Every year or so I go on a meditation retreat. This year, I chose a silent retreat on top of a mountain in the middle of Nowhere, North Carolina. It was a white knuckle drive all the way up there on a one-way road (!) where you couldn’t slow down too much or you would find you and your vehicle rolling right back down the mountain. These trepidations, along with the winding and narrowness of it all, was enough to throw myself into a state of forced relaxation and gratitude upon arrival simply from the stress of holding my breath the entire way up there.
The schedule is rigorous. Gongs early in the am alert you to your first activity; meditation, of course. The day is heavily scheduled with lectures, meals and multiple meditation sittings. All the while: silence.
Our teacher was a kind, Buddhist monk. His name was Hun. Obviously devout and quite bright, he was the exception to the silence as he provided the lessons for us. His perspectives were interesting to say the least. His three lectures a day were long, however, and I often found myself struggling to pay attention.
It wasn’t always so hard to keep up with him. Much like the homilies of my childhood, it waxed and waned. It seemed in one moment, I was all, “Yes, yesssssss, I get it, Hun! Preach it, man! YES!” and the next, I thought I might jump out of skin with restlessness with my inside voice screaming, “Just. STOP!”
There were a few playful Dalai Lama moments, if you will, in which Hun would pick up his phone and proclaim, “iPhone.” Then, he’d hide it behind his back and say, “No iPhone!” and roar with laughter. He was teaching us about impermanence. At times, so sweet. Other times, strangely infuriating.
During one such lesson, in the midst of looking for exits and assessing how my silent, fellow retreatants surrounding me may react to me running out of the room screaming bloody murder, I heard him say, “Listen to the Listener.” I stopped. Totally redirected and immediately enthralled. My mood and demeanor changed in an instant. What did he just say?
Listen to the Listener.
I tried it. I listened to my listener, whoever that was. Then, I actually heard her.
All of the sudden I found myself on a roller coaster riding right through the present. It wasn’t a destination anymore. It was a state of being. Lured into the Now, with this new insight, I could only see what was currently happening. It wasn’t a struggle anymore or something to work on, it was as natural as a sunset. I couldn’t avoid it if I wanted to…it was a birthright. The past was gone and the future was fake. I was right. Now.
Holy crap, I thought, “What in the world has my listener been listening to??”
This is an old lesson for us all. Stay in the moment. The present is a gift. I teach this stuff in meditation classes and seminars all the time. I’d had profound moments in my own journey. But you know when you know something so well, it becomes mundane and then the right person says the same old thing in a different way and all the sudden you are like a soldier, at attention, riveted and aware that it is all new to you again?? That was me.
Our passions and desires and what we think we know up and down and all around can all become as normal as having breakfast. But, maybe this is when we need to pay to attention the most. When we think we have it all figured out may be when we have the most to learn.
This is why we have to keep at it. Why we have to keep showing up day after day to become who we already are…we seek out what we want to know. But what about what seeks us?
The discomfort was a part of it. I wasn’t getting it at all. No matter how much I thought I knew. When there is nothing else to face, we eventually have to face ourselves. Being open to that can be hard.
I learned a lot on that mountain with that monk. I learned that by the end of the four days of living among twenty other people in silence, any judgments you had along the way are way, WAY off. I learned that when you don’t have a mirror around, you may contemplate what they are indeed for. I learned that when you are unable to speak everyday with the people that you love and live with, life feels off. I learned that in silence, your emotions are heightened for some reason and you could cry your eyes out if you accidentally misplaced a Qtip. I learned that once again, eating in silence among other people eating in silence is horrible and I can’t imagine getting used to it (nor do I want to!). I also learned that spirituality doesn’t have to be taken so seriously…At one point, Hun had his singing bowl on top of his head while explaining non-judgment. I had the church giggles so bad, I could barely keep it together…
But, what I learned the best, the most, and with a great new passion and vigor is that my biggest take away from this retreat was learning something that I already knew. The magic of unbiased attention on nothing other than the very moment you are in is a lovely, lovely place indeed. I just needed to give it a new breath of life.
Oh, and one more lesson I learned: When picking your bed in a dorm, choose one that’s not so close to the bathroom.
Much love and light to you,
CHERI AUGUSTINE FLAKE, LCSW
The Stress Therapist
Author of From Honey Do to Honey DONE!