To tame ourselves is the only way we can change and improve the world...
"To tame ourselves is the only way we can change and improve the world."
Choje Lama Yeshe Losal Rinpoche
After his month long silent retreat at KSD,
WHAT DID & DIDN’T WORK
In retreat I was deprived of the usual distractions that desensitise me from the world. Without this interference, the volume on all instruments in the orchestra of my environment increased. It thus became more important that these instruments were humming a melodious tune.
Fine-tuning my instruments as set out below made an enormous difference, setting conditions that made practice and quiet come naturally.
BUILDING A SANCTUARY
Before starting, I did a deep clean of my space. I moved the possessions I’d absolutely need during retreat into a few drawers and didn’t open the rest. Having enjoyed a Life Changing Moment of Tidying Up a few years ago (cheers, Marie Kondo), I find that a fresh, minimalist space supports a similar mental landscape.
Before starting, I talked through the plan for my retreat with Lama Zangmo, who I then spoke with when I needed support. Spending plenty of time alone, I got stuck in a few internal loops. While useful to primarily navigate these myself, timely check-ins Lama Zangmo pulled me out of some rabbit holes and helped me stop second-guessing myself. I contacted Lama and my family via a new email address to avoid bombardment by Pandora’s email inbox.
MINIMISING RELIANCE ON WILLPOWER
In my home space and without the force of the group on retreat, it was easier to descend into inertia. To avoid this, I found it more helpful to set a watertight container than to rely on willpower. As well as having the support of Lama Zangmo, the following helped: (1) strong commitments to group practice (if you do this yourself, there are plenty of online sitting groups); (2) app/website blockers; (3) telling people who might contact me not to expect responses; and (4) hiding/giving to friends distraction temptations.
Lingering workaholism poisoned my original schedule, which was unrealistically relentless. With inadequate breaks, I burned out and had to take some down time. When I permitted myself more breaks, my energy returned.
As the retreat progressed, I started really questioning my motivations. What am I doing here?! Is this coming from my heart, or am I doing it to prove something to myself or others? In discovering plenty of the latter, I took time to inspect and peer under. I discovered purer motivation underneath. From that place, my whole being was in cooperation with my meditation, which became much more vibrant.
Sunday was my day for doing a week’s worth of laundry, cleaning, food shopping and cooking (I bulk cooked a week’s worth of meals in one go). This minimised time spent faffing and maximised time with myself.
I found that meditation likes the early morning and evening, and isn’t a fan of a full stomach (I find the post-lunch sit particularly torturous). So I batched my meals, admin and exercise around the middle of the day. I also inserted a cheeky post-lunch nap which gave my mind a break and made waking up earlier easier. Taking an afternoon lull gave fire to my evening practice.
I find that meditation likes basically healthy eating, gentle movement (e.g. Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais, yin yoga), nature (within government guidelines, of course!) and soft tissue work (a foam roller and lacrosse ball helped me unwind tension and sit more harmoniously). On the other hand, it isn’t a fan of screens, sugar, wheat, caffeine, noise and aggressive exercise. When there were building works going on outside my room, listening to nature sounds helped.
I’m conscious that you might be thinking, ‘Yeah, well, you live in a Buddhist centre, so doing a home-based retreat is easy. I could never do that.’ While my environment did help in some ways, I absolutely could and would have done this if living alone. In fact, living with around fifteen people engaging in exciting conversations and activities perhaps made a month in silence more challenging than if I’d been home alone. In particular, watching my friends play on a new virtual reality headset posed a particular threat to my solitude!
I have been meditating for seven years and have been on plenty of retreats, although this was the longest to date. Needless to say, even taking a day in silence to meditate and break from technology can make a huge difference.