14 Mar 2018 11 Comments
I jolt awake at 4:00 am. Consciousness dawns through the darkness of my sleeping mind. The brash clanging of a gong outside my tiny room’s tiny window has woken me. It is time to rise for the first day of a ten-day silent meditation retreat in the countryside on the outskirts of Mandalay, Myanmar.
I ease my stiff body up from the wooden pallet bed, push aside the mosquito netting, and splash myself to some semblance of awareness in the bucket shower.
I dress, brush my teeth, and run my fingers through my hair. Like a grey somnambulist, I lumber in the darkness, barely upright, to the Dharma Hall for the first two-hour meditation.
I can’t string three words together at this time of morning—which is fine, because this is a silent retreat—let alone focus and concentrate and meditate with an alert mind. But I can sit on pillows without swaying too much and allow my mind to drift back to semi-consciousness. I will come to call the first morning meditation “upright sleeping time.” Two hours goes by amazingly fast like this.
Throughout the retreat we will practice Buddhism’s five moral precepts and refrain from (1) harming living things, (2) taking what is not given (stealing), (3) sexual misconduct, (4) lying and gossip, and (5) taking intoxicating substances. Seems easy enough.
Each day looks the same: Rise, meditate. Eat, meditate. Break, meditate. Eat, meditate. Juice, meditate. Meditate. Meditate. For twelve hours a day.
At the lunch break, a flower-filled field on the edge of the retreat property entertains me. The butterflies are numerous and varied. Quarter-sized, buttercream-colored ones twirl in pairs. They spin dizzily around the dusky blue, popcorn-shaped ones and the fly-sized, pale lavender ones. Other butterflies—sky blue, round-winged, slow-flying —fill the spaces between.
The butterflies compete for a riot of wildflowers: five-pointed purple blossoms; colorful plumeria; silvery-grey, star-shaped, heaven-scented blooms. Microscopic, cream-colored buds no larger than a flea float on hair-fine stems so slender that the tiny flowers appear to float in midair.
Devilishly evolved seed pods leap out and stick to skin and skirt, hitchhiking to the next dirt patch. I impulsively smack a bug that lands on my leg and realize that I just broke precept number 1—don’t kill—on the first day.
On Day 2 I find the shimmering burnished-green-and-cream wing of a fallen butterfly. Bits and pieces of its body and wings are strewn about in the dirt like the arms and legs of a gladiator who lost the battle. It becomes the first piece of a nature collection that will develop its own story. I place the wing on the outside windowsill of my solitary room.
Each day I fall deeper into meditation. But this is not the calming, contemplative meditation I do on my own time, when puffs of memories drift up and away like smoke rings from an old cigar. No, this is rigorous, rigid, hard work. We sit perfectly still, hour after hour, focusing on the breath. Between the hours there is no eye contact, no talk, no writing, no music, no reading, no drawing. We are turned inward every waking moment.
On Day 3 the space between my shoulder blades begins to ache. Soon it is screaming hot with pain. I cannot sit still.
Brrraaaapppptttt! The intense stillness of the Dharma Hall is suddenly shattered by a deep, throaty, guttural cry that sounds like a wild warthog—it is emanating from an ancient Burmese woman seated on her pillow two rows ahead. BRRRAAAAPPPPTTTT! Belching! She is belching! Unencumbered, unsuppressed, unwelcome, her preposterous reverberating burps fill the Hall. Now, permission given, the sounds of hacking, coughing, throat-clearing punctuate the silence. Scratch-scratch-scratch. The scrape of leaves being raked outside adds to the dissonance. I try to focus on the silence between the sounds.
My windowsill collection grows: unusual seed pods, a dragonfly sans body, another butterfly wing. Soon, unknown meditators begin to add to my collection. A deep-orange, cup-shaped husk of something. A white plumeria. Feathers. More seed pods. I smile. The collection has become a way to communicate without breaking the noble silence and inward retreat.
One day—I have lost track now—during a two-hour sit, the pain between my shoulder blades becomes unbearable. Am I the only one in pain? I really need to move my leg, but a teacher might catch me. We are supposed to be perfectly immobile. God, the pain is crazy. I am definitely not calm and centered. I wonder if anyone else is moving or suffering. I crack my eyes open and take a tiny peek through the slits. Fifty-some people are sitting stone-Buddha still. I am totally failing Meditation 101.
Have I missed the gong? It has got to be two hours by now. I can’t have missed th—GONNNNNGGGG!!!!!—Ohthankgod. I survived. Wounded, but I survived.
Between sits, I jam my back against the corner of a standing beam, hoping to release the knotted rope that has formed there. I am literally in tears. Finally, I break noble silence and ask for a pain killer and break precept number five—no drugs. I am able to settle for the rest of the day but will sit, cross-legged, in a very low chair with a backrest and several pillows for the rest of my time here.
Someone has left an enormous nest of leaves made by some kind of insect for my collection. It becomes the coolest item in the set.
I am used to the startling pre-dawn gong now. I sit up, get dressed, meditate. In the early morning light, the twitters, warbles, and hdddoooohh hdddoooohh of Burmese birds fill the hot, wet air. I sit in silence and eat breakfast—a vegetarian delight of Burmese foods I don’t recognize—and every single bite tastes perfect. It is amazing how little food one needs to eat when one is sitting stone still for twelve hours a day. I don’t miss meat. Yet.
Afterward, I take the long way around to my room to avoid the men who are still eating. I find a pair of small foot socks dropped onto the ground. I pick them up and turn around to turn them in, but then I remember I can’t talk to or look at anyone, except in an emergency. I carry them to my room. When I open the door, a green baby gecko, smaller than my little finger, falls onto my foot. We are both startled. Only she runs. I slip the socks into my bag and break precept number 2—no stealing.
Two items are suddenly missing from my collection: an unusual geometric seed pod and a huge, shell-shaped, blood-red husk of some kind. Someone has clearly taken them. The dragonfly wings have been brushed to the ground and lie in the dirt. I pick up the wings, replace them on the sill, and ponder how to respond. Defying the no-pens-or-pencils rule, I draw an Evil Eye and a Buddha on scraps of paper and place them in the empty spots on the windowsill. Maybe the message will be clear: no stealing from my collection. The irony is not lost on me.
Back in the Dharma Hall, a couple of the Burmese women display no gentle or delicate manners—they neither turn away to quietly blow the nose nor cover the mouth when coughing. Instead, the Hall is filled with a veritable zoo of animal sounds: the croaking, barking, trumpeting, and snorting of bullfrogs, coyotes, elephants, warthogs. Flying phlegm, hawked loogies, snorted snot—no conceivable movement of mucus is overlooked. Hacking Throat Lady, brown as the mountains, wrinkled as time, ramrod straight, and dressed in traditional emerald-colored, brocaded Burmese dress, is particularly skilled at secretion removal. She cannot get through a meditation without emitting some seriously skin-crawling hacking sounds.
I discover the tea station and extra pillows on Day 7. The comforts of both are very welcome.
I decide to brave The Cells—tiny, solitary rooms for private meditation. We are occasionally given this option to sitting in the Dharma Hall. Grabbing some pillows, I head to the circular building that houses the cells in concentric rings. I open a cell door at random and step in. The room, four feet square, is ridiculously hot and humid. A wooden platform is set in the center in such a way that I cannot lean against a wall. There is nothing else in the room. I spend five minutes setting up the pillows and positioning my body to be just right so I can sit still for eighty-five minutes. Finally comfortable, I relax, sure I can manage to enjoy the meditation and ignore the now-chronic pain in my back. My eyes close. My mind, now well trained, eases into silence.
GGHGGHAAACKK!!! PHHTOOOHHH!!!! Oh. My. God. Hacking Throat Lady is in the next cell! Jolted out of my two-minute-long meditation, I know I cannot sit here and meditate to mucus. Hurriedly, reluctantly, I gather my pillows, walk-run back to the Hall, and settle into my pillow throne as fast as I can, just beating the bell. Despite the scramble, I immediately drop into deep meditation. I focus on the triangular area between the bridge of my nose and corners of my upper lip, feeling my breath pass in and out across the skin. Mean thoughts about Hacking Throat Lady creep in, breaking precept number four—no gossip—in my mind.
On Day 9 I awake from a delightfully erotic dream about an awesome young American man I had met and spent time with in Thailand. I wonder if it breaks precept number three, no sexual misconduct. If so, I have managed to break all five Buddhist precepts in only nine days.
It is the last full day of the retreat. After breakfast, I check my collection. The two missing items have been returned. I don’t know whether it was Buddha or the Evil Eye, but something prompted the precept-breaker to return them. I think about the socks in my bag.
My pillow throne is finally perfected. I can fall into a deep meditative state in moments and sit for hours in relative comfort. Foreign food fills my belly, and the flower field has become my joy, revealing something new every time I visit. I pour a cup of tea and take a final stroll through the gardens, the halls, the grounds I have come to know so intimately.
I bathe from the bucket for the final time, pack my bag for the morrow, and, exhausted, effortlessly fall fast asleep on my hard wooden pallet. I dream of Buddha and butterflies and warthogs and steak.
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