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Someone Once a Stranger: A Retreat Experience

The truth about a meditation retreat is that you really don’t know what will happen. Try as you might to predict and you will undoubtedly be surprised. But no matter what, something will happen that will help you to open your eyes, to “wake up,” out of the habitual ways you think and behave. 

What are most Insight Meditation (Vipassana) retreats really like here in the States? Here’s what you can count on: You will be assigned a room with or without a roommate you might or might not know. There will be a daily schedule starting early in the morning of sitting and walking mediation that will be signaled by the ringing of bells and you could find yourself the bell ringer. There might be a period of yoga and a time for teachers to answer questions scheduled into the day.

Gradually, without even noticing it happen, you will begin to feel unusually safe and appreciative of little things you don’t usually notice and nothing will seem to have caused this to happen.

To keep the costs down you will probably be given a daily job to help with food preparation or cleaning. It is called a “yogi job” and you will be referred to as a “yogi.” You will love or hate your job but you will probably look forward to it as something to do. You will probably be told some rules at the beginning of the retreat called “precepts,” that everyone is expected to agree to follow. Over time you will find yourself leaving your room unlocked with relative ease (it has no lock on it anyway) and nothing will be taken. “Taking the precepts” means you agree to not take anything that isn’t yours, to not kill any living being (and you can expect to be challenged by a noisy fly in your room crawling up your arm) and to be truthful in speech and actions.

One of the amazing things is that it will be done in complete silence, as everyone will take a vow on the first night of arrival to maintain “noble silence.” This is a practice of stilling not only the voice but body language as well. This silence allows one be alone in the midst of a group while supported by the silence of others. On the other hand, the teachers talk and you might notice they talk a lot among themselves. In the evening you will hear a “Dharma talk” on the teachings of the Buddha. This will be your entertainment, not popcorn. Gradually, without even noticing it happen, you will begin to feel unusually safe and appreciative of little things you don’t usually notice and nothing will seem to have caused this to happen.

After you get used to the rules and settle in to the craziness of nothing apparently happening because almost all of the usual stimulation of your life at home has been eliminated, things get really, really interesting…. You are instructed to pay attention to your breath and then, everything else, such as: the moment you wake up in the morning, the sensations of getting into bed at night, waiting in line for food, the anticipation of putting food in your mouth, the explosion of taste, going to the toilet, brushing your teeth, showering, thinking about when you will shower, standing up, sitting down, walking from here to there, sounds…you get the idea. Even with when it feels like nothing is happening, the mind is a busy beaver. Meanwhile the food tastes better than ever, the trees, grass and flowers have a new vibrant energy, and little creatures are spectacular and fascinating. What can begin as a very negative experience can change without effort and break your heart open.

One such transformational experience occurred on a recent retreat. It was the sixth day of doing my yogi vacuuming job when I went to the closet and the vacuum wasn’t there. I was in shock. I stood there for seconds, maybe minutes. “Am I seeing wrong?” I thought to myself. It really wasn’t there. So, I went looking for my vacuum and the person who had taken it. I found her. I stared. She acknowledged me and broke silence, “I still have the stairs and the upper hall to do. The other person (with another vacuum) will be done in two minutes.” All I could manage was, “Oh,” but not a regular “oh,” more like “Ohhh,” but I still wanted an explanation.

You really don’t know what will happen on a meditation retreat. If you watch our reactions to events, you see they move like a rollercoaster and bounce around with no predictability. The most mundane of activity can turn into a heart opening experience, a chance to care and love someone who once was a stranger.So here is how my mind worked: I sat in a chair, waiting, watching, still in shock, thinking, “This will mess up my whole morning!” Watching more reactivity, shock, and bewilderment. Then I felt the blood, the way it can pump in your head -- awake to the sensation of anger. Thought, “This is way longer than two minutes!” Pump, throb. I heard the other vacuum go off. Taking it, it had a different plug on it. It didn’t fit the outlet. Oh great. Looked for another plug nearby. Found one. Will it reach? Probably not. (I recognized the irritable thinking.) I would have to vacuum the room in a different pattern because of this new position of the plug. Heresy! Wait, I can be flexible. Vacuuming now, just vacuuming. This one works better. Wow. Sweating. Wrapping the cord, this one works differently; interesting and restful.

One little incident: so many reactions. In our daily lives, how often does something like this happen?

Somewhere into vacuuming the next day, I noticed how much less I had to vacuum than the other yogi. I had finished and she was still going. I can do more. (It was just a thought.) I started vacuuming the coatroom I had found her in the day before. It was really satisfying to vacuum because I could hear noise of the gravel and sand being sucked up into the vacuum around the shoes. Sweating again now and moving shoes to get under them, I noticed I was happy to be doing this. Just as I was finishing up, my friend, the yogi vacuumer, walked into the room and I bowed to her. Bowing is a customary practice in the Buddhist tradition that can communicate respect, appreciation, reverence, acknowledgment and a simple, “hello.” Now we were bowing back and forth, she was saying, “thank you.” I put my arms around her, she began to cry and there we were, hugging in the coatroom around our respective vacuums.

You really don’t know what will happen on a meditation retreat. If you watch our reactions to events, you see they move like a roller coaster and bounce around with no predictability. The most mundane of activities can turn into a heart opening experience, a chance to care and love someone who once was a stranger. If you really pay attention, everything can serve to awaken the heartmind.

 

Vicki Goodman says, "My first couple of retreats were, at times, torturous. It's really hard to just sit and be with. It's also wonderful, peaceful, joyful and heartful."

It is the mission of IMCW/The Insight Meditation Community of Washington is to support the awakening of hearts and minds through the direct experience of the Buddhist path, and the integration and manifestation of wisdom and compassion in all aspects of life, for the benefit of all beings.

IMCW
P.O. Box 3
Cabin John, MD 20818

Phone: 202.986.2922

Email: meditate@imcw.org