Tuesday, September 14, 2010

10 Days of Silence: Part II

Either I was really lucky, or if reincarnation exists, I must have been a monastic in a past life; I didn't have much difficulty adapting to the schedule, the requirements, or the life. I did keep the Eight Trainings while I was at the retreat, and if anyone else was breaking the rules, they did so very discretely. I've heard of other retreats in which participant(s) were eating in their room, had kept a cell phone, or even had a visit from a significant other.

If you reading this, and thinking, "Whoa, this is crazy, I could never do this, why would anyone do this," take a look at the first section. We started with 25 men and 17 women; we ended with 20 men and 15 women. So, if over 80% lasted until the end, it couldn't have been that bad!

Here is a typical day, told from the first person perspective.

3:58 a.m: The monestary bells start ringing and ring for ten minutes. After 6.5 hours of sleep, I wake up on the straw mat, push back the mosquito net, and flick on the lights to keep my eyes open and to prevent the Thai woman who lives in the dormitory and keeps an eye on the foreigners from banging on my door to get me up. Since the walls of my room are lattice at the top, I check the floor for frogs, spiders, and scorpions before getting out of "bed." The little bag with insect repellent, water bottle, chapstick, headlamp, and my room key is already packed. Most of the time I don't bother to lock the door; there's nothing in here worth stealing, and I trust the other women. I head into the hallway, not worrying about making eye contact since it's still dark and will be for another 2 hours.

4:25 a.m: In the sandy floor of Meditation Hall #5, I arrange myself in a cross-legged position on a mat and cushion while everyone else shuffles around to settle in. We're silent by 4:30 a.m. when a retreat participant begins the morning reading, a passage from a book or essay by a Buddhist author. At the end of the 15-20 minute reading, I rearrange myself to kneel on a cushion with my rear on a small bench, my preferred meditation position. At this point in the day, my conscious mind, the part of the mind that can control itself, is quiet and slow. Little blips of randomness bubble up now and then, keeping pace with the flickers of the candles illuminating the corners of the hall.

5:15 a.m: The retreat coordinator rings a small bell three times to signal that the session is complete. The ladies shuffle over to Meditation Hall #2 for morning exercise. A quiet but smiling young nun in track pants and a loose tee-shirt leads us in 1.5 hours of qigong, tai chi, and yoga. We're allowed to do our own yoga routines, if we wish; sometimes I follow the group, sometimes I do my own thing, and sometimes I do half-and-half. Behind us, over the reflecting pools, the sky becomes light. We all end in "shivasana," the yoga corpse pose, covering up with a shawl or blanket to keep away the mosquitoes. I think most of the ladies doze off for a few minutes. I certainly do.

6:45 a.m: The main monestary bell rings to bring us back to Meditation Hall #5. At 7:00 a.m, we are seated and still as the 78-year old abbot of Wat Suan Mokkh, Ajahn Poh, slowly walks to the low platform at the front of the hall. In his thickly Thai-accented English, he lowers his eyelids and slowly delivers a short lecture on a point of dhamma, or Buddhist worldview. By 7:20, he's usually finished speaking, so we sit in silent meditation until he rings the small bell.

8:00 a.m: Breakfast is served in the dining hall. It's always rice porridge/ soup, usually with wilted greens served on the side, and little bananas or ngoh (rambutan) or langsat. I didn't care for our usual breakfast, since too much rice does terrible things to my digestive system, but it was breakfast, so I ate it. Everyone takes a portion and sits on the male or female side of the room. We read a food reflection together, one that I like and that I've continued to say after leaving the monestary. Then the only sounds are the clink of metal spoons against metal bowls. We can take seconds, and even thirds, if we like, but after a few days, I figure out how much I need to eat to keep myself from being too hungry too quickly.

8:20 a.m: Time for chores. Chores are an opportunity to be mindful of our actions and to contribute to the smooth running of the retreat. I wash my own bowl and spoon. I fill a bucket with water, soak a rag, and wipe down the tables on the men's side of the room. Observation: the men are messier, but the women always eat more slowly. After rinsing the rags and hanging them to dry, I head to Meditation Hall #5. Along with two or three others, we sweep and rake the sand on the floor of the hall to pick up leaves and to erase footprints, leaving a nice, smooth surface, which I know will be pockmarked with footprints within an hour. Right... all things are impermanent.

9:15 a.m: I head back to the dormitory. Our rooms are arranged in a square around a covered walkway, which circles a central courtyard. I always stop to pet the resident black cat. She's the only living creature that I can look in the eye without much danger of lasting distraction, so she gets my attention. She's got quite a belly, and I assume she's pregnant (I find out later that she's just old and fat). In each corner of the dormitory, there's a waist-high, large circular cistern with a water tap, an open gutter, and a few bowls and buckets. I brush my teeth, then usually lie down to rest my back and leg muscles for a few minutes.

9:45 a.m: The monestary bells ring to start the daytime activities. We're seated in Med Hall 5 by 10:00 a.m. For the first few days, we listen to a dhamma talk by the founder of the monestary, Ajahan Buddadhasa. Later in the retreat, we sit or stand in meditation. By this time, my mind is usually a bit stirred up from the day's activities, by how tired I'm feeling or not feeling, by whether I think I'll be very hungry by lunch, by how many days are left in the program, or whatever else it decides to fixate on. I am fortunate that I'm not carrying around serious emotional or mental troubles; I was usually able to settle my mind enough to let go of conscious thoughts and follow the path of my breath from my nose to my abdomen and back. Sometimes I would just follow the movement of the breath in my nose only, from the back to the front inside. It's harder than it sounds.

11:00 a.m: Three rings of the small bell, and it's time for walking meditation. I hadn't tried walking meditation until this retreat. The idea is to walk slowly, with a certain movement and pattern to the movement of your feet. The mind is concentrated on the movement of the feet. Sometimes I was able to sink into a very eerie sense of being completely present in the moment, which was hard to sustain but magical when it happened. Other times, I wasn't able to keep my mind on anything, and the more I walked, the less concentration I found.

11:45 a.m: Big monestary bell. Back to Med Hall 5 for sitting or standing meditation with the group. By this time in the day, I'm feeling mental fatigue from concentration and physical fatigue from the lack of sleep and slight hunger pains. Sometimes I stop watching the breath in order to observe the state of mental fatigue, but that gets old quickly. I often end meditating a little early to take a few sips of water and stare off into space before three taps on the small bell around 12:20 p.m.

12:30 p.m: Lunch is always brown rice with some variety of curried vegetables, most of which I don't recognize, but all of which are absolutely delicious. Sometimes there's a cold noodle and vegetable salad, and sometimes a Thai dessert, like a sweet coconut dumpling steamed in a banana leaf. I like the food very much, and sometimes I wonder why they make the food so good if we're supposed to practice not attaching too much to pleasure. Believe it or not, I've had difficulty finding quality vegetarian food in Asia, especially with the abundance of white rice and rice noodles. Most people in Asia don't seem to be vegetarian, and since Davo and I eat where the locals eat, I'm usually stuck with a plate of white rice, cooked vegetables, and an egg. It's a relief and a joy not to have to worry about food for 11 days.

1:00 p.m: After eating lunch, I'm sleepy. It's the hottest part of the day. I don't feel like doing anything, physically or mentally. Black Cat is passed out in the middle of the hall. Smart creature. In my room, I draw the curtain, strip down to my underwear, and fall asleep on the cool surface of the wooden pillow.

2:15 p.m: The monestary bells sound yet again, and we're seated in Med Hall 5 by 2:30 p.m. to begin the block of afternoon activities. We listen to a recorded dhamma talk by a resident monk from England. He can be quite irreverent and funny at times, but I wish I could see him speaking. It's easier to be engaged when you can see someone.

3:30 p.m: Time for walking meditation. This is the hardest part of the day, for me. I don't find myself thinking about anything in particular, nor feeling anything in particular, but still, I never seem to focus well or deeply. I try not to get too attached or troubled by this, and sometimes I give myself permission to sit in a corner and stare off into space. In retrospect, I think it would have been useful to try a little harder during these difficult sessions.

4:15 p.m: The monestary bell sounds, and we head back to Med Hall 5 to sit or stand in meditation together. Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe—hey, there's a piece of sand on my foot—in, breathe—I wonder how Dave's doing—out. Breathe—hmm, where are we going after this, Nepal?—in, breathe—I can't believe it's been only 8 minutes—out. Breathe in—oh, shit, it's starting to rain.

5:00 p.m: Chime of the small bell, and everyone gets up, stretches, and most of us head to Med Hall 2 to chant various suttas, or sections of the original Buddhist scriptures, in Pali, the litergical language of Buddhism. It's made clear that chanting doesn't make you Buddhist, should you happen to subscribe to another religion, and the chanting is optional, should you object or find it not useful. The other option is more meditation, though, so most people do attend the chanting. I find that it doesn't do much to focus my mind or to bring me closer to understanding obscure theological points, but it's helpful for learning to pronounce Pali words. Plus, I can lean against a column for an hour to support my tired back muscles.

6:00 p.m: At the conclusion of chanting, we head to the dining hall for evening tea. Even though we're not supposed to eat after lunch, at this particular retreat, hot chocolate or warm juice is served in the evening. It really does help to settle hunger pangs in the stomach, but I find that I didn't need it as much after the second or third day. I like to sit facing the hillside to the east. Sometimes I see monkeys, and one time I saw a large lizard. Every night, around 6:15 as the light fades, the bats come out to feast on the bugs. They zoom through the open-air dining hall from the women's side to the men's side. It's mesmerizing, and to a mind starved of stimulation, fascinating.

6:30 p.m: Bath time. It's finally cool enough that I won't immediately be covered in sweat as soon as I dry off. Unfortunately, the mosquitoes are worst at this time of day. We all bathe from the public cisterns in the corners of the dormitory. Since the Thai people are very modest, and monastic life requires extreme modesty, women bathe wearing a sarong that covers from the armpits to the knees. There are no hoses; just a big well and small bowls. It took a while to get the hang of effectively splashing and dumping water over myself while keeping various parts of my body literally under wraps.

7:15 p.m: The last time I'll hear the monestary bells today. Freshly washed and feeling tranquil in the new darkness of the evening, I head toward Med Hall 5. Black Cat is out raising hell somewhere, but I use my torch anyway to avoid any unwanted run-ins with large spiders. Candle lanterns light the path to the hall. We sit in silence. My mind is quiet and content. The most concentrated, unforced, natural meditations happen at this time for me. For once, my mind is quiet enough that I can actually sense the silence around me, only the chirping of the crickets and the barks of the geckos touching the ear drum.

8:00 p.m: The small bell chimes, and we line up around the perimeter of Med Hall 5 to walk in meditation as a group. The men line up in front behind a monk, and the women line up behind a nun behind the men. I never found group walking to be useful, because I spent too much mental energy trying to keep a reasonable (not too short, not too long) distance between me and the person in front of me. It's nice to get up and stretch, though.

8:30 p.m: We sit for the final session of the day. By now, my mind is ready for sleep. If I've been able to maintain mindfulness during walking meditation, I can usually fall back into meditation while seated... but if my mind has slipped while walking, it's hard to refind focus in the dark with the countdown to bed ticking away. My back and my knees are quite tired. A few times, I needed to sit on a stool at the back of the hall.

8:55 p.m: Thank heavens, the final chimes of the little bell! I grab my bag and head toward the dorm. I've got my headlamp on, because this is the hour to find enormous hunting spiders on the path. One woman had spiders in her room practically every single night; I don't know why they liked that room so much. My room was always clear of wildlife. On my sleeping platform, I arrange a little pad of folded clothing to sit under my hip bones. Turn off the light, tuck in the mosquito net, turn off the headlamp. Say a silent goodnight in my mind to Dave, over in the men's dorm. My mind wanders off to slumberland. It's 9:30 p.m. The monestary bell will ring again in 6.5 hours.

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