Living mindfully involves developing a practice both on and off the cushion. We work with meditative practices to give access to a more fully realized and awakened life, working with the body through the senses, walking, breathing and noting the coming and going of thoughts. My husband says it is much more akin to learning to juggle than learning Greek. You can read about juggling, hear stories about it, research the techniques online or watch Youtube videos but you still won’t know how to juggle until you find yourself throwing those coloured balls up in the air with exhilaration and frustration.
So it is with Mindfulness. It is to be experienced over and over until it is fully known and understood. The promise is that we can’t get rid of pain but can reduce suffering (those mental machinations that we generate when we aren’t getting what we want or don’t want what we’re getting) that often shows up as thoughts about how we might get rid of or change a difficult situation that may not be fixable. We needn’t simply be resigned to our lot but there may be another way. This is the path of Mindfulness, a road that can lead to increased contentment—and who wouldn’t want that?
One way to increase Mindfulness is by going on retreat. I decide to take myself on 7 days of silence with teachers Molly Swan and Norman Feldman through True North Insight Retreats. You can’t really prepare for meditation boot camp. The first night is easy. The teachers explain the value of silence, its assistance in settling the body/mind and the value of not reading or using electronic devices. The first day however, is excruciating. The body is not used to sitting and the mind whirls between the past and the future, mostly planning an escape.
Molly and Norman instruct us in posture, on standing and walking, on the sensations of breathing and that place between the inhale and the exhale. They teach us to attend to hearing without ideas or a story attached to sound, and to recognize our immediate responses of attraction (pleasant), repulsion (unpleasant) or neutral to any situation in any given moment. We practise from 6:45 am until 9:30 pm and gradually, minds and bodies settle. The meditations last for 45 minutes, and a bell rings, signalling the next practice or meal (eaten in silence). There are various meditation instructions in the day and a talk by the teachers each evening. We are part of a contemporary experiment in awakening with these mature teachers who embody the practice. They are mindful.
Each moment blurs into the next. The inevitability of change is revealed as my attention, state and thoughts continually shift, ecstatic one moment despairing or impatient the next. Molly jokes, “How you longed for retreat…and now? Just wait until you get home.” Norman talks about what contributes to our suffering and how it is perpetuated: how our attachment to our sense of self (who we believe ourselves to be) and lack of appreciation for our interconnectedness with others gets in our way, increasing our separation and difficulty. Molly talks about community and I see how the retreat supports a community of those who are like-minded, meeting on a path to a mindful life. Community constitutes and dissolves depending on the context or circumstances. Sometimes it is a group of only two and at other times, like now, it is a group of 34.
And now, it is suddenly Friday and we engage in a closing practice in which we come out of silence, speaking to the experience of the week. I close with a biodegradable gift to the instructors. A dried milk pod that represents the past (to learn from but leave behind), a heart I carve out of soap, symbolic of the present (to which we shouldn’t cling but can be sticky until it washes away), and a maple key representing a potential future (unpredictable). We pack up, climb into our cars and make the long journey back to the lives left behind. Slowly, we re-enter the world, hopefully a little more mindful, tender, with much friendliness and care for everyone; at least until forgetting happens…which it inevitably does.
Go on retreat and experience the agony and the ecstasy. It really is a boot camp for the mind and heart; a way to deepen our experience of mindfulness. If you go, remember that you take yourself with you wherever you go. In the words of Jon Kabat Zinn, “Wherever you go, there you are.”