I’ve just done a week-long meditation retreat at the Buddhist Vihara in Katoomba, a very beautiful small monastery nestled in bush, overlooking the Jamison valley. The retreat was led by Venerable Kovida, the Sri Lankan abbot of the monastery and at present the only monk living there, assisted by a lay woman, Louise. It struck me as quite different to other retreats I’ve done, mainly because it took place in a monastery rather than a retreat centre or other secular setting, and because the rhythm of monastic life provided the structure of the retreat.
The program of meditation was quite continuous, but fairly gentle compared with many retreats. The day started with a 45 minute sit at 6am, followed by breakfast, then chanting and meditation from 8-9am, a service which takes place every morning at the monastery, whether there’s a retreat on or not. After that the retreatants continued mediting until 10.45, alternating between sitting and walking, usually in periods of half an hour each. Then there was a half hour work period, followed by lunch which was offered by Sri Lankan families who came each day for this purpose, showing heart-warming generosity and devotion. They served each of us in the same way they served Venerable Kovida. As required by monastic discipline, lunch was finished by 12pm (which given the abundance of food offered to us meant that for a short period of time we had to behave like rapid and continuous eating machines, an interesting capacity to master). After an hour to rest and digest, the program continued at 1pm either with meditation or, on every second day, an hour of group discussion when we could ask questions or report on our practice. Sitting and walking meditation then continued until 4.45pm, followed by a break when we could eat or drink something if needed. From 6-7pm there was the evening chanting and meditation service, which concluded the daily program.
There were no dhamma talks, except for one by American nun Pema Chodron that we listened to during one of the group discussion hours – and this only happened because I’d brought the cd to return to someone, and Louise asked if we could listen to it. There were also no private interviews. The retreat was conducted in ‘noble silence’ meaning no talking or communicating except during the discussion hours, or if required for some practical purpose.
I have to admit I broke noble silence once, on the third night. I’d woken up early (at 3.20am) and decided I should go back to sleep. I did a little relaxation exercise and was just drifting off, half dreaming, when I felt a sharp sensation in my left ear, just above the lobe. I was wearing a beanie so that my ears and face were the only part of me exposed to the cold night air. I instinctively shook my head, and wondered meditatively what the cause of this sensation might be. Half a second later, a thought popped into my head, instantly followed by a feeling of fear and in a high voice I said, “what was that?” There was no one else in the room to answer me, but my mute hypothesis was soon confirmed by the sound of little feet scurrying around under the bed – the delay had been caused by the fact that I was on the top bunk, and it took the rodent (probably a small rat) a few seconds to reach the floor. At that stage I felt I was really getting a proper taste of monastic life. Not only had I been nibbled by a rat during the early hours of the morning (a friend later suggested that it was testing to see if I was alive), but I had managed quite clearly to observe the chain of reactions: contact with night-time visitor, feeling of sharpness, instinctive physical reaction of movement, calm mental investigation, conceptual thought, PANIC leading to outburst of fairly nonsensical and useless speech. It was interesting to see how my fear didn’t arise from contact with the rat itself, but rather from the thought ‘rat?’ I do have – or have had – quite a strongly entrenched fear of rodents. But now that I’ve had one nibble my ear, funnily enough, I don’t feel so afraid of them, maybe because I now realise that I’m actually only afraid of the idea of rats – although admittedly this has yet to be tested by any further close encounters.
Anyway, back to the more general aspects of the retreat. The fact that the program was so simple, and included very little teaching or talking, meant that I had a good chance to observe what my mind does when pretty much left to itself. It wasn’t all pleasant – I spent a lot of time ‘getting in touch,’ as they say, with obsessive and confused habitual states of my mind. It was quite a humbling experience. At the time, I started to have doubts about what I was doing, whether I was actually driving myself mad rather than doing anything that could possibly lead towards enlightenment. But having survived and come out the other side, I feel that I gained more insight into my own emotional processes than I have on any other retreat. I’ve certainly experienced strong emotion on retreats before, but typically, I’ve also encountered plenty of things to help distract me – or rather, plenty of words to keep me occupied and entertained. While I usually find dhamma talks stimulating, and private interviews can be anything from comforting and helpful to (more rarely) infuriating, they can all operate, for someone like myself, who enjoys playing around with concepts and words, as opportunities to avoid anything too uncomfortable in the intimacy of my own experience, and to reassure myself that my mind is basically clear, sharp and on top of things (a bit like the rat J).
Having been on a lot of meditation retreats, I realise that my ego has worked out how to use them almost as a form of entertainment, a kind of educational holiday. It took a real rat and the support of a whole monastic environment to shake me out of this mode.