I arrived – late – to find the other participants of the weekend meditation retreat at the Buddhist monastery already robed and ready, waiting on the porch or near the pond, looking awkward. People are often awkward at the beginning of a retreat. The shy try to be inconspicuous, the extroverts introduce themselves, people make small talk about their travels, expectations and anticipations. We were told this retreat would be held ‘in Noble Silence’ – but I wasn’t quite sure what that meant. Whispering instead of talking? No one seemed to be doing even that. They were meandering, a little stiff in the unfamiliar garb, trying not to make eye contact. Like a bunch of seven-year-olds at the school dance before their friends turn up.
Noble Silence means no talking. We could ask and answer questions from the clean-shaven nuns who ran the formal sessions, but this was a monastic retreat which meant sticking to the rules: waiting in neat lines, no mobile phones, no makeup or adornments, dressing in identical robes, cutting the chit chat and being on time. But surely I couldn’t help being late? I left 3 hours earlier for a 1-hour 45-minute journey. Two traffic jams! Who could have predicted? But no one seemed to want to hear my explanation. They were all standing around looking scrubbed and priestly when Nanna walked in, the rube without a robe, her mobile ringing at full volume just as she gave her name at the desk. Ugh. This was not a good start.
For the first few sessions and meals I was also late. I didn’t have a watch, I didn’t have a phone, I couldn’t ask anyone the time and I discovered an internal resistance I hadn’t anticipated. Why should I? What’s the point of? I paid to come here so why can’t I? . . .But with no one to bitch or snipe to, no one saying “me too” or “oh I know!” that little voice inside sounded infantile. Hmm. I don’t like to be told what to do, maybe I have a problem with authority? Where did all that come from? It was the first of several tough confrontations during that weekend of being silent, learning about Buddhism, and practising meditation.
There were 47 in the group, but without any communication other than the odd smile, we were all entirely alone, and at the same time entirely integrated into a community sharing a single routine: meditation and chanting at 6 am, Tai Chi at 7, line up for breakfast at 7.25 . . . Through strict discipline – and the gentlest of Buddhist loving kindness from the monastics – we were muscled into mindfulness. There was nowhere else to go.
I had read about mindfulness, been in retreats with sessions on mindfulness, heard countless yoga teachers talk about mindfulness but there’s nothing like dropping into an experience where all volition is removed to get practising. Ten minutes before each meal, at the sound of clacking sticks, we made our line at the door to the dining hall, behind a woman in a gold-brown robe whose movements were spare and precise. She led us in, we peeled off into orderly rows and when all were in place, tried to lift out our stools and sit down without a sound. She stood with eyes closed, gave no instruction, so we did the same. Closed our eyes. Breathed. For the first few meals, I was waiting. What’s next? When do we start? But after a while, it became the routine, just another chance to meditate. I surrendered.
When you’re not talking to anyone at mealtime, not looking at anyone and or reading something, it’s just you and that plate of food. How interesting. Will I spear that piece of tofu with the carrot? That spring roll looks too good, will I save it for last? What if I chew every mouthful ten times, can I keep that up to the end? Then, after a few meals, all the plotting and planning disappeared. I just sat and ate, and was (mostly) there for the sitting and the eating. So THAT’S what they mean when they bang on about mindfulness. It’s a practice, not a precept.
The food was great, the experience valuable, disturbing and powerful. I’m not ready to shave my head (Nanna is no threat to Pema Chodron) but I’ll be back for more monasticism if for no other reason than to check on how I’m going with that resistance (and did I mention the greed? The ego?) (I mean, surely if you’re wearing a sack, one can at least allow oneself a little lippy?? “True face” said the young monastic, “only with true face can you live simply.”) I’ll be back for more of that. And if you’re interested in giving it a go, here’s the link. I might see you there – but we won’t chat until after it’s over: