Amaravati weekend retreat report (part one)

Friday 11 November 2005

I arrived at Amaravati Buddhist Monastery at 4.00pm, two others were there already; a Sri Lankan man (in his late 40s?), and a European woman who I think was German. I filled in some forms for the retreat manager who gave me a map of the retreat centre (separate from the main monastery), a timetable, and suggested that I go and bag a bed in the dormitory.

After picking a bed I followed my map, looking for the retreat centre shrine room. The room was a long rectangle with a large statue of the Buddha, flanked either side by flowers, that sat on a wooden shrine against the wall in the centre of the room.

Fanning out from the shrine, and covering the rest of the room, were 50 or so mats laid out on the floor, each with a blue cushion sitting on top. Along the wall sat some chairs in place for mediators unable to sit cross-legged for one reason or another.

I immediately sensed a calm peace in the room, there was a warmth and silence that made me want to sit down on a cushion and meditate. The retreat manager had suggested that I lay claim to a mat and cushion in the shrine room.

From my diary: (The ‘mind’ referred to below is the discursive mind, the mind that chatters endlessly all day long):

“16:45. Very-self conscious amongst the other retreatants but here in the shrine room there is a peace and depth, the sound of the wind, the wind in the trees, the creaking of the doors. I pick a cushion (two cushions in fact) right at the very front. Is this foolish? Bravado? Wanting to get the most out of it? Not really important, oh how wonderful just to chop all the ‘me’ stuff. Can I do it? Even just for a few days? It feels kind of something, to be here, right in the heart of a practicing monastery. Quite something. Can you feel it? Can I feel it?

Wind, creaks, the quiet talk of the rain. I can meditate here.

mind worries: ‘what are the others doing? Am I missing out on something?’

But what is there I need right now? Nothing. Ok, some water would be good but I’m not dying of thirst. I could always meditate. But mind fears other people walking in. But why oh mind? Why worry? This is what all this is for.

Oh mind.

And so mind starts again about ‘missing something’, something everyone else knows. Now other retreatants are entering the shrine room, hovering around. Am I the only one who actually wants to sit in silence? Why write this? Because I’m nervous, that’s why.

Many non-westerners here. Many more than I was expecting. A good thing I think.

Still too nervous to start meditating, feel like I’m the odd-one out, ‘what will people think?’ mind asks, ‘WHAT AM I MISSING?, mind gets anxious. Shush-up mind and listen to the wind. Go on, five minutes.

‘Perhaps the others are back in the retreat centre common room, drinking tea?’ Ok mind, we’ll go and take a look, just to reassure thee.
And this was my first insight. The tangible stillness of the shrine room seemed to give me the space to watch the antics of the little mind (ego) worrying on about itself. I don’t think I’ve ever been able to observe, quite so clearly, the nonsensical dance of this little mind, fretting about nothing at all, weaving stories and conjuring up fantasies.

So I went back to the common room, made a cup of tea, chatted to a few people, watched new retreatants arriving (three Sri Lankan men, four Thai women, and a Burmese woman making-up the non-western group). We all then trooped over to the kitchen for a tasty veggie soup with bread and butter. I then went back to the shrine room. From my diary:

“18:45: Back on my own in the shrine room. Beautiful silence. Well, not quite silence, the sound of water trickling down from the guttering. The rain chatters, or perhaps, whispers a song. More sounds, central heating coming alive, the soft hum of an electrical appliance. Someone, somewhere opens a creaky door.

Everything other than the shrine room feels like a Youth Hostel; institutional but also cosy and friendly. People talk, checking each other out.

And from what I can tell, most retreatants are pretty much beginners which goes some way to explaining the lack of (non) activity in the shrine room.

Soup and bread sit in my stomach. In this quiet, with the singing water, I feel good and calm and at peace.

(but still this pull, this worry that I’m not being ‘social’, that I’m missing out on something that is oh so important, and just who or what is it that sits, aware, behind this worrying mind? This presence I can sense; huge, strong, unmovable, powerful, a mountain.)

At 8pm the bell sounded for the opening mediation in the shrine room. From my diary:

“21.45: Impressions: When the nuns and monk arrived. Hard to keep my eyes off them. Wondering. Here were people really doing ‘it’. People dedicating their lives, in no uncertain terms, to ‘it’.

So, Sister Metta gives a talk on the ‘eight precepts’ which we are all under and that includes food (none eaten after midday), so what do I do about my secret stash? Well, wait until tomorrow and we’ll find out.

My legs began to ache during the talk so I slowly take them out of the crossed-legged posture. When the talk finished I went back the original position and it was fine. We all mediated for 20 minutes, then the nuns and monk left. I stayed on, meditating for another ten minutes but my mind was everywhere except on the breath; so I left. And here I am in bed.”


Umguy said...

This is great. I am anxiously awaiting the next part.

martin said...

more to come soon...(cheers!)