Last month, as I left my room at Trimurti yoga, I took a 10 days retreat at Tushita monastery, in Dharamkot. No Wi-Fi, no electronic devices, no contact with the outer world during the whole course, focusing only on the Buddhist teachings that we received. If it hasn’t been the life changing experience that my friends shared with me, many interesting things caught my attention. And as every detail is an opportunity to send me thoughtful, even the smallest ones, I now reflect on them.
The silence – exacerbating the sense(s)
In everyday life, I’m very fascinated by the way people feel the need to justify themselves. Probably because I’ve been trying to free myself from this tendency, I noticed that we are preoccupied by expressing ourselves to explain who we are, how we act and why we act this way. As if just acting, just being, was not enough.
The required silence during the retreat was a relevant challenge as part of the work on my identity (Cf. Bye bye my liebe hair!). We never stay silent very long. Or it’s fake silent, where we talk about dull stuff on social media, exchanging shallow ideas to kill the time while waiting for the bus. In Tushita, we couldn’t escape and wow, what a perfect way to purify the communication!
Words represent only 20% of it, I let you imagine what you can understand when you remain silent.
First, you become more aware of others. You pay attention to their moves, their looks, their breath. You become less self-centered, and more attentive to subtle signs around you. Bodily speaking, some people are very talkative. And others seem very closed, focused on themselves. At the end of the retreat, you might discover that, funnily, those are the most chatty ones…
Next, because you do not « hear voices » anymore, when someone is speaking, well… you just listen. Really. Every word is precious and carries a precise meaning. You respect the sentences, the expression. You are less in the rush of reacting to what you’ve heard, and you allow yourself to think more before opening your mouth. The discussions are deeper and truer.
Each sound becomes important. Becoming more sensitive to them, you can rediscover the beauty of Nature, by listening carefully to the rain drops on the floor (or the rain shower, it’s the monsoon by the way!), the songs of the birds and the loud gong every morning at 5:50… Yeah, even better than an alarm clock.
Then, silence appears as a great help for most of the students to fix their attention and go into deeper meditation states. Yet it made a perfect playground for my mind to go crazier. Sound and movement usually helping me to channel my energy, I worked hard to remain still and get those states back, in a fully silent environment.
Finally, silence has been another tool to observe and understand more human nature, but hasn’t been such a remedy to my unbroken mind!
The monkeys – mirroring our flaws
Every morning, after the first gong, some of us would join on the roof of the gompa to practice yoga in the dawn light. This magical spot was surrounded by a crowd of curious spectators, wandering on the fences and glancing at us as a bunch of very weird beings stretching in every direction, while breathing loudly.
Monkeys were everywhere, meandering until something caught their attention (often a plate of food, or an open window or door… perfect to party with the Buddha statue and make a mess for no reason.) It seems that they follow absolute randomness, being in a kind of crazy mindfulness in every second of their life. I thought many times, observing them, that they look like mad humans, submitting to basic instincts and childish will. However, the similarity between monkeys and ourselves often made me uncomfortable. This is probably how we would act with less consciousness upon our lives. Jumping from one branch-idea to another, climbing a trunk to chase an intruder from our area, and watching people imitate their behaviour.
The comparison between our mind and monkeys’ manners gave origin to a well-known expression in the yoga-meditation scene: I definitely support that choice since I had the chance to live 10 days in a monkey forest!
The mind – taking knowledge down to the heart
Ready to learn more about Buddhism, I didn’t expect any revelation or insight coming from the meditation sessions: my travel coming to an end, I started to feel as well a bit overwhelmed by all the amazing experiences I had had, and knew I couldn’t absorb so much anymore.
Used to train my body through yoga, and my mind with various meditation techniques, I rather looked for new tools to understand the practice itself, and especially from a Buddhist perspective.
Venerable Drolma gave us a lot of food for thoughts, creating sometimes disturbing currents among those who couldn’t conceive some complex concepts (Emptiness of the Self for example). Our discussion groups (we were allowed to talk 1 hour about philosophical subjects) hosted debates outside of the group’s purpose, and many people left the course within the first week. Thus, I realized how the shadows of our mind can be scary and create diverse feelings amongst us.
To integrate the teachings, we were encouraged to stay open and test the ideas we were receiving. First teaching of the Buddha in practice… « Do not take my words as true and absolute. Take them, try them, and then you can decide if they suit you. » Taking the teaching down from the mind to the heart. Probably one of the most powerful lessons of this year to me. In this world where reason and logical understanding of a subject is considered as more valuable than the feeling and sensation of it, I tended to accumulate knowledge and to rush the necessary time for my body to properly digest it… so I will remember it!
Besides, as always, this is when you surrender to the flow of Life, and actually Being instead of Doing, that the magic happens. The complexity (and marvel) of the consciousness appearing more and more clearly, I could let go of some old grievances and thus allow my monkey mind to rest a while on the shoulder of that good Buddha. Together, with all the students of the Introduction to Buddhism, I’m certain that we lightened up a path of Love and compassion to bring nourishing teachings down to our hearts.
Peanut butter – practicing pratyahara!
When you find a path resonating with you, you can’t help thinking about practicing it all around, all the time. Well, my biggest challenge during that retreat might have been Shamatha, or handling my neighbors scratching their head, yawning or moving during meditation, or sitting for hours in padmasana or keeping my mouth shut when I was told that my karma job was to clean the toilets every morning. But no. I endured all that with the stillness and calm of an exemplary Boddhisatva. Even with a gentle smile floating on my lips as I rinsed out the sinks under the rain, while everybody else was finishing their breakfast in the warm dining hall.
No, my biggest hardship was the peanut butter.
Naively, I thought that taking a 10 days retreat in a monastery would be the perfect opportunity to reduce the quantity of delicious pastries I ate after the TTC (to celebrate, you know). To eat very healthily, with no lapse. I expected soup, rice, dahl and tea. I couldn’t be further from reality.
For an unknown reason, monks and nuns like to challenge themselves with food. In Tushita (and Kopan), they serve fresh bread and pastries and honey and peanut butter, in absolute gargantuan quantities for breakfast and dinner, and very tasty and various meals for lunch. Damn.
After many years of yoga and, luckily, some great teachers who taught me the art of facing my weaknesses, I stood in front of that table, every day, twice a day, and fought against my irrepressible sweet tooth. I didn’t say I won each time. But at least, I studied pratyahara with diligence, rediscovering the power and limits of my will.
The world is your mat or meditation cushion. You just need your body and your mind to practice. What are you waiting for?