So what is a retreat and why do you do it?
There are many types of retreats people offer and take. Some of these retreats could feel like a seminar, workshop, and there may be so many interactions involved for the sake of learning. It usually doesn’t feel very restful nor cleansing. The retreats I have been taking in the past fourteen years have been 99% silent for the participants. These have been mainly Mindfulness Buddhist retreats. The purpose behind these retreats is to retreat from one’s general activities and take the opportunity to cleanse the mind, train the heart, and to learn from ancient wisdom teachings. In this way, you take time without distractions to develop a sense of well-being while understanding the causes and conditions that lead to stress and dissatisfaction, conflict and disharmony, and a sense of failure in life. During retreats, we practice meditation in different postures, mainly sitting, standing, and walking. We follow the guidance of teachers, and usually, there is an area of focus for the practice. The results are an incredible sense of cleansing, peacefulness, and joy accompanied by self-gained insights that one can build on to lead a happier and healthier life.
Tenth 10-Day Silent Retreat
This was my 10th ten-day silent-retreat with the Ahbayagiri monastery’s teachers, accumulating knowledge, meditation, and dept of practice little by little, time after time. I had expected that these ten days would be the hardest because of doing it at home following the teachings and instructions online. I doubted having the full discipline to show up to every session of the day, especially waking up at 4-4:30 AM. Once again, to realize how wrong my perception and expectation were.
My retreat experience became much deeper, with much fewer hindrances, which enabled me to tune into the teachings and apply them. I did 70% of the meditations in a walking posture, which proved much more effective. The teachings of the four foundations of Mindfulness offered by Luang Por Pasanno were incredibly accessible to me this time, much more than ever before. I tried with complete earnestness to apply the teachings during each meditation session and posed questions for the Q & A sessions. I had not realized how involved each aspect of the four foundations of Mindfulness was. Ajahn Pasanno, Ajahn Kurunadhammo, Ajahn Naniko took each question and teased out the practice in easy, understandable terms – they helped me continue.
The Daily Retreat Structure
The daily structure included two sessions of teachings, one Q & A, more than 10 meditation sessions, and one Qigong exercise each day. We had breaks for breakfast, lunch, and afternoon tea-time.
My Practice Focus
The first several days surrounded the teachings of the first foundation of Mindfulness, the body. Some about feelings and the mind, but mostly the body. I particularly picked up the practices of the four elements (Wind, Water, Earth & Fire) and the aggregates (Consciousness, Feelings, Form, Mental Formation, Perception), and the feeling tones that accompanied them, pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. I would walk, noting the earth and wind elements most of the time. Earth for all the solid physical sensations in my body and connecting with the earth itself, and the wind element for when my body and legs moved forward to take the step. Focusing on those two elements, especially on the wind element, I noticed my walks became slower and more felt than mental noting. With every move of each foot through the air, everything slowed down, and with the landing of the foot, I’d feel the earth element, then notice a sense of touch and the associated feeling tone of mildly unpleasant or mostly neutral. I felt small muscles in my legs, hips, and back move to compose each step throughout these walking practices. As days went by, I noticed feeling as a feeling, not calling it anything, just physical experience, the body as earth, breath as wind and earth, and no mind. No thoughts of friends or family, Thanksgiving dinner, or the elections, or the tv shows I had been watching before the retreat. Nothing else but noting the elements.
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Immersed in the body, I could feel small faint movements in different muscles of the inner-body, not knowing what organs they might be. Everything came through the recollection of the four elements. As I walked outside and saw a person with their dog, I’d label them the earth, wind, water, heat, and cold. The car passing, “earth, wind, water, heat and cold,” the bird, the green plant, the tree, all as earth, water, wind … slowly, I noticed that my steps became very considerate of what I was stepping on. It wasn’t me being compassionate to the ants and other creatures, it was an organic natural awareness to step away from dirt and on to the pavement to reduce the chance of harming. I became aware of this consideration as an empty of Manijeh doing it. I didn’t even label it anything, just noticed it. My heart became filled with something very pleasant, not the emotions of happiness or gratitude. It was something different.
What? The Mind Is Not In The Body?
I continued day and night just observing the elements and the aggregates and brought questions to the Ajahns for clarification. On one occasion, as I heard sounds, I looked for bare consciousness before the sound hit the consciousness, which I think I taped into it for a second. Instantly, I felt something in the pit of my stomach that resembled fear. I looked at this feeling and wondered why fear? There was nothing to be afraid of. Logic said, maybe I’m about to see something that the little me is not ready for it. I let that thought go and continued walking. I stopped and looked into my mind to see the quality of my mind; as I searched for the mind in my head, it felt tight. I looked closer and realized it was actually my temples that felt tight. Maybe I was focusing too hard to find it, so I softened. Then the question arose in me, “Is the mind in the head? what if it’s not in the head?” I went feeling my thumb to see if I found any mind there. The bell rang, and I had to stop. So, I put the question to the Ajahns, explaining my experience.
Ajahn Karunadhammo explained that the mind is not in the body, that actually the body is in the mind. Now I had to go figure this one out. He also said the fear of taping into consciousness is a normal experience because the mind is not used to no stimulation. I guess, in consciousness, there is nothing, it is pure awareness. He said, that I may or may not experience it again, that I should continue practicing.
Keep Your Head Down and Practice.
I followed Ajahn Naniko’s advice to keep my head down and practice. This advice came after one of the participants asked how they could go beyond first and second jhanas. Ajahn Naniko explained how extremely difficult it is even to experience the first and the second jhanas and that some people mistake their bliss that comes from narrow focusing for the experience of the jhanas. He explained that in Theravada’s forest tradition under Ajahn Cha, it is forbidden for monks to claim any jhana state. That if they happen to mistakenly claim having accomplished any states of jhanas that they would be expelled. It was the highest crime. They are told to keep their head down and practice. And so I did the same.
I also went hiking during allocated free times and took every step in a meditative state. When I saw cars passing, I’d wish loving-kindness for them, but it wasn’t so loud, and me engaged. It was quiet and aligned with the breath. Feeling earth & wind as the main focus, heat, and cold when they showed up. Loving-kindness felt, not expressed in the mind.
True Equanimity Showed Up!
At one point, walking so slow, experiencing the wind element as the movement of my foot off the earth, my mind said, this is equanimity! So, this is equanimity! I paid closer attention; it was not peacefulness, not steadiness, connectedness, or other words I had heard and used to describe equanimity. This was not a feeling I noticed. More a lack of anything I had ever experienced before. This is equanimity…That’s when I realized what is universally agreed upon as the mind being in the head is not. Because when I had some cognition about these experiences, they didn’t feel like the usual thinking, describing, like I am doing now. They felt a lack of opinion in them. Perhaps this was pure awareness.
One of the explanations offered by the Ajahns about the state of awakening was recounting the Buddha’s explanation of this through the metaphor of light hitting an object to make light known. When you remove, the object light hits the thing under the object. When you remove the thing under the object, light hits the earth. When you remove the earth, light hits nothing so we can’t see it, but light is there. That is the state of awakening. Did I experience a moment of awakening, which felt to me like equanimity? A lack of anything? I don’t know.
Practice In Everything
In everything I did, cooking, washing dishes, laundry, folding, eating food, and food experience in my mouth, I noted the elements, earth, wind, water, heat, and cold. I did it even with nature itself. Looking at a large oak tree expanding its branches wide and far, I felt gratitude, not for their shade or their offering as I always did before, rather for their being. It did something to the identity of it. It was just being with that being, not that tree. One morning, I saw a couple of green beans grown in my vegetable garden, my heart filled with joy I couldn’t help but to bow. I had no words. It was not my usual gratefulness.
Would I lose the pleasures I get from nature, taste, and my senses?
At one time, I considered if I just noted the basic elements that I might lose the pleasures of taste and nature, a very fulfilling experience. I investigated the cost and benefits of continuing to contemplate the elements. I didn’t get a notion of loss. Seeing green plants, tall trees as earth, water, heat & cold, wind, that’s where the equanimity resided – I will keep my head down and practice.
The feeling of gratitude I have for the Ajahns and their practice is indescribable, for, without their own deep practice, the knowledge and insight could not be expressed in such ways that one can tap into their dept. This is beyond compassion and kindness, a realm where none of these qualities exist but pure equanimity.
Continued Some Of The Structure After The Retreat Ended.
So, I have continued meditating morning, evening, and mid-day after the retreat ended. A deep desire has awakened in me different from all other desires for knowing the dharma. It is a desire for nothing. I have not turned on the television, watched nothing, heard no music – nothing for 20 days until I visited family for the weekend, and there was noise, television, loud music, restlessness. This was normal to them, and it would be normal for me as well in the past. But now, my mind is crisp and clear, and I could feel the causes of unhappiness much more acutely.
Impatience & Cooling Down
I found myself a bit impatient today with the power being cut off repeatedly to prevent fires. Constant internet shut down, the pond water pump stops, which the fish rely on to breathe, and other challenges that go with having no power. Oh, and not being able to charge my new electric car at home… This sense of impatience made me do something about it, though. The energy of doing and solving an issue was generated. However, along with it came a feeling of discontentment for how it was. Finally, after a couple of hours of wallowing in that feeling, I recognized it and said to myself, it’s just a feeling; it’ll pass. Having had so much meditation practice lent to quickly lifting the clouds, and I was fine, continued taking care of things with no aversion to them. I reflected on what happened that my mind became tight and tense. I realized it must have been being exposed to too much noise too fast, losing my Mindfulness. Today is day 25 that I have not turned on the television for anything, nor listened to any music; no entertainment at all. I am shooting for 30 days of no-entertainment and news fast.