What You Do While Meditating
(On Emerging from a Month-Long Advance)
By Catherine Pawasarat Sensei (2015)
It’s been a few weeks since I came out of my month-long solitary meditation retreat, which I prefer to call “advances.”
What a valuable experience that was, and challenging to describe. Sometimes people imagine that retreat is just sitting still for a month, which may not seem compelling. It’s far more fascinating than that. With meditation, we don’t just sit: we watch the mind. It’s an incredible entity!
Metaphorically speaking, it has a life and personality of its own, and I live with mine all day long, as you do with yours.
Meditation helps me to understand my mind, what’s going on in there, how it works, and most importantly what I can do to well nourish it–all valuable things to know, since it’s my constant companion.
During a meditation retreat, we watch the mind all day and all night—while sitting, walking, standing, lying down, while eating, while showering or using the toilet, while on the edges of sleep. The more activity or external elements there are (for example, meals, stretching, the changing scenery while walking), the more easy it is to be distracted (whether I like the different kinds of food I’m eating, how the stretching pose is feeling, or whether that fence needs mending).
This is why sitting meditation is so common: there are few distractions, so it is easier to watch the mind.
No One Else There to Blame
Sound boring? It can be—only because my mind is sometimes boring, like reruns of a bad sitcom. Not that episode again! During my month-long retreat, my pride smarted at the occasional inferior quality of my mind-states. My mind would try to blame their lameness on someone or something else, but no one and nothing else was there to hang the blame on. Just me and my mind.
On other occasions, I felt enormous appreciation for when the mind-states felt of finer quality, and motivated to practice how to enjoy more of those “better”—more wholesome, more integrated—mindstates. I also felt motivated to cultivate greater acceptance of the low-qual reruns, since negative states are like mosquitos: the easiest way to not be bothered by them is to not be bothered by them. Then they magically leave you alone.
Residing in a 15’x10′ cabin off the grid for the month, I also learned how to split firewood, and build and maintain fires. At -20°C, with the water in my cabin freezing, I was motivated! I got a taste of that ancient human instinct to survive amidst harsh elements, and thus marvelled at the fact that I’ve lived for nearly five decades without knowing how to build a fire or cut wood. How many other things don’t I know? Their multitude left me awestruck and surprised at how good it felt to recognize what a tiny little thing I am in an unimaginably vast universe.
Surrounded By Order and Chaos
I became more familiar with our retreat center’s 310 acres, which inspired and comforted me with their beauty, their natural order harmoniously coexisting with chaos. It reminded me of my life, on a good day. When a scene was particularly breathtaking, I felt compelled to take a photo (with my smartphone, which I also used for a meditation chime, alarm clock, and journal), to share with others later.
I’d never before seen—or perhaps noticed—the delight of snowflake crystals refracting sunlight as they flutter down. I tried to record the incredible still grace of thick snow on branches in a forest glade, with the earth’s white blanket parted with the memory of a deer’s passing. Now the photos look a little common. Was it the poor light? The camera? Or was it that my heart and mind were in a state of beauty and thus in that moment everything glowed with beauty?
Deer and elk looked at me as much as I looked at them, while coyotes stayed out of sight. We all used one another’s footsteps to navigate the deep snow more easily. A cougar’s paw prints nearly as big as my hand sparked reflections on physical strength, intelligence and niches in the food chain, sustainability and competition for land.
Aha! It was then I caught my mind doing its standard thing rather than the mind and heart training I’d undertaken for the month. So I went back to my mantras and visualization.
I empathize with the ancient Egyptians and other sun worshippers: when the sun shone, all of creation radiated in its glorious reflection, including me and my mind. Light and shadow took on the quality of their cosmic origin. When clouds obscured the light, they also seemed to threaten to cast a shadow on my heart, and I guarded contentment and joy more vigilantly. Perhaps, I reflected, this is why one of the most ancient meditations focuses on light.
After retreat, returning to daily life has felt like an intriguing cross between putting on my favorite pair of old jeans and navigating rush hour traffic. It’s both delightfully comfortable and alarming with all the fast-moving parts. Meditation seems so easy and simple and peaceful by comparison.
Why don’t I do it more often? Why doesn’t everyone meditate? I guess because it feels like an enormous challenge to own our own minds, at least in entirety. And the “payoff” can seem subtle. The root for the word “holy” is the same as “whole.”