Jenny Roberts writes:
Along with Samanartha, Khemasara, and Penny, I’ve just returned from an intensive meditation retreat at Vajraloka, led by Tejananda. Those who know the venue and the teacher won’t be surprised at the revelation that this was a very intensive eleven days.
The theme was ‘simply being’. And the practice which was explored as the days went on was simply to be present with whatever was happening – be it thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations or perceptions (like hearing and seeing). As in any meditation retreat there was a good deal of formal sitting in the shrine room but, this time, the practice extended to just about every waking minute. As Tejananda remarked at the beginning of the eight days of silence, ‘There is no time off on this retreat!’
And indeed there wasn’t.
We were encouraged to stay present at all times: while out walking, while sitting in the garden, while washing up, while doing work duty, while eating, getting ready for bed or getting up in the morning… And throughout each day the whole area seemed full of retreatants walking meditatively through the forest, gazing at the beautiful views or just sitting in the garden seemingly staring out into space.
Tejananda made the point that we are not our thoughts, even though our thoughts encourage us to think that we are. So the practice, for me at least, was very much about opening up to my experience, and especially listening to what went on in my head. So for eight days I tuned into my feelings, perceptions and thoughts, trying not to get caught up in them, or distracted by them. And – most importantly – remembering that they were not ‘me’. It was, I must say, both fascinating and, at times, quite startling. Especially what went on in my mind!
Dilgo Khyentse Rimpoche says that the mind is as ‘witless as a child’. This may appear to some as a rather unkind thing to say, but you might reflect, as I did, that a young child is pulled this way and that by wants and don’t wants – just like the mind. A child will throw tantrums if it doesn’t get its own way – just like the mind. And many a small child never stops chattering – just like the mind!
Well, just like my mind anyway! Walking around each day I was often a little shocked by the judgements made by my mind and amused by the ridiculous lengths it sometimes went to, to entertain itself, or fill an otherwise quiet moment. Sometimes thoughts were more like a running commentary, constantly remarking on the obvious, evaluating the unnecessary. It was like having a demented soul walking behind me shouting unhelpful, sometimes offensive comments in my ear. Of course there is nothing ‘bad’ about this. We’re human, and this is how our minds behave. So, regardless of the content, I tried to accept whatever was going on with kindness, neither pushing the experience away, nor getting caught up in it (nor indeed judging it in any way at all!)
One day I was walking through the forest enjoying the peace and the smell and grandeur of the pine trees. It felt good being really present. For once I could see that my feelings and perceptions and occasional random thoughts were, in fact, the whole of my experience. This was all there was. This was my whole world. I There wasn’t a ‘Jenny Roberts’ inside, and a ‘forest’ outside. There wasn’t a past or a future. There was just this moment, this whole beautiful, rich experience.
Then something weird happened which, in a way, was like being mugged – or rendered unconscious. There was nothing violent, simply the mind, doing what it does, taking me away into an imagined future or a remembered past. Suddenly ‘I’ was somewhere else. The forest was still there I assume – but for a few minutes I certainly wasn’t.
I came round when the train of thought had played itself out and, as I reconnected with the forest, my feelings and perceptions, it was as if I had just woken from a deep sleep. And of course, in a way, I had.
It was a small but valuable insight, seeing how my thoughts habitually separate me from the world, taking me somewhere else, somewhere that is not real at all. And for those few moments I could see how this ‘taking away’ conjures up an illusion that I am separate from everything; literally stealing me away from the real experience of my life in all its richness.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with ‘thinking’ and remembering’ per se. We need to plan ahead and we need to remember – both for practical purposes and as part of being human. It’s the extra-curricular, unnecessary thinking that causes us suffering and confusion – and removes us from the rich and colourful stream of life.
And, perhaps surprisingly, staying with this experience of life, doesn’t require us to do anything special. Tejananda said that we didn’t need to fabricate a state of ‘oneness’ with everyone or everything, we just needed a simple knowing that ‘this is so’. That there is no separate me ‘in here’ and no separate others ‘out there’. And to see that every time a thought is allowed to take us away from the present moment, it separates us from our real experience – and alienates us from the world.
Of course it’s one thing seeing this on a meditation retreat and quite another practising the same thing in the hurly-burly of daily life. Yet, the same experience is available all the time wherever we are. And every time we see the thoughts that are separating us from the world is a step into the light. Every time we connect with our lived experience in each moment – be it pleasant, unpleasant or neutral – we also connect a little more with the richness of reality itself.
So, since the retreat, my practice is to try and keep returning to the present moment and my experience of it, wherever I am, whatever I am doing. A little bit like the Mindfulness of Breathing but practised off the mat as well as on, and coming back, not just to the breath, but to the whole of sense experience: embodied feelings, touching, tasting, smelling, hearing, seeing, thinking.
It isn’t easy, but I reckon that if I can just do this just a little, then, eventually, I might be able to do it more often and then one day… well who knows?
And, from now on, at least once each day I’m going to sit around for half an hour doing absolutely nothing – not meditating, not reading, not reflecting… just, in Tejananda’s words, simply being useless.
I’m embracing this with enthusiasm. After all, it has to be said that, that is my natural state… And yours too, I guess.