by Marisha Schaefer
Here I go into my first meditation retreat! I learned to meditate at New Life the year before. I got sober at New Life the year before. Meditation practice has been the biggest tool in my ongoing sobriety. Why?
Practice is all about truth and facing your true self. I was lying to myself all those years, and its finally a big relief to be free and seeking the truth.
What is the ultimate truth that I must face during this retreat? The fact that I can never drink or use drugs again, if I ever have any hope of a fulfilling life. Its a very hard reality check to come to terms with. Kind of like a slap in the face.
Not even one drink on New Years Eve? Come on now, I know myself better than that. It’s never just one drink. A well-intended ‘one drink’ becomes eleven. Every. Single. Time.
There are about twenty of us in the retreat, which is being facilitated by Vince Cullen. We all settle into the Forest Hall in our favourite meditation postures. Hour one. So far so good. Hour two. Are we done yet? Oops, only another four days to go…grumble grumble. The harsh realisation hits that I have only ever meditated for an hour total in any given day. Hey, I thought more than five minutes was a milestone! This will be six hours per day. Gulp.
By day three I feel deathly ill. I have the flu and everything hurts. Is this some kind of divine intervention? Purging me of all my toxins perhaps. I am so tempted to stay in bed this day, but something inside me (later acknowledging this to be my true or Buddha nature) tells me to drag my blanket, tissues, cough drops, and hot tea down to the forest hall.
I am laying on the outskirts of the meditation circle, bundled up in the midst of 30 degree weather, feeling self-conscious about my coughing and sniffling. Perhaps I should pack up and leave, as I am distracting the other retreatants. Or, this is just my mind playing desperate tricks to get out of meditation. Again the voice inside me gently guides me to stay. At one point I fall asleep.
I awaken to the beginning of a guided forgiveness practice. I feel disorientated, but yet again, something inside me propels me to participate in the practice. Somewhere along this very powerful practice, something inside of me shifts. In the context of present moment awareness, this very moment being the only tangible thing in life, I realise that I can forgive myself wholeheartedly for my ‘sins’ of the past. Because there is no real past. There is only our distorted version of it. The only real true thing is happening right now.
The realisation that my past bears absolutely no meaning on the present moment is the most liberating moment of my life so far. The theme of this retreat is ‘Right now its like this’, a phrase coined by Ajahn Sumedho, a senior Western monk in the Thai forest tradition of Theravada Buddhism. Here at New Life, many of our mindfulness practices are influenced by this tradition.
Final day of the retreat – thank the Lord! Or Buddha, or whomever. We are having a formal sacca or ‘vow’ ceremony. Sacca means real, or true. In Buddhist philosophy, sacca is found in the context of the ‘Four Noble Truths’. It is one of the perfections one must develop in order to become enlightened.
Many retreatants have something in their lives that they wish to renounce, and therefor undertake these ‘truth’ vows. It can be very powerful to address these vows out loud to the community, and it can be very helpful in honouring the vows later on. Another friend who took these vows said that she was at a party, and when someone offered her a drink, she replied, ‘No thanks, I took formal vows not to drink this year’. No one bothered her for the rest of the night.
There were some heartfelt vows such as:
I will not harm myself for at least one month
I will not drink for one year
I will never use cocaine again
I will try to quit smoking cigarettes this year
I will not tell a single lie for one month
I will not eat meat for at least a year
I will forgive my mother, and tell her so
And then it came upon my turn. I go up and face the Buddha. I am trembling half with fear, half with wonder at what has awakened inside of me. I know which vow I must declare. I am so terrified that I will not be strong enough to keep this vow. But it must be done.
‘I will not drink or use drugs ever again for my entire life’.
I am sobbing with relief. A huge burden has been lifted off my shoulders. I am shedding a single tear now in the moment of writing this. I remember how powerful this moment was like it was yesterday. It was exactly one year ago. And I am another year sober.
There will be no waffling going on inside my head at the next party. Anytime I am offered a drink, it will just be a natural, ‘No thanks’. I took my formal vows. These vows are not in tribute to any God, these vows are for me.
The retreat is finished – Hallelujah!!! Six hours a day of meditation is no walk in the park. Or, a walk around the forest. After the sacca ceremony, we all made prayer flags. They are colourful pieces of cloth, inscribed with various prayers, mantras, and our handwritten vows. We proceed to hang them in the trees surrounding the forest hall. It is said that the wind will blow and carry our good intentions into the community, for the benefit of all.
Today, one year later, our prayer flags hang there still. Tattered and torn, the words faded as they have surely spread their compassion far and wide. Last week during our most recent retreat I witnessed many retreatants trying to read our old prayer flags with a gentle curiosity.
During a few rounds of walking meditation in the forest, I too reached out to feel the fabric of our old prayer cloths beneath my fingers. It was soft. It was alive. I could feel the heartbeat.
The wind whispered of their meaning. I heard it with new ears. I have a new understanding. I am not the same person I was in the last moment. And I will not be the same person I am now, in the next moment.