“Meditation is not to escape from society, but to come back to ourselves and see what is going on. Once there is seeing, there must be acting. With mindfulness, we know what to do and what not to do to help.” Thich Nhat Hanh
I am back home after a 7-day mindfulness silent retreat at Gaia House, my first long retreat after my daughter was born. It was special in the way that I did not have any expectations about what it would feel like after the retreat, how serene or spontaneous or relaxed I would be. I had booked it to be in silence, have Vipassana sittings and walks, and let myself follow the Gaia House bells – to tell me when to go to bed, when to eat, when to go to the meditation hall. I longed to let go of my deciding mode and relax into a simple life, albeit only for seven days.
So, these were seven days of eating simple food, drinking herb teas, washing my cup afterwards, going to bed early, waking up early, working an hour a day weeding the vegetable garden, crunching wind fallen apples and pears every day, not using Internet at all, not writing and not reading. These were seven days of sitting and walking meditation, listening to Buddha’s wise words in the evenings and falling soundly asleep as soon as my head touched the pillow.
There were difficult moments, of course – a meditation retreat is really a boot camp for the mind. But going through these difficulties felt right and worthwhile, as if I was opening a wound to let it heal quicker. So, the first few days I was trying to watch my mind bring up all the negativity it was capable of, wondering whether sitting was really for me and why I was doing this. I was trying to find something positive in my life and could not find it, that’s how bad it was! In these moments my anchor was my breath again and again and again, a thousand times. Slowly-slowly, by the third day, the clouds started to lift and I felt a silence inside me – so familiar, always here, but my mind being cluttered with so much noise, I could not hear it …
And then, on the forth day, I was told that my mum had been rushed to the hospital. I left the retreat and drove to the hospital to be close to my mum, to hold her hand, to reassure her that all will be OK. Once there, I felt utterly helpless. I could feel my mother’s thoughts spiralling out of control and her blood pressure rising, directly proportionate to her anxiety… That was exactly what the retreat was about – to see how we create our own suffering and to experience a direct way to undo it. But I also understood then that, no matter how much I wanted to help, I could not do anything for anybody else, no matter how much I loved them. Everybody had to do their own homework, and cheating was not an option.
Mum felt better later on, her blood pressure coming back to normal, and I re-joined the retreat the next day. Anchoring again in my breath, I watched worry, fear, restlessness, anxiety come and go – and that was OK – there was nothing I wanted to change or be different. Three more days passed very quickly, and here I am, back to ‘normal life’ again.
Is it different now, after the retreat? Yes and no. Outwardly everything seems the same, but the quality of the experience ‘It is alright’ seems to have stayed, allowing me to live each day with the quiet confidence that life directs me to be there where I need to be and to do that what I need to do. Sometimes I notice my moods – liking or disliking certain experiences, with convincing thoughts to accompany each mood. But what do moods matter when Life is calling to be lived each moment with awareness and joy.