In our Western culture we give so much time and attention to taking care of our bodies but how often do we take time to care of our minds? Just as it is important to exercise our body to be strong so that we won’t get injured by life’s falls – a well trained, calm and flexible mind can help us better deal with life’s unexpected emotional stresses.
How does one train the mind?
Meditation is learning how to just be – letting go of all burdens and concerns and fixing your attention only on the breath. Through the practice of Anapanasati (mindfulness with breathing) we can calm the mind cultivating inner peace, stability, and mindfulness.The better we can control our mind in meditation, the better we can handle the external world and be more calm, relaxed, and stress free.
There is a tremendous resistance in the mind to being in the present and just being with what IS rather than with all our fantasies and projections about how we want life to be. Meditation forces us to face ourselves by looking within and learn who we really are not who we think we are or want to be.
Many of us are complete slaves to our emotions and are not at all in control of what is going on in our minds. By getting the mind in shape by developing moment-to-moment awareness of the mind we can find the space to see what is happening within us and select what is helpful and let go of the unhelpful thoughts.
The thought manifests as the word
The word manifests as the deed
The deed develops into habit
And habit hardens into character
So watch the thought
And its ways with care
And let it spring from love
Born out of concern for all beings.
I have been meditating for the past four years and have found that allowing myself time to just be alone with me is crucial to calming my over active mind and balancing my busy social life. I absolutely believe that we can change our lives by changing our minds. In hopes of deepening my practice I checked myself in to a 7-day silent meditation retreat at Dipabhavan on Koh Samui Island in Thailand, where I lived amongst the nuns and monks that live at Dipabhavan.
Achan Poh, abbot of Wat Suan Mokkh, founded Dipabhavan Meditation Retreat creating a tranquil oasis at the top of a hillside hidden within the lush jungle seemingly miles away from the craziness of the way too touristy Lamai Beach. It was the perfect setting to relax and reflect. I felt blessed to have had this solitary time in which I could devote to myself.
Many of my friends thought I was nuts to do such a thing, seeing the retreat as a form of torture and thought I would surely “crack” under silence. I am sure many wagers were made on my behalf. I really enjoy finding solitude but knew that even if I wasn’t enjoying myself there is no way I would leave until it was over. When I commit to something I commit 100% and if I say I am going to do something, I do it.
Below is the schedule I committed to for a week.
4:30 a.m. Wake up
5:00 a.m. Morning Reading
5:15 a.m. Sitting meditation
5:45 a.m. Yoga/Exercise
7:00 a.m. Sitting Meditation
7:30 a.m. Breakfast
8:00 a.m. Chores
(my duty was to sweep the meditation hall)
9:30 a.m. Dhamma talk
10:30 a.m. Walking or Standing Meditation
11:00 a.m. Sitting Meditation
11:30 a.m. Lunch
02:00 p.m. Meditation Instruction
03:00 p.m. Walking or Standing Meditation
03:30 p.m. Sitting Meditation
04:00 p.m. Walking or Standing Meditation
04:30 p.m. Chanting
05:00 p.m. Loving Kindness Meditation
05:30 p.m. Tea
07:30 p.m. Sitting Meditation
08:00 p.m. Group Walking Meditation
08:30 p.m. Sitting Meditation
09:00 p.m. Bedtime
09:30 p.m. Lights Out
The rules of the retreat were:
No talking, abide by schedule, eat only two veggie meals a day, don’t stand under coconut trees, don’t play with cats, and turn over electronics & other distractions. This meant no wi-fi, no computer, no ipod, no books, no facebook!
I never thought the experience would be “fun” but would be rewarding despite its challenges. The retreat was indeed very hard at times and good at other times. By the end of the retreat I absolutely felt more calm, relaxed, and focused than I have in my entire life! I didn’t know anyone at the retreat and found it easy to keep quite the enire time with two exceptions.
1. We each had a 15-minute one on one talk with the abbot regarding our practice.
2. I screamed aloud when a dog came up behind me and bit my hand! When an animal bites you in SE Asia, you sort of have to speak up! I was assured that the dog had received all it’s shots including rabies.
At the retreat I didn’t have to think about the normal day to day things like what to eat (meals were prepared) what time it was (a bell rang to signal time to be somewhere) or what I looked like (there were no mirrors) or what to wear (dress code of tshirt and pants that cover the knees). All I had to think about was being mindful of the here and now.
I had heaps of time to sit quietly with my thoughts …17 hours a day to be exact. That is 1020 minutes per day, 7140 for the entire week. I found myself counting often … counting my breath, the number of stairs to the meditation hall is 126, which I climbed at least five times per day totally 630 stairs climbed each day, 4410 for the entire week.
On day two I attempted to count the number of hours left until I could leave but felt overwhelmed by the thought. I found it extremely hard to concentrate in the beginning but my focus did improve throughout the week. Sitting for such long periods of time while attempting to concentrate only on your breath is not easy and requires patience, determination and regular practice.
The mornings were easier than I would have expected given the fact that I am absolutely NOT a morning person and rising at 4:30 a.m. I never do by choice! I did quite enjoy the morning readings, yoga workout and the one hour sitting morning meditation. After day three I noticed a very distinct sensation of feeling as if I were floating as I left the meditation hall and walked down the hill to get breakfast. I have never felt so calm and relaxed; it was an amazing feeling I wish I could bottle up!
I found the afternoons to be the hardest time for me to concentrate as it was very long, hot, and my “monkey mind” was most active. What is a monkey mind you ask? Picture a bunch of monkeys swinging from the trees, they are restless and never still. My thoughts were like a barrel of monkeys inside my head jumping all over the place. Inside my mind often went something like this:
Focus on your breath Kelly, Breath in and out – Count 1, in and out Count 2; Where should I go next? Africa or the South Pacific? In and out count 3. Such different trips. I am running out of money. I should probably go back to work soon. It is SO hot today! Breath in and out Count … shoot, what number breath was I on? I should just start over and only think of my breath! Breath in and out – Count 1, in and out count 2, in and out count 3. Ouch, a mozzie just bit me! Are those red centipedes lurking about again? Breath in and out, count 4. It is windy today, would be good for kitesurfing, I wonder if I should have bought a kite in Hua Hin since they were so cheap. Maybe I should go back there and buy one? GRRRR focus Kelly, let it go. “Come my brother come easy, my friend come let go – sang Xavier Rudd in my head. Oh no, not that song again, I can never get it out of my head once it is there! JUST BREATH. Didn’t Fatih Hill sing a song about that too? OMG, what is wrong with me?
Meditation is hard.
My favorite time of the day to meditate was in the evening as I have always been a night owl and find my mind most alert at night. I had most success focusing during the 7:30-9 pm meditation sessions and loved the sounds of the jungle at night amongst the darkness only sparsely lit by a few candles.
Other note worthy facts from my week in isolation …
I slept on a straw mat in a wooden box. See photo below. It wasn’t as uncomfortable as it looks.
I showered with cold water using these little bowls.
I only ate two vegetarian meals per day, one at 7:30 and the other at 11:30. Yes, I did feel hungry in the evening but survived none-the-less. I actually had more energy this week and I think it had everything to do with the food I ate.
There were about 40 people participating in the retreat. I noticed that four people left the retreat early.
I realized I could stare at a single object for a very long time. Sometimes during my breaks when I didn’t know what to do next I would decide to go and stare at one of the many giant spiders that lived in a huge web near the meditation hall. Other times I lost track of time as I concentrated on a leaf moving with the breeze. These were moments of intense focus that later left my mind very calm. It may sound silly, but you should try it.
What I learn at this retreat and thoughts to remember …
Prior to the retreat I had heard that such experience could be life changing. While I was hoping for a profound experience, I did not have any. But I realized that I have already had many profound realizations in the past few years as a result of meditation. I noticed that while I had a hard time staying focused on the present, my mind rarely thought about the past, it was the future that I thought about the most.
I enjoyed the retreat more than I expected and could have stayed longer. I would absolutely recommend this retreat to others and hope to again one day or perhaps the 10 day retreat on the mainland.
I was able to enjoy a state of relaxation and calmness of the mind that I had never experienced before. I felt so good.
Decisions I struggled with prior to the retreat no longer felt so stressful. I felt I was better able to make decision with my newly clear and calm mind. More on this later …
I believe more than ever that meditation has the power to change our minds and our future.
I learned how to apply my practice to daily life by constantly being mindful. Think before you talk, focus on the task at hand, listen intently to the person who is speaking to you. Reflect upon the food you eat and how it came to be. We too often are thinking of a hundred things at once, giving the least focus to the actual task at hand. It is important to realize that every single action we do throughout the day, if done in a constant state of mindful presence of really being in the action of the moment, being completely aware – helps our practice.
Any problem in our lives resides in our own minds. As long as we continue to blame things on the outside world we can never solve our problems. As soon as we turn attention away from the outside and look inward we will see our problems stem from our own responses to life. External environment and others will always annoy and disappoint us. We need to learn how to tame and cultivate our own mind to better deal with the outside world. Things will still happen that we can’t prevent, but it is how we respond to these moments creates our life.
The better we can control our mind in meditation, the better we can handle the external world and be more calm, relaxed, and stress free.
We should meditate for the whole of society not just for oneself.
The heart of Buddhism is to understand the nature of the mind and consciousness.
Peace in oneself = peace in the world.
How something is and how it appears to be are two very different things.
Memories, emotions and thoughts are only mental states of the mind. They come and go, they are not who we are.
Try to see things as if one is seeing the for the very first time instead of letting past memories, opinions distance us from what is really happening in front of us or what is really occurring inside ourselves.
True wisdom (dharma) is found in daily life. The ability to be here and now and put others before your self helps to overcome innate selfishness.
Accept things as they are.
It is important in your practice to not simply develop through the mind intellectually but also learn how to open the heart.
Everything comes back around as everything is connected.
To see more photos from the retreat CLICK HERE. These photos were all taken on the last day – I was not allowed to have my camera during the retreat as this would have been a distraction!