Sitting In Silence (Part 3)

After several days passed I began to experience some sitting meditations where my mind got very quiet and I was able to follow the breath for several minutes at a time without any distractions.  One day I noticed this odd sensation on the in-breath which eventually revealed itself to be my heart beating.  I always have this image of the cresent moon coming out from behind a cloud when I think about the impact of suddenly having a clear perception of my beating heart and it’s relationship to the breath, like the lifting of a veil.  I began to go deeper into the sensation of my beating heart and I found that I could feel the pulsation of the blood radiating outward from the heart.  I could follow that sensation with my mind outward from the center of my chest and into my arms and legs.  As I focused on the sensations of the pulsations, I got a very clear sense of the circulatory system and the way the arteries divide into smaller and smaller branches.  When my concentration was strong enough, I could sense my heartbeats radiating all the way into the capillaries in my fingers.  The image in my mind’s eye was incredibly clear and three dimensional, like something you might see in an Alex Grey painting.  When I would get up to transition into walking meditation, I would try to move very slowly, trying to maintain my deep concentration on the circulatory sensations as I rose to standing but the flood of different sensations that arise with movement made focusing so intently on any one aspect too challenging.

February is such a wonderful time to be there as the weather can be quite warm at times and the creeks are often full of water at that time of year.  The frog chorus from the surrounding creeks can seem incredibly loud and you can hear them peeping away from inside the meditation hall.  Invariably they would all go silent in unison, perhaps scared by some creatures movement.  Then after a minute or so one brave one would start with a peep.  And then another from further away.  And you could hear the sound begin to spread off into the distance along the length of the creek.

I remember one time, sitting in the meditation hall in the afternoon when everything became particularly still and my mind seemed incredibly clear.  Somebody in the room coughed and I felt the sound in my body.  I began to notice various sounds in the room of people breathing and shifting positions and all the sounds seemed to be coming from inside of me rather than outside – as if I had expanded to contain all that was happening in the room.

The two weeks passed really quickly.  I remember thinking several times that I could spend my whole life living like this.  Time spent at a meditation retreat is so sweet.  All of your basic needs are met and there’s nothing you need to do but just experience each moment as fully as possible.  It felt like heaven.  Not that every moment was blissful – not by a long shot.  There were plenty of unpleasant experiences to be had, but I felt so grateful for the opportunity to just stop everything and experience being.

Sitting In Silence (Part 2)

I probably would have signed up for a three month retreat immediately, but the longest retreat they would let me sign up for, having zero prior meditation experience, was two weeks.  I ended up sitting the first two weeks Spirit Rock’s two month spring retreat. There were about 70 people there, and we’d spend all day alternating between 45 minutes of sitting and walking meditation with breaks only for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Once a day, I would do some Iyengar yoga which helped my body adjust to being still for long periods of time.  I would meet with a teacher every few days for about 15 minutes so that they could give me guidance…  and probably make sure I wasn’t about to freak out.

Every night there would be a meditation talk by one of the teachers and I remember thinking how odd it was that they kept talking mentioning the Buddha so often.  Somehow, I never realized that Spirit Rock was a Buddhist meditation retreat center.  It may seem strange, but  I never thought about this as a religious pursuit, but rather as a laboratory in which to study my mind.  I came to  discovered that the Spirit Rock Meditation Center teaches Vipassana (or Insight) Meditation.

The meditation instruction was very simple (not to be confused with ‘easy’).  The instructions were to follow the breath, paying close attention to each in-breath and each out-breath.  After a couple of breaths, the mind would begin to wander and once this was realized, we were to bring our attention gently back to the breath.  After the first few hundred times, you start to get over

The first few days were challenging since my mind was all over the place, jumping from one thought to the next, an experience which is often referred to as monkey-mind.  I remember being particularly annoyed by this constant narration and analysis of my experience running through my head.  I often would find myself imagining my retreat experiences of the moment to an imagined friend.  After a few moments, I’d realize that I’m just talking to myself in my head and my friend is not here with me and I would put an end to the internal dialogue. But then a few minutes later I’d find myself doing the same thing again.   Sigh.

When practicing sitting meditation, the instructions are to avoid making any movements if at all possible.  This can be really challenging when your legs fall asleep or start to ache.  Sometimes my legs would go numb and I’d usually shift my position when that happened.  I used to think that this was caused by the circulation being cut off.  I remember once at a Cheri Huber retreat, I mentioned during a discussion that I worried that not moving when my legs when they started to go numb from not getting enough blood was cruel because it was like “withholding food” from the cells which led to a stunned silence in the room.   I’ve since read that this numbness is actually caused by a pinched nerve which may be true since the ‘pins and needles’ feeling as sensations begin to return does feel similar to that ‘funny bone’ sensation when you bang your elbow.

Sitting In Silence (Part 1)

In the last eight years or so I’ve done several long meditation retreats.  Adding up all my time spent in retreat during that time, I think comes to about eleven months.  I though it might be interesting to share some of my retreat experiences.  Perhaps some of you are thinking about doing a meditation retreat someday in the future and I hope that reading this might inspire you to take action and do it.  I can almost guarantee that it will change your life in ways you can’t even imagine right now.  I guessing that there are even more people reading this that have no intention of ever doing anything like this but are nevertheless curious about it.  Maybe you’re wondering why someone would drop everything for months at a time and just sit ‘staring at the wall’ (as I’ve heard some non-meditators describe it).

I had never even heard of meditation retreats until a friend of mine mentioned that she had gone on a week long silent meditation retreat.  My interest was piqued.  A week spent in silence.  What would that be like?  Being kind of the quiet type, I didn’t think that not talking for a week would be that hard, but what about having  no input – no news, no internet, no video, no phone calls?  I remembered reading somewhere that when people isolate themselves for a few days, they can begin to hallucinate.  When I read that it made me want to try backpacking out into the wilderness alone for a couple of weeks just to see what happens but it also seemed pretty scary.  A meditation retreat seemed comparatively safe but I never made any commitments to doing one.  There’s a saying that people come to the Dharma when they have suffered enough…

A year or two later an unpleasant and abrupt end came to my five year relationship and I started seeing a therapist to try and sort out what was going on with my life.  Six months later, my father died of cancer.  I was convinced that I could find a way to be with all this pain and think my way through to a solution. My mind was constantly trying to create new stories and explanations for why things were the way they were and after a while it became clear that I was just going in circles.  Even realizing that didn’t stop my mind from trying to figure things out.

Around this time, I met another friend who was very encouraging about the idea of doing a meditation retreat.  She had done two three month meditation retreats back in the late seventies and early eighties with Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein.  Wow – three months – now we’re (not) talking!