that perfection (even in the “Middle Way” between extremes) is not the way to peace. As another meditator at the retreat aptly put it, ‘Maybe there’s a middle way to the Middle Way.’

At times during the retreat I thought, ‘This is incredible! I want to stay here forever!’ Other times I felt so much fear at the prospect of further delving into the mind I wanted to quit before the ten days were up. (It’s not until Day 11, when the silence is finally broken, you learn you’re not crazy because everyone else felt the same way through their experience.)

When the silence was over, the people I’d been meditating, eating alongside, and doing chores with felt like old friends… though we hadn’t exchanged a word, only gentle smiles. It wasn’t until after ten days I learned their names, or even their nationalities. Instead of the customary, ‘Where are you from? Where are you going?’ we asked each other questions like, ‘What were some of your insights during the retreat? Did you find it as hard as I did?’ Sharing our experiences and insights with each other deepened the entire retreat experience. We were deeply present in our conversations, and it felt safe to be open to each other about anything and everything.

I learned that the smallest things I did had big effects on the people around me, from knocking on my neighbor’s door at 4 am to make sure she had woken for the morning bell, to volunteering to read a morning passage to the entire group of 160 people. And I was affected in return; the same neighbor came armed with a broom to help me shoo the spider living beside my doorway, and another girl approached me after the retreat to tell me my morning reading was so gently spoken and well done that when she meditates she hears my voice! (I’ll carry that compliment in my heart forever.)

At this very moment I’m in Bangkok, and every day I meet up with another friend from the retreat, and I can see the joy and light pouring out from their faces. How incredible to be a part of their lives!!

This is my present life: joyfully aware and content to put my effort into living open-eyed, open-hearted, and open-minded.

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Are you aware of this present moment? Take three deep breaths. Each new breath is a new beginning. <3

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