Buddhist Boot Camp
This kind of emotionally intelligent, assertive thinking is great, but how often do we really put it into practice? And more importantly, do most of us really know how? It might sound simple but if you’ve ever attempted any kind of serious awareness training such as a meditation practice, you’ll know that the art of doing nothing is a lot harder than it seems.
I’d been thinking of doing a silent retreat for years but it wasn’t until recently that I finally gave it a go. Having come out of a significant relationship a few months prior, with a breakup that was particularly heart-wrenching, I was grieving a loss I hadn’t been able to properly acknowledge. I felt the need for distance, and to escape the crushing weight of emptiness living in in my chest.
I headed for Sri Lanka, a predominately Buddhist country and serendipity delivered me to Nilambe. In the hill country of the sacred city of Kandy, Nilambe is an authentic Buddhist centre, dedicated to cultivating awareness through the teaching of insight meditation (Vipassana) which allows the realisation of the freedom and clarity available to us within each moment.
After a bumpy tuk tuk ride past tea plantations and up a winding, narrow dirt track, I arrived at the isolated centre at the top of the hillside and was greeted by resident teacher and author, Upul Nishantha Gamage. “How was your journey?” he asked as I handed over my wallet, passport and phone. “It was an adventure!” I replied. “No,” he said, “the adventure has just begun.” He was smiling but his tone was serious.
In return for our valuables (which were harder to give up than I thought), we were each given a wind-up clock, torch, bedding, candles, room key, rules and our timetable for the next six days. It was all starting to feel very institutionalised.
Paired with a stranger of the same sex, we were shown to our accommodation. Our dark hut-style room consisted simply of two single wooden beds upon a concrete floor (each with a hard thin mattress), two side tables and a cupboard. Upon entering, a large cockroach scurried from under a bed and I looked up to see spider webs in each corner of the room.
As well as refraining from talking during our retreat, we were also to go without electricity, internet and hot water. Waking up at 4:45 am each morning to the sound of a gong, we followed a strict timetable that included no less than 12 hours of meditation each day in the form of sitting, walking and working. I never would have imagined that sitting with my eyes shut for such a long time could be so exhausting.
Along with the mental discomfort experienced by the surfacing of unexpected thoughts and emotions, there was also the physical pain to contend with. I was bitten by mosquitoes so many times that my legs became numb (but this could have also been caused by the restriction to my circulation from the hours spent trying to sit in half lotus). The worst of it all though, was my constant fear of leeches. Often you couldn’t feel the little suckers latching onto you and it wasn’t uncommon to look down and find one attached to some part of your body or rolling around, swollen on the blood-splattered floor.
Our group consisted of 18 people from all parts of the world that had travelled to Nilambe to overcome some sort of pain, loss or suffering. But this road to recovery and self-discovery was not a gentle one. This was not some pampering ‘wellness’ resort-style experience for the faint-hearted. This was spiritual boot camp – and this was hard.
“This meditation is an adventure,” Upul told us, “because you are going on an internal journey and you are going there alone, to an unknown place that will sometimes be dark. And there is no tour guide or [book] to show you the way.”
Our teacher’s patient, simple and humorous explanation of the Dhamma was a delight to listen to and his talks became the highlight of the day. We were trying to bring the mind back by becoming more aware or ‘mindful’. Watching the breath, listening to the sounds around us, seeing what pictures came into our minds and feeling the emotions and sensations within our bodies without attachment.
We were instructed to become aware of thoughts and their impermanency. A memory from the past is simply a memory from the past. A plan for the future is simply a plan for the future. The only thing important is the present moment and what we decide to do with it. This is how we practice calling the mind back or becoming mindful.
We were encouraged to continue that mindfulness outside of the Dhamma Hall (where we practiced sitting meditation), into other activities like working, walking and even eating. Completing tasks that needed doing around the centre such as gardening, sweeping and cleaning were turned into acts of kindness by developing an attitude of care. We were working not only to improve the condition of our own living environment but also for the enjoyment of others sharing our space and as a sign of gratitude for the centre itself. Who would have thought that scrubbing a toilet could become an exercise in mindfulness?
Dinnertime became a chance to feed not only our bodies but also our hearts and minds. Although our vegetarian meals were delicious there wasn’t a lot to go around. It was a moving experience to watch hungry strangers stand patiently in line, taking only what they needed as they tried to think of those behind them in the queue. Food was consumed in a deliberate, slow manner; savouring flavour and texture, to truly taste and appreciate what had been prepared for us.
I began noticing and giving thanks for simple things. Although I had become used to the cold showers, I discovered a hot tap which meant I was able to fill a bucket and pour hot water over me during my shower, transforming my simple washing routine into a luxurious experience.
We tried to develop metta (loving kindness) during our meditation sessions to allow us to feel not only love and compassion for ourselves but also for those who may have hurt or wronged us in conscious or unconscious ways. Perhaps the biggest indication of this taking effect was my shift in attitude towards the leeches. By the end of the six days, the creatures that I first viewed as disgusting, unbearable parasites, I now saw as harmless beings, ignorant of the fear they induced and only doing what they needed to survive. This shift in perception surprised me, endeared them to me in a strange sort of way, and I found I was finally able to remove them with compassion as instructed by the resident monks.
Dawn and dusk became special times of day for me. Dawn, because as I sat with my cup of tea, watching the shifting first light on the peaks of the mountain range beyond, and the changing colours of the sky, I appreciated the beauty and new beginning that each morning could bring. And dusk, because as I sat meditating in the candlelit hall, listening to the cacophony of frogs, crickets and birds through the open window, I realised their sound reflected my thoughts; busy and discordant at first, then slowly turning to song, as gentle and calming as the cooling breeze felt upon my skin.
At the end of our retreat, when allowed to talk and engage with each other again, conversation felt more meaningful than it had just six days earlier. Being silent had given us better listening skills; the opportunity to learn the value of our speech and to filter out words unnecessary for exchange.
I learned that one woman amongst us had found the silence and stillness of meditation particularly difficult. She had once suffered from a rare and debilitating illness that had rendered her unable to move. Her recovery had been miraculous and unexpected, and to celebrate the return of her movement she chose to dance each day with joy – because she could. She revealed she had found a place to dance in secret during her time with us and her sharing of this had moved me to tears.
While my ‘going without’ at Nilambe had in a way allowed me to find a sense of peace and happiness, I think what I learned is that the point isn’t to ‘miss out’ or ‘not miss out’ but to engage in a more mindful way. Whether it’s conversing with someone face to face or posting on social media, we should be able to do so in a way that is both compassionate and authentic. As well as feeling free to share and celebrate both our own and others’ accomplishments and joy, we should also feel unafraid to share our sadness, disappointment and weakness, for it is through our ability to be vulnerable that we find strength, beauty and the common thread that unites us all.
Nilambe is an authentic, not-for-profit, Buddhist meditation centre and as such retreats are run by donation only. For information about mindfulness and the retreat program at Nilambe visit www.nilambe.net