Yesterday we held our monthly Day of Mindfulness. This day combines the two classes we facilitate in Mindfulness-Based treatment. We also invite the members of our sangha to come and practice with the clinic participants. It’s held in a small hall in the Eastern Orthodox Christianity wing of a local university. I love walking into the building early and, while Frank goes to convince the security people that we really do have the room booked, I wander the hall breathing in the incense from a closed chapel and relish in the golden hues of the iconography along the walls.
The day begins with much laughter and teasing about how we’re going to make it through; none of the participants have experience in sitting for more than the 30-45 minutes of their daily practice. None have gone to a retreat or even been silent for more than a minute or two. Their courage is remarkable.
We don’t reveal the details of the day until the class before the day. They know the date and the start time. I watch their eyes when we tell them it will be in silence. As we reveal more and more (no eye contact, no reading, no writing, no gazing at the EXIT sign), they begin to look like they’re about to tumble down a rabbit hole. Their trust is inspiring.
We settle in precisely at 0930 and I invite them to notice. I talk a little about the purpose of practice and our expectations. Whatever the theme, arc or overarching concept, it’s only ever about one thing: Notice. And notice. And notice again. But we’re all new at this, even me on this day, at this time. And I’ve been overly influenced by the radicalism of Hakuin’s rants (Wild Ivy) against “the quietistic withered-sitting methods of Unborn Zen.” I can hear him:
Strive diligently, all of you! Do not allow yourselves to be content with meager gains. If you climb a mountain, go all the way to the top! If you enter the ocean, explore its depths!
But taking them down the path to the sound of a single hand and rhinoceros fans is still beyond me. So I offer Ken McLeod’s framework of discerning between the Effects of Meditation and the Results.
In Wake up to Your Life (check out Unfettered Mind both on website and Facebook), McLeod points out the Effect of meditation is that we notice all manner of feeling/sensations during the sitting. Calm, agitation, joy, anxiety all arise because there is now space for them to manifest. We tend to confuse this with the positive feelings we want from meditating. When anxiety, sadness or something difficult arises, we assume the practice isn’t working. So, I reassure them: this is what happens when we look down into the rabbit hole. We notice the stream of our experience. The Result of being open to what is present for us, McLeod writes, is steadiness as we transition from one experience to another. And so we sit and notice for three rounds, interspersed with mindful movement exercises. Our effort is awesome!
Lunch is in silence and then they walk outdoors for an hour with Frank playing Mummy Duck and 20-plus mindful ducklings trailing behind. The residents in the dorm must wait for these days when they get to watch and wonder about this determined line of people, wrapped against the wind, headed for the parkland just beyond the campus, step by mindful step. Whatever my anxieties (I watch from the hall upstairs), they never come back earlier than the allotted hour when they walk in faces scrubbed and flush with fresh air. My faith is replenished.
They share their experiences with each other and discover that suffering is universal. They share their surprise at their stamina and the realization of who they become when they feel rebellious, frustrated, bored, or anxious, caught in the belief that this beautiful day should have been spent some way other than in silence.
As if silence robs us all of the capacity to experience our lives.
As if attending to the sense of touch takes away the sense of sight and the vibrancy of the Autumn leaves are missed.
As if not having is the same as missing out.
As if this moment, because it will never come again, takes with it all possibilities and promises.
We notice the wanting. And laugh. As if!