Purity of mind and spirit

Last Sunday Bethwyn and I went for a full day meditation retreat. On the list of activities were sitting meditation, walking meditation, working with mindfulness, guidance… It sounded pretty good, fairly okay for beginners, so we rocked on up! The retreat leader started off with a quick ‘guidance talk’, essentially sharing the wisdom of the Buddha, before starting the walking meditation. We learned how to prostrate ourselves before the Buddha, three times for the past, present and future, palms up to receive the serenity and wisdom of one whom had been Enlightened. We then began walking around the room in single file, chanting "Sze Jia Ru Lie" to the sound of a wooden instrument whose ritual history I imagine went back millenia. I was worried at first because I had no idea how the chant went, but after a few rounds it was pretty easy to pick up. There was something deeply spiritual about taking calm, even steps about the room while adding to a dozen other voices, entirely focused on achieving purity of mind and spirit. I was very touched.

We were (or at least I was) thrown far into the deep end when the leader began a sitting meditation. He talked us through it, how meditation is not the emptying of the mind, to exist without thinking. Rather, as I understand it, it is to have thoughts but to let them go without putting any focus or attention on them. The example he gave us was you’re standing in a mall with people walking all around you but you pay no heed to them. If you see someone you recognise or that interests you and you start talking to them, you have gripped a thought and must let it go. The woman next to me asked how long we would meditate for. Sixteen minutes, I heard. It was a little more than I normally attempted, but it seemed reasonable. So I closed my eyes and waited. I waited and waited and waited, thinking, trying not to think, not thinking, thinking again, over and over and over until surely it must have been time. I opened my eyes and checked the clock- it had been fifteen minutes. So I kept waiting and waiting and waiting until half an hour passed. Then forty minutes. Then fifty. Then fifty five. Then sixty. And for the love of God why wasn’t he stopped yet? I looked around, trying not to make any movement or sound to disrupt the absolute stillness in the room, envious at the monks and even Bethwyn as they breathed deeply and evenly, apparently undisturbed. Why couldn’t I do that?

So I more or less failed the first sitting meditation. There were times when I emptied myself, but never completely, and with increasing distractions towards the end of the "sixty" minutes.

We took a short break and came back for prostration meditation. The idea is simple- stand with your eyes closed, palms together in prayer, and achieve stillness of mind. Whenever you latch on to a thought or are distracted, you prostrate- that is, bow down- before Buddha by placing your forehead on the cushion in front of you. The aim is to lengthen the period of time between each prostration- to reset the clock each time and try for a new record. Ancient Buddhist monks practiced it so often the stone floor on which they stood had worn down to show their footprints. I found prostration meditation much easier than sitting meditation as I became much more aware of how often I was distracted. It’s my favourite form of meditation so far.

We ate lunch in meditative silence, and I was surprised to note Ajahm Brahm was right. I shouldn’t have been surprised, the man is wiser than anyone I’ve ever met, but the food tasted magnificent. Everything seemed so much richer, full of flavour and colour, amazing textures, glorious warmth and fullness. It was a wholly satisfying meal when I could devote so much more of my energy to appreciating it. I thanked God (or the life stream, or whoever the universe sent to provide such a gratifying meal) before and afterwards.

Cleaning with mindfulness was interesting. There was a list of chores on the wall with names written next to certain areas. At first I thought they were just getting us to do their dirty work, but in hindsight I realise there is something deeply rewarding about doing good, hard work. The aim is not to do it quickly, or even well, but to do it mindfully. To devote yourself to it and its accomplishment. I found it hard to empty my mind of distractions as I sang Cindarella song in my head while I mopped the floors, but I believe with practice I’ll get better at it. I’ve certainly started enjoying working at Coles a lot more. The simplicity of opening boxes and filling shelves is somehow very gratifying.

Thereafter, we practiced walking meditation, prostration meditation, sitting meditation and guidance once again. The sitting meditation was conducted twice more, bringing the total time to three hours. The second and third times I did much better than the first, no longer wrestling with my thoughts but letting them go. I went for half an hour without feeling a need to open my eyes, entering a sort of dreamless sleep where time passed with unbelievable quickness. At times I repeated mantras through my head- "Sze Jia Ru Lie" (if that is a chant), "Om Namah Shivaya", "Hamsa", or simply "In, out", "Inhale, exhale". I’m still not quite there yet, and probably a step or two behind Bethwyn, but with practice I hope to still my mind for longer. Before Sunday I couldn’t meditate for more than ten minutes. After Sunday, well, it’s much easier.

Guidance at the end was also interesting. We talked awhile about the teachings of the Buddha. Interestingly, knowledge adds to intelligence- the more you learn, the more you add on. But in each of us, wisdom already exists- our potential to be like Buddha, which we may or may not realise or accept. But to reach wisdom, we must peel away our thoughts, distractions, attachments to this world. To be still, not empty. To be pure of mind and spirit.
He also said that truth is fundamentally the same, but it is polluted by our opinions of it. It’s kind of the anti-post-modernist take on reality. Rather than having different realities for everyone, there is one true reality which very very few of us can really perceive.
Another teaching that interested me is that truth can come to you while you are in meditation. Answers present themselves without your seeking them. I found this of note because while I was meditating, a truth came to me (or so I like to believe). I realised that in everybody there is this great stillness, this wisdom, this purity, this divinity. This Buddha-like state which is our soul in its purest form. And everybody, even the mass-murderers, even the guy who kicks his cat, is fundamentally good. I may be naive, or I may have learned a secret of the universe, but I believe this truth with all my heart.

So that was my weekend! While I love Christianity and all that the church is and teaches, Buddhism connects with me in deeper ways of living. While I cannot deny the existence of a God- He (or It) has lain His (or It’s) cloak upon my shoulders, the Buddhist way of life is so pure and spiritual. It is very appealing.

I wonder what my parents would say.

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