How much of life do we miss when we are not being mindful? Mindful of our surroundings, mindful of our inner workings, and mindful of every moment before it passes us by?
Mindfulness is not something we are typically taught in Western culture. Knowledge and ability in academia and sports are all very well. But simple awareness, connection with our higher selves, and empathy — we are left to work these things out for ourselves, if and when we get the opportunity to do so, or to even become aware of how powerful and beneficial they are.
When I was twenty-one, I had an unexpected opportunity to spend ten days on a silent retreat with Buddhist meditation and Dharma teacher, Christopher Titmuss. I had never done anything like it before and had no idea what it would be like to not speak for a whole ten days, but it sounded pretty scary!
It turned out it wasn’t that hard. Even more significantly, the benefits to my awareness of everything around me and internally were astounding.
The retreat was taking place in Bodhgaya in northern India, the place of the Mahabodhi Tree, under which it is said that the Buddha sat when he reached enlightenment. It began during the Kalachakra festival — the most important festival on the Buddhist calendar for the town, when monks and devotees of the Buddha would arrive from all over the world, and from every Buddhist tradition. Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Thai, Tibetan, and probably more that I simply don’t know about.
The retreat itself took place in the Thai Temple, a tranquil and beautiful space with a gated entrance, outside of which the town was heaving, but within which remained in utter peace.
I knew no one at all when I arrived and found myself thrown straight in at the deep end. I was shown to a room where several other women were already installed. Of course, we were in silence, so there was no “hello” or chit-chat of any kind.
Everyone seemed completely ready to withdraw from the world and from other people. On that first day, I imagined that we would pass the ten days and leave, never having made any connection with one another. Oh, how wrong could I have been?
My bed was merely a mat on the floor, a pillow, and some blankets. I had my own sleeping bag too — a very good thing, given that it was early January in Bodhgaya, on the plains of North India. The nights were cold and layering up was vital.
Each morning, we would start our day with optional yoga at 5.15 am, followed by our first sitting meditation. Yoga asanas were totally my thing, and so I had no intention of missing that session. The rest was more of a blur for the rest of the day. However, falling into a routine enabled me to start to open my eyes — most especially the third one — to patterns, habits, and perceptions that were potentially creating more harm in my life than good.
3 powerful lessons that I took away from this experience :
In all honestly, I would say that my main reason for taking part in the retreat was to push myself out of my comfort zone and prove to myself that I could do something that felt like quite a feat.
But, secondly, I knew that some things in me were likely to change over ten days spent meditating in silence, and I was well and truly open to what was put before me; lessons that served me for life.
1. Letting go of our own baggage and preconceptions is the only way to free us enough to experience true joy.
Every morning, my alarm was set for 5 am, but I was always woken an hour earlier by a woman who seemed to need a full hour longer than everyone else.
5 am I could cope with but 4 am was too early.
At one point during the retreat, I came down with a cold that was going around. As was always the case, it went to my chest and I was feeling pretty rough, so I decided to go to the nurse to see if she could give me something to ease my discomfort.
Aside from discovering I had no voice to speak with due to the cold, completely unknown to me until that moment, I mentioned that I was not managing to get as much sleep as I felt I should since I was being woken up an hour earlier than necessary.
Sleep has always been an issue for me and so it was raising some old negative feelings. I would feel anxiety start to raise its head, worrying about getting caught in a bad sleep pattern.
The nurse asked me what I felt I could do about the sleep issue. My initial response was that I could be allowed to speak, just to ask the woman not to set her alarm an hour earlier, but the nurse looked at me questioningly.
I had never considered that it was not necessarily my place to ask her to change. We had all been thrown into a room together and had to learn to adapt. And humans are adaptable creatures — we just carry a lot of baggage that can prevent us from being so.
After that, I felt at peace with my early wakings. I slept more deeply and awoke feeling more refreshed. Ironically, I even started sleeping through the woman’s alarm.
2. With each step you take, more will be revealed.
Our days were timetabled out into meditation sessions. We would begin with sitting meditation, followed by a session of walking meditation, and then a session of lying meditation.
Unlike some, very strict, schools of meditation, it was designed to be as easy-going on the body as possible. Nevertheless, the discomfort would arise during every session of seated meditation without fail. The walking meditation sessions provided a wonderful release from this.
But how boring could it be? We would step slowly, staying mindful of each movement, feeling the sensation of the heel touching the ground, followed by the ball of the foot, and finally pushing away with the toes.
As I took in each stage of every step, I would feel my breath, rhythmically entering and then leaving my body. I would see the roses in the garden of the Thai Temple, as I walked…mindfully…around them. I would watch the truck of Tibetans who had parked outside the gate for the duration of the Kalachakra Festival. Each morning they would splash themselves with hot water, before taking themselves off to do their many prostrations in front of the Mahabodhi Tree. And each evening they would sit together around a fire, cooking, eating, and chatting.
I would hear the sounds of chanting in the distance, notice every bicycle that passed by the gates of the Thai Temple, the waves in the hair of my fellow retreatants, and the soft green in the blanket that one had pulled around her.
There was so much to take in, every single moment.
3. Connections and communications with others need no words.
Spending time, day after day, around the same people yet never talking, I found I started to make strange connections. Eyes met and acknowledged one another. Smiles began to be passed between us.
We had to do jobs at certain times throughout the day. This wasn’t a service but a community, and we each had to do our bit to pitch in.
In the beginning, I was quite happy to take a cleaning task — something that I could do alone and quietly remain in my introverted space. However, slowly but surely, I began to take on other tasks. Tasks that involved, or were alongside others.
Initially, I helped with chopping vegetables for the daily meal. The cook was allowed to talk to us and gave us our vegetables to work through. Several of us stood around a table, all facing in.
There was a peaceful acceptance that took place during those sessions; acceptance of each person simply being who they were in that moment; acceptance because nothing could be said and there was nothing to say, and acceptance that everything is exactly as it should be — nothing more, nothing less.
Each time I went to receive food, the servers would acknowledge me and I, in turn, would thank them silently. My eyes said it all and their eyes acknowledged my thanks. And then, one time I was on the receiving end of the gratitude as I volunteered to serve some of the food. Connections grew. Connections deepened.