The silent meditation retreat: Day 0

On the evening before the first day of retreat, Jango, the head of operations, gathers all 18 of us (guests and residents) in a room to discuss what the coming week is going to look like. At this point I’ve been at the monastery for 20 days, but all of it was during Responsibility Periods (you can read more about that in this post where I outline the daily schedule of a normal Responsibility week) and this is the day we are switching into the Awakening period.

Without going into the specific order of things here, every day will involve approximately:

1 hour of chanting
1 hour of physical exercise
7 hours of sitting meditation (this will include 1 or 2 private interviews with the head teacher each day)
2 45-minute meals
1 hour of cleaning
1 hour group Q&A with the head teacher
1 hour dharma talk / exhortation
2 hours of walking meditation (optional – this can be a sitting meditation if desired), and
2 hours of self-practice time (nap time!)

These numbers aren’t exact – sometimes certain periods would run longer, cutting into others.

If you do the math, this leaves about 6.5 hours for sleep every night. You can understand my excitement about napping during the “self practice” period.

Hmm. I’m finding that I already want to start getting into explanations.

Why only leave 6.5 hours for sleep when it’s well-supported by research that getting enough rest is vital for optimal health and functioning?

It’s so that we suffer.

No, honestly.

Okay, this is probably a good time to get into some Buddhism 101.

Have you heard of the 4 noble truths? Don’t worry, they are not nearly as bizzarro as they seem – in fact, they’re kinda straightforward, maybe even embarrassingly so.

The 4 Noble Truths

The 4 Noble Truths are the basic pillars of Buddhism. I’ve tried and re-tried to write up my own definitions, but in the end I haven’t come up with anything better than Noah Rasheta’s explanation on secularbuddhism.com, so I’m just going to pull from there. I’ll be honest though, there are still parts of this explanation that I find lacking, or unconvincing, but let’s just go with it for now.

1. In life, there is suffering. 
Suffering is a part of life. Simply acknowledging the fact that, at any given moment, we may face some type of uneasy or uncomfortable experience constitutes the essential lesson of the First Noble Truth.

2. Suffering emerges from craving for life to be other than it is. 
Life is impermanent and change is constant – we grow frustrated when the world doesn’t behave the way we think it should and our lives don’t conform to our expectations. The cause of suffering lies not in events or circumstances, but in the way we perceive and interpret our experience as it unfolds.

3. The cause of suffering can be ended. 
Understanding that all things are impermanent and ending the chase after satisfaction is enlightenment. It is not suffering that ceases, it’s craving. The essential lesson of the 3rd noble truth is that the limiting ideas we hold about ourselves, others, and every other experience can be unlearned.

4. There is a way, or “path” to end the cause of suffering. 
We need to abandon our expectations about the way we think things should be and begin to develop awareness about the way things are. The 4th Noble Truth teaches us that in order to bring an end to suffering we need to cut through the dualistic habits of perception and the illusions that hold them in place, not by fighting or suppressing them, but by embracing and exploring them. The path has 8 main points and is known as the Eightfold Path.

Now, there’s a few things to note here before I continue.

First, I’m not gonna get into #4, the eightfold path. It’s really interesting, but way beyond the scope of what I’m writing here.

Second, as you may have guessed, the word “suffering” is perhaps not the most accurate term, though it’s the most common translation. Some people translate it as “dissatisfaction” or “difficulty”. The concept that we’re trying to get at here is everything from the everyday mundane discomfort (my leg is tingling and it’s annoying) to deep anguish (a loved one dying; a genocide; starvation). One of my favourite re-wordings of the 1st noble truth is in life, difficulties will arise.

Third, and this is very important: none of this means that we shouldn’t try to change our circumstances, or try to make our lives better. Wanting to be well-rested is fine – in fact, it’s smart, and probably essential for good health. But sometimes you’re going to be in situations where that can’t happen. So, I mean, is it going to kill me to spend one week getting less than 8 hours of sleep per day? I could create all sorts of stories about how it’s going to feel miserable and I’m going to hate it and, yeah, it’s probably true that it’s going to be unpleasant at times, but the great, great, great majority of that unpleasantness won’t actually come from the tiredness itself, but from the repeated story I tell myself about how miserable it is and how much I hate feeling tired.

And, let’s be clear: I hate feeling tired. I love naps. I love feeling rested. The lack of sleep is my least favourite part about this. But, I have chosen to be here, and this is how the schedule works here, and it would be a waste of time and energy to dwell on all the things I dislike and to wish that they were different.

This is also why it’s kind of cold here, even indoors. Am I going to die from being a bit chilly? Nope. But the unpleasantness of it is great training wheels for the far more unpleasant things in life which, inevitably, will arise.

Okay, back to the first day. Or, I guess, the zeroth day.

At 7pm, we have to turn all our devices off for the rest of the week. I use my smart watch as my alarm, and I’m unsure if it will keep working if my phone is turned off, so I keep my phone in my room instead of handing it over, and put it on airplane mode, plugged in under my bed out of sight.

Around 7:20, we start the first silent sit. There is a special ceremony at the beginning of retreat, where Soryu, the head teacher, calls up each person one by one and gives them a sash. We must wear our sashes during formal practice periods. When it’s my turn, he bows and holds the sash out to me. “When you wear this sash,” he says, “it is the community holding you.”

Okay. Kinda weird, but it’s a positive sentiment. I can get behind it.

Once everyone has their sashes, the first talks of the evening begin. I’m not gonna get into the talks – I don’t have the energy.

Once the evening schedule is over, I go back to my room and realize with some annoyance that I forgot to download a good sound-recording app for my watch. We’re allowed to record our one-on-one interviews with the teacher, but the default recorder on my watch stops at one minute (why??)

I hesitate. Do I stick with my mistake and miss out on a week’s worth of valuable interview recordings? Or do I break the rules on literally the first day of retreat?

I break the rules. I let my eyes unfocus as I unlock my phone and click into my browser, so that I don’t see any notifications. I spend 30 seconds reading an article about the best sound recording apps for the apple watch and then download the highest-rated one. As I go to turn my phone back off, I see a badge notification from Slack and my thumb automatically goes towards it.

I stop myself, but stare at the screen for a few moments longer. There’s no point in reading it. Either someone needs something from me, in which case I obviously can’t do it until the week is over, or they don’t need anything from me, in which case there’s no need to read it.

I put my phone back on airplane mode and get into bed.

2 thoughts on “The silent meditation retreat: Day 0”

  1. 6.5 hours! Get a load of these rich fatcats!

    Seriously though, I hope it’s going well and you’re not suffering too much! 🙂

  2. I’m planning to attend a retreat there in May. I can’t really say I agree with the idea of imposing dukkha by forcing sleep deprivation. As you say, 8 to 9 hour is considered appropriate for the entirely necessary and, in some cases, irrecoverable functions of the brain during sleep.

    I was once told, if you sit enough and effectively, you need less sleep, but I’ve yet to see any science to back that up. On the other hand, humans have a biologically based biphasic sleep cycle which we usually ignore, so an afternoon nap during “open” practice is probably not so bad.

    What lack of sleep promotes, IMO, is unusual experiences during meditation as you’re meditating on a compromised brain. It also might encourage “dullness” or falling asleep during sitting.

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