By Dejah Beauchamp
I have always had the impression that meditating was kind of like wrestling your brain into submission.
I was, however, willing to discover that I might be wrong. So, it was with an open mind that I attended a day long meditation retreat with my husband. I’ve never really meditated, not in a Buddhist/mindful way at least. I do yoga, and I count that as my meditative practice.
The retreat was held at a Buddhist temple in Connecticut. The tranquil grounds, surrounded by trees, contained large statues of the Buddha. There were about 15 or so of us who gathered there early in the morning, both beginners and advanced meditators, Buddhists and non-Buddhists.
Our teacher, Daikan, explained that our day would consist of about a half hour of seated meditation, with about 15-20 minutes of walking meditation. We would repeat this seated/walking cycle until lunchtime. We would then have lunch in the dining hall, come back, and do it again for another two hours. He gave us some tips on how to sit comfortably on our cushions and encouraged us to take a chair if we were uncomfortable on the floor.
Okay, I thought. I can handle that. Sitting, walking. Easy enough. I just have to clear my mind, right?
“It’s like falling off the horse, and then getting back on the horse,” Daikan explained. “You keep persevering. Eventually you’ll get to a point where you’ll notice your thoughts and are then able to let them go, without judgment. Focus on the breath, in and out. That is all there is.”
Just one final rule, we were told: we would spend the day, including lunch, in noble silence.
Fine by me. I need some peace and quiet.
About five minutes into our first round of seated meditation, my feet were asleep and my hips were on their way to dreamland as well. About 10 minutes into it I began thinking, My body feels a lot older than my 36 years, and I’m only sitting. Yoga is hard, but this was a different kind of hard. I made a mental note to work out more and eat healthier. I chided myself for making mental notes.
Variations of this occurred all morning. I would squirm and readjust myself on my mat. I would hear my stomach growling and then get all self-conscious, certain that everyone in the room could hear my hunger. I would have thoughts and then catch myself pursuing those thoughts and struggle to let go of them.
And then there was the clock in the room; it wasn’t a digital clock, it was one of those old-fashioned ticking clocks. It was driving my brain up a wall. How was I supposed to get through the day with that constant noise?
The walking meditation was somewhat easier for me. I found my way into a flow: foot rolls up, foot rolls down. I imagined I was breathing through the soles of my feet, which sounds weird, I know, but I found it oddly relaxing.
The only thing was, I kept looking around me, getting distracted by all the pretty within the temple. Oooh, look at the incense! Oooh, look at those pretty lotus lanterns, I wonder if they’re handmade? Look at the pretty mala beads! I couldn’t keep my eyes closed as I was walking for fear I’d trip over something.
Keeping my gaze fixed was difficult with all the beauty that surrounded me.
Lunch turned out to be the hardest (though most delicious!) part of the day. We helped ourselves to a buffet of vegetarian Korean food, grabbed some chopsticks, and sat on mats arranged around low tables. We maintained noble silence.
Now, I am by no means a big talker, but eating without being able to say anything was a struggle for me. I was surrounded by people, yet unable to ask someone to pass the water, to express thanks, to have any kind of usual human interaction. Meal time is always a social time for me. I was unable to ask my husband, “How do you like the food? It’s really good, huh?” He sat across from me and we would gaze up at each other from time to time and smile, but it was so odd not being able to talk.
I still don’t know whether it made me feel closer to him or farther apart.
Daikan had instructed us to really think about our food, take our time, reflect on all the different people involved in getting that food onto our plates, from the farmers who grew it to the chefs who prepared it, to the rain and soil that nourished it. As I pushed my food around on the plate—marinated tofu and kimchi, sauteed vegetables and dumplings— gazing at all the colors and textures, I realized how lovely it all was, the whole cycle of it. Even the act of chewing was sacred and beautiful.
For the first time in a long time, I truly felt nourished while eating.
When we returned to the temple, I was surprised to find that my body had somehow acclimated itself to sitting meditation. My legs folded themselves neatly underneath me, as if of their own accord, and my mind settled itself more quickly than I’d anticipated. Although I still felt the need to squirm and adjust my position, my legs didn’t fall asleep as quickly as before.
Thoughts came and went. The sound of a jet plane overhead triggered a sweet memory, of being a little girl and playing at my grandparents’ house in the summer, looking up into the sky. The thought passed. I heard crows cawing, and thought about how much I liked birds. The thought passed. I thought about what I was going to make for dinner that night. The thought passed.
“I am having thoughts,” I thought, and that was my light bulb moment. I was having thoughts, but that was it. They were wandering past me, but not sticking around for any length of time. I was an observer, not a participant in these thoughts.
I didn’t even notice the ticking clock anymore.
At the close of the day, our teacher had each of us talk about what our experience that day was like. One woman in the class quoted a yogi she had recently gone to see, “Meditation is like the sky watching the weather.” She said this quote helped her with her meditation practice. I don’t think I would have known what it meant at the beginning of the class, but by the end of the day I understood the simile.
Thoughts drift by like clouds, some dark and heavy with rain, some feather-light and brief. That is the nature of things. Thoughts pass.
Returning home to a household with children, dinner needing to be made, school lunches to be packed, was hard. I haven’t quite got the hang of incorporating meditation into my daily schedule, but I try to be mindful when I catch myself getting stressed or too caught up in my thoughts. We even tried, as a family, eating in noble silence at dinner one evening, which was an experience that ended in laughter as we realized how hard it was, especially with kids!
I may never reach enlightenment like Siddartha did under the Bodhi tree, but sometimes the journey is enough. I fall off the horse, I get back on. I’ll make it somewhere, eventually.
Dejah Beauchamp doesn’t know the answer to anything, but she’s perfectly content to wander aimlessly through life with the hope that she’ll end up in the right place. She has written for elephant journal, Be You Media Group, and The Tattooed Buddha, and has had poetry published in Pilgrimage Magazine and Vine Leaves Literary Journal. She lives in New England, raising two sons and writing about all kinds of things on her blog. You can connect with Dejah on Facebook, or Twitter.
Editor: Alicia Wozniak