I attended my first Buddhist retreat in Wisconsin this past June. It was at the Windhorse Retreat Center (windhorse.shambhala.org), located near the Kettle Moraine State Forest, about an hour north of Milwaukee. I really had no idea what to expect and I was a bit nervous. Being a “beginner’s retreat,” it was focused on introducing the practice of meditation to participants. Now, meditation, for those who may not know, is a strange sort of thing for a lot of westerners. You plop your fat ass down on a cushion and adopt a particular posture. I won’t describe the ins and outs of the posture here, but I’m told that every aspect of it has been introduced due to it’s efficacy in helping practitioners meditate. Then you sit there. In silence. Focusing on nothing but your breathing. The first thing that popped into my head was a line from a college friend of mine: “don’t tell me how to breathe, I’m alive, ain’t I?!?”
So we sat there. Breathing. Being mindful. Of our breathing. In, I’m aware that I’m breathing in. Out, I’m aware that I’m breathing out. The first couple of minutes were fine. Then I got a cramp. OK, keep breathing, just adjust yourself a little. In, I hope that fucking cramp goes away, we only just started and I won’t last another two minutes if it keeps cramping. Out, oh thank you fat, happy, smiling Buddha that my cramp is now gone. In breath. Out breath. Wow, it’s really quiet in here. In. Out. You know that dude behind me that said he’s Jewish? He totally doesn’t look Jewish. Oh come on, concentrate, goddammit. In. Out. In. Out. You know, the chick leading this retreat is sort of cute. And she is SO sweet. But Christ on Crutches, the food here is terrible. I don’t know if I could ever be a vegan like everyone else here. Where’s my bacon? Ugh, my mind is all over the damn place. OK, c’mon, focus. In. Out. Feel the breath come in over your teeth and in your nose. Feel the breath leave your body. In. Out. Yeah, I can do this. Easy Peasy Lemon Squeezy. Wow, that’s a funny expression. I wonder who came up with it? It’s sort of sing-songy. I love how my five year old says it all the… dammit, there I go again… In. Out. Oh man I have to fart. And I bet it’s going to really smell. And all of these other retreatants are totally going to know it was me and they are going to pass out. In…. don’t breathe out, don’t breathe out… please God don’t let me fart out loud… OK I have to breathe out or I’ll faint…
So, it hit me during this retreat. I’m Dug. You know, from the movie, UP. Always distracted by squirrels. Hell, we all are when we first start to meditate. And I guess that’s the whole point: To begin to look at what is in there. To work on quieting the mind. To learn to focus and be still so that we can liberate ourselves from attachment and delusion and ignorance, all of which cause suffering. But man, the beginning can be rough! The woman who led our retreat told us that the beginning of meditation, where one’s thoughts seemed so scattered, where they crashed in from every direction, was often described as being immersed in a thunderous waterfall. What an apt description. The noise in my head was a cacophony of voices, songs, thoughts, half-finished conversations, and a thousand other things, all vying for attention. However, she also said that, with tenacious practice, it would be like emerging from the waterfall and standing beside it. Then, eventually, it would be like sitting next to a rushing river. Then, a more tranquil river, then a calm sea. A calm, smooth, tranquil, deep sea. And that thought brought peace. That someday, with practice, my mind could be sharp, focused, calm, and filled with peace. Simply by meditating.
Since then, my practice of meditating has been pretty inconsistent. I *have* bought lots of books on Buddhism and meditation, however, which should account for something. 😉 Like any new habit, it’s hard to get into. Especially since, at first, it’s a bit maddening. But, from those I’ve met who have stuck with it, the payoff is great! So, I’ve found a Sangha, which is the Buddhist term for a congregation or a group of like-minded practitioners, which will certainly help in being consistent. I’m also trying to be more mindful in other things I do throughout the day as well – being present, being focused, being IN reality, since the here and now is all we have.