It’s been quite a while since I have written a blog, what better way to break my silence than with this one.
First of all Happy New Year everyone. I hope 2014 is a fulfilling special year for all.
When we arrived back in France it was a bit of a shock to come back to the quiet of our small village after three weeks driving around, visiting family and friends, taking trains and just immersing ourselves in many things New York. It usually takes a small adjustment period before I fall yet once again into the groove of our chosen lifestyle; chopping wood, lighting wood-burning stoves, and riding bicycles to get around locally.
This year my adjustment period was cut short as I left in mid-January to a small retreat center north of Barcelona for ten days of silence and meditation.
“Joe silent for ten days,” some might be saying to themselves, not speaking yes, but silent well that’s another thing. Our minds are incredible companions. Not always the accompaniment we might want, but nonetheless always there willing to put its two cents in.
On arrival to the center surrounded by low mountains and awash in sunshine my friend Michael and myself were eager to begin. It was a bit strange meeting new people and chatting for an hour or so then settling into our dormitories knowing shortly afterwards we would be taking a vow of silence and spending the next ten days not speaking or making any sort of eye or body contact with those same people.
The idea is to get into (or actually out of) your own head. The first day or two it seems strange avoiding your fellow meditators, but the discipline and new-found personal space really helps for the challenges which lie ahead.
Discipline comes in other forms as well. Awakening at 4 a.m. and meditating for two hours before the 6:30 morning meal is not my usual routine, but for ten days it would be. After breakfast and a small rest more meditation is on the way. The final meal of the day is served at 11 a.m. You may think that food becomes an obsession, but instead it takes its place in the background and for me never became an issue. A piece of fruit at 5 p.m. for the first-time students was allowed, along with a hot drink. As the day’s chitter chatter was internal, keeping your mind from running away with crazy thoughts past present or future was a job more daunting then my recent foray into plumbing in our Rayburn stove.
The fellow meditators were a mixed crowd of people ranging in age from mid-twenties to sixty or so. It was lovely to see this melange of people from all over the world converge in this small retreat center to try and find inner-peace. If you read the newspapers, or follow the news and sign the constant in-flow of petitions cramming your inbox you might think the world has lost its compassion. Yes maybe a small percentage has, but with those I was surrounded by for the next ten days, some physically suffering from the silence and discipline of the retreat, I felt rejuvenated by my fellow man. We were all here to better understand ourselves, find our place in the world, and hopefully be a spark of love, peace and hope that we can all be forgiven for thinking has abandoned planet earth. Well it hasn’t!
Mid-week some of the mental clatter just disappeared. Rewriting past scenarios or walking down different paths in years gone by is quite a futile exercise and wastes our mental space. On the day I was able to turn off the mind games from the past my walks in the garden and sitting meditations were done with a much clearer head. I was glad to have lost my noisy companions. Far from enlightened, I lost just a small load of mental baggage.
The techniques we were learning to quieten our mind were working. At first we focused on the breath, then started to scan our bodies. I won’t get into technical details of Goenka’s Vipassana lineage or certain style of teaching, that can be found on the internet. All I can say is that for ten days I was transported to a different world. Ten days cut off from all technology and news, eating, living and walking in silence is something not many of us get to experience in our lives.
The days spent in meditation were quite difficult for me. I am a doer. My hands and mind are busy most of the time. I have calmed down over the years, geography plays a large part in that, but ten days looking inward, and using my hands to only eat, drink, and perform my daily ablutions was a completely new experience. My body went through it’s normal rhythms, but my head was thrown for a bumpy ride. Slowly over the ten days though, the present moment came into focus.
That precious moment, I learned, was the only thing that was real. My breathing a constant reminder I was alive, and my senses awakened to the fact that all else is just chatter taking me away from the powerful moment of now.
I sometimes created scenarios in my head that were possible ways out of the retreat center back to “The Real World”, but when I saw the mind games for what they were, I was entertained constantly by its cleverness to try and trick me, frighten me and feed my ego. Once I came to a quiet space I had to laugh out loud, and after seven days of silence even my own laugh startled me.
On day ten when the silence was over and I got to ‘meet’ my other companions on our separate journeys, it was interesting. Many of the pre-judgements based on looks, dress, or habits I observed over the ten days were proven wrong. Yet another life lesson.
Much else was learned over those ten days. Taking time out to smell the roses and when possible sit with myself to quiet down the mental chatter were two of the most obvious. I try to remain mindful in my lifestyle, but realised more fully in that quiet time, that it’s a full time job. If we were all just that bit more mindful of our lifestyles we would see many of our personal problems melt away, and yes, many of our planet’s problems as well.
The one big lesson I learned was to never give up hope in our humaness. My sixty-four fellow travelers were all looking for something, and it wasn’t money or the best deal on the next materialistic purchase. It was far more ethereal than that, unobtainable? That is unanswerable. People go on similar retreats available world-wide to find solace in our busy technologically-orientated world, this fills me with joy. Many say technology will answer the problems we will face in the future, I beg to differ.
We have the answers, they are buried deep. Time looking inward to find them and a sincere love of life and respect for the home we call earth is a good start. To all who share this precious gift at this moment in time with me I say, “Never give up the power we all have in us and were born with. Our human side is most wonderful when we nurture it with love, peaceful thoughts, and respect for all living beings around us.”
Those ten days were just a small look into a space I ignore too often. I try to sit in stillness in the morning and it feels good. I know ten days of silence may not be on everyone’s bucket list, but that doesn’t mean mindfulness and respect for the right of all living beings to be happy can’t happen. It can, and we all have the ability to make it happen together.
Much Peace, Joe
I leave you with my daughter’s current favourite song, a bit old I know, but timeless in it’s message.