Recently I had the opportunity to partake in a 10 day silent retreat organized by Dhamma Malaya (http://www.malaya.dhamma.org/), which was something that I had always wanted to do since I chanced across 'The Equanimous Mind' in 2015, a book that chronicled the experience of a McKinsey consultant in a similar silent retreat that took place in India.
I had dithered on my decision to attend the retreat but somehow ended up making a decision sometime back in July / August to go for it. Perhaps it was because taking 10 days off the crackberry / emails / calls isn't exactly modus operandi in my industry, and this could potentially be a bonus impacting event come year end.
But even if I did get negatively affected from a bonus standpoint or ended up being made redundant because of this (which frankly I'll never know), this event has been a milestone moment in my short life so far, where you just instinctively know that you've found something that, if practiced regularly, could be potentially be worth more than my job.
In short, that's how impactful it has been, and I'm forever thankful for this opportunity.
An important caveat - this is purely a summation of my practical experience during the 10 days, with my own interpretation of the teachings. I'm not here to debate the teachings, nor conduct a lesson - if it's not already obvious enough, I'm a beginner mediator and am in no way qualified to teach, more so "preach". If one is interested, I strongly suggest that one attends the course instead of trying to self-educate.
My self-education over the last couple of years in meditative techniques have resulted in certain habits that have not exactly been "best in class", leading to certain changes that were pretty tough to adopt over the 10 days.
As an example as you will later read, I had practiced on the basis that blissful sensations on the body while meditating was a good thing, and always thought that that was supposed to be the goal to help to body relax. I could have not been more wrong...
I won't go into the specifics behind the program and its schedule, as it's well documented through the link above and other blogs that have done a more comprehensive review, but the gist is that the 10 day retreat builds awareness and equanimity, and touches a little on developing love and compassion, through the practice of meditation based on the Dhamma.
What is the Dhamma?
Dhamma. Oh gee is that Buddhism at work? Yes, the 10 day silent retreat is anchored on the basis of secular Buddhism, where the Dhamma involves the practice of Sila (morality), Samadhi (mastery of the mind) and Panna (Wisdom). Which from my perspective, is actually pretty much universal.
Practice / Practice / Practice
For 10 days, it was pure silence, with 3 hours of daily mandatory group mediation, 1.5 hours of daily discourses in the evenings where techniques and a summary of how the day went were clarified through a standardized video played across all centres (that did sound a little bit like doctrine to me before I attended, but each video did present certain gems of wisdom that I found really beneficial), and another 8 hours of daily DIY meditation either in the hall or in your individual rooms (that's more of a do it as you please, nobody would enforce if you really wanted to take a nap instead of meditate).
Building Awareness and Focus - Anapanasati
The first 3.5 days were spent on developing the Anapanasati technique, which in my opinion, was translated to anchoring your attention on your breath, being in the present moment with only awareness of your breaths. Each session was spent being focused on the triangle area that includes your nostrils and the top of your lips, feeling how each breath came in, how each breath came out, and the sensations just above your lip. One would naturally have wandering thoughts, and I found out the monkey mind is REAL! The training basically espouses bringing aware of the attention wandering off, and returning the attention back to breath.
Anapanasati develops Samadhi, increasing mastery of the mind.
Building Equanimity - Vipassana
The remaining time was spent developing equanimity, based on the Buddhist notion of the impermanence of all things. This can only be done once a person has developed an increased awareness of the breath, and increased his ability to
First things first: What is equanimity?
Equanimity was defined as "Having the balance of mind, to not react with craving or aversion to sensations on the body."
The principle behind this was the Buddhist notion of suffering, that arises as a result of either craving or aversion.
When you are experiencing a blissful state (say if big boss man gives you a 12 month bonus, oh yea money good, more money always good, yay), you want it more, you crave it. Not getting back that 12 month bonus next time round leaves you disappointed, angry, frustrated, hurt, [insert negative emotion], and you suffer.
When you experience pain (big boss man drops 3 more "urgent" deals on you to close, more deals is no good cos more work, and "urgent" is bad, bad bad, pain is coming like winter is coming in game of thrones), you feel like this is a bad thing, you start wanting to avoid situations like that, and you get worried, anxious, [insert negative emotion], whenever an email from big boss man pops up in your inbox, or in my experience, whenever I refresh my email and I see the "syncing" sign going round in circles, like the circles of misery that is to come :)
To develop equanimity, that is done through the practice of body scans, where you move your attention through each part of your body, from head to feet, and then feet to head, and observing sensations with the understanding of annica, where everything is impermanent.
Sensations of bliss are meant to be observed, together with sensations of pain (well... erm gee, sitting in the same position for a certain amount of time does bring across cramps, numbness, sometimes searing waves of pain), and one should not start to crave blissful sensations, nor feel averse to the pain. You observe the sensations, and that's it.
With that, you start to develop equanimity.
Practical applications to life?
Viktor Frankl is widely reported to have said: "Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."
My takeaway is that this essentially a combination of equanimity, developing the awareness of sensations arising on your body, and having the balance of mind to not react in an instinctive manner than either craves or is averse to that particular sensation, reducing or eliminating suffering.
This obviously sounds super straightforward, but my experience in dealing with practical situations on a day to day basis has been nothing along those lines of straightforward.
I do think that the 10 days have provided a technique that helps to increase awareness and develop equanimity, but like all techniques, one requires a load of practice day in and day out to improve.
I did find myself requiring less sleep (perhaps 4 to 5 hours instead of the usual 6 to 7) during the period of the course and this was probably because my mind was more in a state of natural rest when I managed to have some sense of equanimity during my meditation, so that could be one form of practical use on a day to day basis.
For approaching the same situations that caused craving or aversion previously, only time can tell whether there was any lasting practical effects. But I look forward to practicing and monitoring my progress :)
Last Thoughts - Gratitude
Loads of thoughts surfaced and ebbed, old memories came up and my senses were much sharpened, but I found a lasting source of gratitude that has gradually built up over the 10 days and stayed with me ever since (it's only been a couple of weeks, so there there...).
Grateful for everything (whether miserable or blissful) that has happened in my life, and that includes family and friends, my partners past present any future, my "enemies", colleagues, clients and bosses (I didn't ever think I could have felt that way), my job, and especially grateful for the chance to have attended this 10 day silent retreated taught by S.N. Goenka.
My heart is full of gratitude and joy for being alive and having the chance to improve myself with this technique, and in the practice of metta-sutta (loving kindness and compassion), I sincerely wish for all beings to be happy and be free from suffering.
Bhavatu Sabba Mangalam.