Posted by: cg00n | March 24, 2010


Having convinced myself of the value of mindfulness in general and meditation in particular I have been getting together with a local Shambhala group (sangha in their own terminology) to meditate once a week.  They are lovely people, very helpful, kind and a pleasure to hang around with.  A while back I decided that it would be a Good Thing to put myself through some kind of meditation retreat in order to strengthen my mindfulness.  Since I’m already involved with Shambhala I decided to stay the course (for now) and found myself a half-dathun (a dathun is a month of meditation) for which I could register without any formal prerequisites and from which I could bail out after a week, which was about what I thought I could stand as a first foray into this new world.

Frigid foot syndrome was already setting in by the time I got to the meditation centre.  I was dreading the thought of arising at 6:30am, of coping with Oriyoki-style meals, of discovering new and interesting food intolerances, of too much physical discomfort and, most of all, of being unable to sustain the mindfulness and the anxiety that would result from knowing that I was too weak to manage my own mind.  This was looking more like rehab than retreat.

A brief introduction by the instructor on the first evening allayed some of my fears.  There were too few (about a dozen) of us to perform full Oriyoki service which takes a whole lot of people and posturing. Instead we did a sort of stripped-down meal ceremony intended to make the whole process an exercise in mindfulness.  Having done lots of folk dancing in the past it was not too difficult to remember all the moves and transitions.  We were to maintain functional silence at all times except for one day on which we would practice noble silence requiring that we write notes for important communications. (I never did figure out what was “noble” about it or what it was supposed to teach us.)  Each day each of us would be assigned a task of helping to set up for or clean up after a meal.  The start of a practice session (of which there were five per day) would be signaled by the blowing of a conch shell 15 minutes and 9 minutes in advance.  The daily schedule looked like this:

  • 07:00   chants, sit, dathun walk, sit
  • 08:00   breakfast
  • 09:00   practice (sit, walk, …) or teaching
  • 12:30    lunch
  • 13:30    work (break)
  • 15:00    practice/teaching/yoga
  • 16:30    tea
  • 17:00    practice, chants
  • 18:30    dinner
  • 19:45    practice
  • 21:00    quitting time
  • 22:30    lights out

That is a total of nearly 5 hours of sitting meditation per day plus a certain amount of walking meditation and a little yoga.  Some of the practice time went into talks (teachings) so we probably got through about 30 hours of sitting during the week.  That’s as much as I would typically manage in a month.

Oddly enough I did not find it hard to get myself going at 6:30am.  A very quick wash-and-brushup followed by a dash through the open air to the main building and a cup of black coffee seemed enough to keep me awake through the first sitting.  After this we all went for a walk outside.  The first day this was truly magical.  A few days earlier a late winter storm had passed through the area leaving the trees coated with a thin layer of ice which tinkled in the breeze and caught the light of the dawning sun in unexpected and delightful patterns.

Since I have trouble sitting cross-legged (my right leg just doesn’t want to bend like that any more) I have adopted a kneeling posture. One of the group coordinators found me a Zen-style bench, a small stool that you tuck your feet under while kneeling.  This was a sanity-saver for me.  The week was hard enough, physically, even with this thing; managing without it may well have proved impossible.

Meals began with a little ceremony I began to think of as OreoCookie. Once we had all served ourselves and settled back onto our cushions we would chant:

The Buddha’s virtues are inconceivable,
the dharma’s virtues are inconceivable,
the sangha’s virtues are inconceivable,
having faith in these inconceivables,
therefore, the fruitions are inconceivable:
May I be born in a completely pure realm.

Substances that have been offered to the three jewels
and plunder from others — I have completely abandoned
all such impure and perverted nourishment.
This food is in accord with the dharma free from evil
deeds.  May the health of my body flourish.

Presumably this is supposed to contribute to a state of mindfulness although I never figured out how.  I really had trouble keeping a straight face.  By the end of the week I was throwing in lines like:

what I am about to receive is inconceivable


if you’ve done three inconceivable things this morning
why not round it off with breakfast at Milliways …

What the heck are the “three jewels” and why would it be “perverted” to offer nourishment to them?  Beats me.  However, the food (though relatively plain) was plentiful and wholesome.  I gained two pounds, which is something of a miracle.

At the end of the first day I was feeling exhausted and overwhelmed by it all.  I went to bed in a slightly depressed frame of mind wondering if I could survive a week of this.  However, the second day was much better.  Aside from discovering a slight list to starboard during my sitting  and being very stiff by day’s end I also managed to pick up a weak cell phone signal from my dorm room.  This was quite accidental: I was just going to use the phone as an alarm clock – honestly! However, I could not resist the temptation to send the occasional short text message to P.  It was good to have some small contact with the outside world.

Apart from the work rota there was little to distinguish one day from another so I lost track of exactly what happened when.  At some point I started checking off each day on the posted work schedule so everyone could figure out when it was their turn to do what.  One of the others commented that this was the time-honoured way in which prisoners count the days of their incarceration.  There was a day when I managed to drop my Zen kneeling bench with an effect akin to delivering a ton of ornamental rocks to the reading room of the British Museum:  the echoes seemed to go on for ever and I’m sure it induced several mild heart attacks.  Increasingly the girl in front and to the left of me looked as though she had just stepped off the page of some Irish fairy story and I caught my mind playing various other games to keep boredom at bay.  For example, it occurred to me that one could apply the fortune cookie “… in bed” enhancement to Atisha’s slogans:

  • Be grateful to everyone – in bed
  • Four practices are the best of methods – in bed
  • Of the two witnesses, hold the principal one – in bed
  • Don’t bring things to a painful point – in bed

You get the idea.  What can I say?  It was funny at the time anyway.

It wasn’t all a laugh-a-minute though.  Spending that much time being with myself was quite revealing.  I noticed moods coming and going for no apparent reason, in particular a late afternoon and early evening melancholy.  I began to see my anxiety as being like the pain from an old injury that may be quite acute at times but always passes.  (It will be interesting to see if this point of view survives my next anxiety attack.)  I also noticed how many small muscles I use to maintain my meditation posture and how knotted up they get after so many hours in one position.  Eventually I managed to find precise positions and small movements that allowed me to stay more or less comfortable most of the time but I always went to bed with aching shoulders and knees, not to mention a swollen right leg of course.

One thing that did come easily to me was blowing the conch shell, calling the faithful to practice.  At one point in the distant past I played the trumpet and apparently I still remember what embouchure means.  Several others had volunteered to sound reveille but, with all due respect, their efforts sounded like attempts to inflate a flat sheep using the reverse-flatus method:  not pretty.  Concerns were expressed that we may shortly be surrounded by a herd of rutting moose or something equally unsavoury.  Fortunately for all I was able to produce clarion calls that were probably heard in Charlottetown.  It felt good to be so good at something.  Anything.  I was sorely tempted to smuggle the conch into my last meditation session and see what effect it had indoors but sanity and compassion prevailed.

On the last day of the retreat (for myself and four others) our teacher asked if there were any questions or comments.  When I piped up with “I need a drink”, the ensuing hysterical laughter suggested that there was considerable sympathy for my point of view.

Since then, aside from the ongoing crick in my neck, I have been finding it much easier to settle into an hour of meditation and to be mindful of many other aspects of daily living:  eating, walking, driving and so on.  Apart from anything else I feel a sense of accomplishment at having simply survived my week of rehab.  Meditation may look like the ultimate process of doing nothing but let me tell you:  it is hard work!  I’m glad I did it.  It has made me stronger.



  1. Your post was revealing and honest. Not sure I’ll be signing up for something like this any time soon. My Zen moments would have to come watching hockey (the butt can get very cold on those benches so I bring a fleecy blanket to sit on which might be comparable – or not – to your foot bench). Depression and anxiety are dreadful and if this helps in any way, it is a good thing.

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