by Julie, from the USA, who came to New Life as resident and is now a volunteer
After four months at New Life Foundation, I thought a change of scenery would be nice – especially some tropical paradise scenery. I decided to attend a silent ten-day Vipassana (insight) meditation retreat on the island of Koh Phangan in southern Thailand.
The retreat was held at Wat Kow Tahm or Mountain Cave Monastery. The leaders, Rosemary and Steve, have been teaching for almost 25 years. They focus not just on concentration but also guiding you to insight. They believe that once we have insight into our true nature and the origin of our suffering, we can alleviate the suffering.
Schedule was not easy.
The retreat schedule wasn’t easy. The wake-up bell rung at 4 a.m. and not just once or twice! It clanged at least 25 times.
At 4:45am we sat in silence for 45 minutes. I mostly thought about how tired I was. Then we did 45 minutes of mindfulness exercises – stretching while being aware of the in and out breath. Then we sat in silence again for 45 minutes, trying to observe the breath.
After breakfast, we worked for 45 minutes. My job was to sweep around the temple. At 9:00 we did walking meditation for 45 minutes. I generally do walking meditation very slowly. As I lift my foot, I think “lifting” and when I put it down, I think “placing.”
Rush and more rush.
Sometimes I couldn’t wait for the walking meditation to finish. But for me at least, the real purpose of walking meditation is to slow down. In Western culture, we rush, rush, rush.
And, of course, my old judgmental self put in an appearance. Sometimes I found myself looking at someone, thinking “they’re not doing it correctly” or “their clothes sure are too bright for a retreat.” Then I had to remind myself to come back to my footsteps and my breath.
After walking we had a choice of standing or sitting meditation. I have always found standing to be the most challenging, maybe because if I stand I think I must go somewhere. But sometimes the best somewhere to go is nowhere.
Observe the breath.
The main purpose of concentration meditation is to observe the breath and, when you notice the mind wandering, return to the breath. Concentration is necessary: without concentration, there can be no insight. Without insight, there can be no wisdom. Without wisdom, there can be no end to suffering.
Next, we did more walking meditation: lifting, placing, lifting, ad infinitum. Then one hour of sitting meditation, which was partially guided. The teachers tried to help us cultivate compassionate understanding and loving kindness, always starting and ending with ourselves. I found loving kindness for my enemies to be the most powerful meditation. It’s the only time when I actually cried.
Another guided meditation had to do with sympathetic joy; finding joy within and sharing it with others. Sympathetic joy is not a joy that is conditional on external conditions. Rather, it’s a joy that is boundless and can be present within us no matter what is happening in our external lives.
Feel the soap bubbles.
I especially enjoyed the daily mindfulness activities. One day they asked us to be aware when we went through a doorway. The next day they asked us to be particularly mindful when we took off or put on our shoes. The following day we were asked to be aware when we rose from the sitting to standing. Another day we were asked to be aware when we washed our dishes, feeling the water and the soap bubbles, and how we move the sponge over the dishes. I find these mindfulness activities valuable because so often in my every day life I am mindless.
At this retreat, I learned how important it is to be gentler to myself. Sometimes, self-hatred can sneak into our hearts, but it’s such a subtle foe that it’s hard to see anywhere but in an intensive silent retreat. Self-hatred can be eradicated through regular compassionate understanding and loving kindness meditation.
Another important topic was the difference between wise and unwise decisions, skillful and unskillful decisions. We were also taught that who we are today is the result of our past conditioning. However, how we live in the present moment creates our future. Most Buddhists would call this Karma, or the “Law of Cause and Effect.” So, yes, I am the woman I am today due to so many past causes and conditions. However, through the wise and skillful choices I make today, I have the opportunity in each and every moment to change my future.