Many people think of me — and I’ve thought of myself — as a ‘glass half full’, ‘sees the good in people’, ‘expect tomorrow to be better’ kind of person.
Well, the week before last I was on a 10-day Buddhist retreat, which included seven days of silence. It created much better conditions than my usual lifestyle for watching my mind and seeing its habits and preferences. It wasn’t a pretty sight.
One of the first teachings we received was about the five hindrances, or ‘coverings’, which get between you and inner peace, love and joy — the good stuff.
- craving sensual pleasure
- sloth and torpor (lethargy)
- restlessness and worry
If we were playing five-hindrances bingo, I would have won several times over.
I craved pleasure. A lot. Through various means. I wanted to bliss-out in meditation; to bask in the warm sun; I craved the next meal, coffee, sex and for my knee to stop hurting. I also craved sharing my experiences with people.
Most of the things I craved weren’t bad things to want. At least I wasn’t craving heroin. But what I was able to see was that when I got what I was craving — for example, lunch — it didn’t satisfy me.
This was another of the teachings: there is a huge amount of pleasure in this world, but none of it lasts.
I’d be eating lunch and not even be paying attention to it. I was craving something else. I craved dessert while still eating the main course. I craved for lunch not to end and then overate and craved not to feel so uncomfortably full.
I realised this is how I live my entire life.
Every time I’ve been on a retreat I’ve noticed a lot of ill-will or resentment: a small number of incidents when I’ve felt unfairly treated that surface in my mind, and I replay them again and again,. each time reinforcing to myself how much the other person was at fault and I wasn’t.
It becomes easier to see how small-minded this is and how much suffering it causes me. But it’s still very compelling to keep rehearsing the same narrative of injustice.
3. Sloth and torpor
The first three days of meditation were spent in a bleary, dreamy state. Although I sleep 7.5 to 8 hours a night, I realised on the retreat how tired I was. One afternoon, I had a two-hour nap!
It’s impossible to be focused and have the kind of bright awareness you’re aiming for in meditation when you’re tired. For many of us, this is how we go through the working day: too tired to be able to concentrate properly and then attempting to compensate with caffeine.
It’s a very inefficient way to work, because the mind is running at well under its capacity.
4. Restlessness and anxiety
I shifted around, scratched, and twisted my body from side to side. I worried about clients; money; my tight hips, which meant I couldn’t sit cross legged; not having deep experiences; and just not ‘getting it’ in a way that other people, I imagined, were.
I did my best just to sit with these feelings. At times, it felt like holding on to a life raft that was being tossed around in the sea during a storm.
A lot of doubt. Is this the right path for me? Are these the best teachers? Isn’t there a quicker way to enlightenment? Is there something I’m missing which means my meditation isn’t as blissful as the person next to me? Am I doing the right thing with my life? Am I committing fully to what’s important to me?
The irony was that by worrying that I was committing to the wrong thing, I wasn’t committing to what I was actually doing and was therefore making it less effective.
One of the teachings that stuck in my mind from the retreat was that the best decision is the one you make. Not committing to anything is a recipe for an unfulfilling life.
What I learnt from all this suffering
This may sound quite negative, even depressing, but actually, the self-honesty was a little liberating. Particularly noticing the futility of always craving something else.
I realised that the sense of making progress was satisfying and that I did feel less dissatisfied by the end of the retreat. I was suffering less!
I could also see that by bringing awareness to the craving or resentment, it’s snuffed it out. There is a subtle difference between:
‘I am so angry’;
‘I notice I am feeling anger’.
The first fuels the anger, the second pours water over it, by stepping out of the self-righteous, ego and becoming a neutral observer.
So I could see some of the causes of my suffering and I could see how to neutralise them, like exploding clay pigeons. Bang! There goes some hate. Zap! There goes some craving.
Over the last two weeks, I’ve noticed how much more peaceful and content, and less reactive I am. The first night I got back, I bought some chips and the man serving me remarked how happy I seemed.
I’ve still been craving chocolate chip muffins and soya flat whites, but the retreat has shifted my overall contentment upwards and re-ignited my passion for mindfulness.
If you’ve got a sense that mindfulness might be or is useful to you, going on a retreat is 100 times a better way to reap the benefits than doing it at home.
If you’d a like a free consultation to see how mindfulness can change your life, get in touch.