The Rain is Just Wet: notes from a meditation retreat

October 25, 2016 — Leave a comment

“Oh, he’s very new.

“Welcome to the group!”

This was how a senior Malaysian lady — they called them “aunties” — greeted me when I arrived at my first meditation retreat in Taiping Malaysia, after I told her I had no experience with this whatsoever.

This one sentence kind of embodied the all-around feeling I had of the community I would be spending my next two weeks with: warmth and support in our common body/mind practice.

What I’m going to do in this post is share some of my notes of the Practice Workshops and Dhamma talks that were organized during the day. Raw from the notebook, not too much structure, without too much extras added and emphasis where and how I emphasized in by book.

Before I start I’d like to thank my teachers Kit Laughlin and Patrick Kearney for sharing their amazing knowledge and experiences with us. Every morning Kit taught a stretching & movement meditation class, followed by afternoon sessions of lying down meditation. Patrick taught us the basics concepts in Vipassana meditation through theoritical and practice sessions. Both of the teachers also made time for personal questions about the practice.

Looking back at this experience one year later, I now realize this retreat was a life-changing event for me so I’d like anyone who has any doubt about attending this type of events to get a clear view what goes on here. For more info about this retreat, look up the website here: http://www.sasanarakkha.org/

Finally, if I can share one personal thing about practicing the mind— especially for Westerners like me who focus on knowing everything before starting — is that intellectually understanding what it is about doesn’t change much, you just have to practice a lot.

Day 1

Today Kit taught us how to get into the sitting meditation posture:
– Sit down on the floor with your legs crossed and lean forward with an arch in your back
– Sit back again and keep the arch in your low back when sitting back down on your cushion until you’re settled
– Sit up straight and feel a kind of soft activation of the abs
– Lift your chest slightly up and forward
– Chin back (think “rope pulls your head up”)
– Hands can be placed in different positions: palms facing up/down on the knees, fingers crossed on your lap,… pick a position that feels right for you can that keeps your shoulders from moving forward

Day 2

First Lying Down Meditation today. As many of the retreatants did, I fell asleep.

We had an introduction session with the other “rookie meditators” today. A lot of the beginner questions were answered here, which really felt like a relief to me. Good to know I wasn’t the only one worrying about these things.

Some typical questions:
– Why do you guys bow three times before meditating? Is it necessary?
– Is it normal to feel pain during sitting meditation? Is it ok or should I stop meditating?
– What is the “best way” to meditate?

Basically the teachers explained that there was no dogma in their approach of teaching meditation. The goal at the retreat was for each of us to experiment, have fun with the different options you have within sitting, walking and lying meditation — and eventually leave the retreat with a meditation practice we can sustain and further develop at home.

One analogy that Patrick Kearney, our teacher, used was the following:

“Kids learn electronics by themselves because they make it a game, they make it fun.”


A quote that always got my attention when I entered the practice hall.

Day 3

Dhamma talk on the difference between doing something with awareness vs mindfulness.

Example:
Driving your car through a couple of streets and arriving at home without really remembering how you drove home. You did this with awareness (or else you would have probably killed someone), but not mindfulness (no remembrance of what you saw for example during you drive home).

Day 4

Introduction of different options for grounding objects during the morning Practice Workshop. The grounding object in meditation is the thing you focus on when you sit/walk/lie down/stand.

We played around with concentration on
– breath (rising and falling, counting breaths,…),
– sound,
– and feeling (soft/hard, dry/wet,…).

During the Dhamma Talk we went a bit deeper into the concept of the Grounding Object and the Secondary Object.

A quick definition:
Grounding object = the home base
Secondary object = where our mind goes if we lose attention on the grounding object

On the eventual goal of our meditation practice, Nirvana, Patrick said:

Nirvana is the end of the path where there is nothing more to gain. It’s a one way street.

On memories:

Memories are a fiction made in your mind. Within these fictions we find certainty.
But, ask yourself, without these series of stories,
Who would I be?

Another set of definitions of Nirvana that Patrick gave us:

Nirvana is complete spontaneity without any baggage from past experiences.
Life lived without the concepts of narrative.

By striving for this we find freedom of action that would otherwise be impossible.

Three fires that keeps us from attaining this are:
1. Attachment/desire/greed
2. Aversion/hatred
3. Delusion/ignorance

Fuel feeds the “fire.”
Our goal is to find the fuel — to find out what feeds our suffering — instead of just focusing on the fire, the suffering itself.

What is the source?
What are the attachments?
What do we cling to that feeds our desires, aversion and delusions?

Or,

What are attachments that could cool down the fire?

“Why do we meditate? What are we doing in meditation?”
We meditate to find out what the fuels are to feed the fire.
We are training to see this just as it is.

In life we’re are constantly creating stories/narrative to fit what happens to us, to our desires.

So the goal of the meditation technique is to see everything as it really is — to change our relationship to experience.

The type of meditation we were taught was called Satipatthana or Mindfulness Meditation, which consists of 4 aspects:
– Body
– Feeling
– Heart
– Mind

The interesting thing about this method is that it is not object-specific and not technique-specific, which basically means you can customize it towards your tendencies.

In contrast, when you’re doing Transcendental Meditation you have to focus on a certain mantra. If you lose the mantra, you’re not meditating. In visualization, you need to concentrate on a sight: lose it, and you are not meditating.

In Mindfulness Meditation, say you’re meditating for 30 minutes of which you were distracted for 25 and focused on your breathing for 5 — then you are still “meditating” if you were mindful of the fact that you were distracted. You kind of caught the distractions with your mind.

On this type of meditation not being technique-specific: you can do it anywere: you can walk, sit, or practice lying down.

They are all different exercises to attain the key of this practice: your re-education towards experience.

Satipatthana Meditation is meant to be lived.
Mindfulness is a daily activity, a habit that reminds you to be aware.

Day 5

We practiced awareness of a couple of different elements in using breathing as the grounding object in your meditation:
– Notice the length of breaths
– When does your breath start? When does it finish?
– What direction does the breath go? Vertical? Horizontal? Spiraling?
– Where do you feel the breath move in your body?

In this way, you learn that — if you’re really mindful about the breath — meditation will never be boring because it’s never the same. If it’s always the same, then you’re not mindful.

On Right Effort vs. Wrong Effort:

If there’s strain, then it’s wrong effort.
You should not try to make it happen, don’t force it.

If you’re straining, good you’re mindful of it — just stop the practice. No biggie:
“Sometimes breathing goes on a lunch break.”

Watch the movements, don’t do them.

In the Dhamma talk we went a bit deeper into how we react to what happens to us:

Normally our experience when something happens to us is:

“Did I win/lose/gain something?”

In mindfulness we learn to look at the situation as it is:
It doesn’t matter what happens.
It matters that you are aware of what happens.

We follow our experience wherever it takes us. Yes, it’s hard.
And it is hard exactly because we have a fixed idea of what should happen to us.

People have concinved themselves that they know what is supposed to happen to them while it would be better to learn to be open to unpredictability, be ready to adapt because that is how the world works.

Day 6

Practice on using the body as object vs feeling as object.

For example: watching the breathing vs feeling the breathing.

“Feeling is so obvious that we don’t notice it anymore.”

Our response — how we are moved by the experience:
– Pleasant: craving
– Painful: aversion
– Neutral: delusion

On the distinction of physical vs emotional/mental as a problem in Western culture vs Buddhism:

“Memories of past experiences are embodied in your physical body.”

“If I know that mindfulness is part of the body, then everything you do becomes part of mindfulness.”

The delusion of naming/labeling everything:

“As soon as the mind comes up with a name for it, the problem is we think we get it.”

“If we name things differently, we live in a different world.

Mindfulness meditation is like a new habit you put on top of everything you were already doing:

Continue what you’ve been doing in your life, but do it mindfully.

“It’s not about the thinking or no thinking.
It’s about the mindfulness of the thinking.
It’s not about the ‘something’ but
the awareness of the ‘something.’
Learn it as a new habit: the awareness of … .”

Day 7

Today we learned about how “when you are not mindful of the images the mind throws up, you allow it to develop into a story instead of being of ware of the thinking spark.”

The goal was to note these sparks: to become deliberately aware of them.

We were told that:

Thinking is not the problem.
Your relationship to thinking — the addiction — is the problem.

On the commitment principle:

We believe the stories
we tell ourselves.
And then we try to live
in a way
that makes these
STORIES
true to life.

Then we proceeded to do an experiment, on of my favorite exercises during the retreat: “Treat all your thoughts as lies. Treat them as not serious. Because the thoughts are not important, our relationship to the thoughts is. Try to objectify your thought stream, try to objectify your though subjectivity. Stand back and observe.”

This exercise reminded me of a quote on False Perceptions of Marcus Aurelius and taught me that there are a lot of parallels between all of the stoicism I had been reading and the theory I received during these talks, only the practice of the stoics and the buddhists seemed a bit different:

Your ability to control your thoughts — treat it with respect. It’s all that protects your mind from false perceptions — false to your nature, and that of all rational beings. It’s what makes thoughtfulness possible, and affection for other people, and submission to the divine.
– Marcus Aurelius, Book Three

A line from this exercise that’s in my notebook from this exercise that I think is pretty funny:

Hi False Perceptions!
I know what you came here for.
But what you are telling me
IS ALL A LIE!
SO, PLEASE GO AWAY!”

In the evening we had a Dhamma talk on Mindfulness as Memory and How That Connects with Wisdom.

  1. Mindfulness

Keeping in mind the present.
Remembering the present.

What happens NOW
contained what happened BEFORE.
What happens NOW
is constructing THE FUTURE.
This is how learning and understanding happens
OVER TIME.
In one moment
not much is happening,
things develop,
CULTIVATE
over time.

2. Retentiveness

The capacity to wait for something to emerge, which means
you must be willing to
LIVE
with
FAILURE.

3. Memory

The ability to bring out from
THE DEEP PLACES OF THE MIND
something that was stored there once.
By dealing with and going through
all these problems
we are developing a skill.

4. Lucidity of wisdom

To see patterns and directions.
How do I navigate this data?
How do I move with it?

Mindfulness practice is
being aware
in such a way that
WISDOM
can emerge.

Move smoothly.
Track it.
There’s a flavor to it. Notice it. How does it feel?
The present expands!
It takes time.
Old habits keep emerging.
We forget. We remember. We forget. Remember…
Just keep working on the skill.
Develop a curiosity for it.
Make it a craft.
Play. Experiment with it.
Modify it and over time
develop your creativy
and MOLD IT TO YOURSELF.


My favorite spot for lying meditation practice.

Day 8

In the practice workshop today we worked on the difference between:

to be aware of vs. to be aware in

A valuable lesson on practice I got today (especially being a person who put in a lot of time training) is that “in practice it’s impossible to fail because it’s practice.” Also a sign of progress in meditation was explained as “becoming aware of the fact that you’re distracted,” because there is a difference between “being distracted and knowing you are distracted and being distracted and not knowing you are distracted.”

The subject of the evening Dhamma talk was Vedanna or the affective aspect of experience, the aspect of an experience (for example eating and the flavour of the food) that we enjoy:

Vedanna is
the world as
we are given it
before we make
something out of it.

Day 9

Body, feeling, heart and mind — as meditation objects:

  1. Body – all physical experience

5 senses: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching

When using the body as a meditation object, you always come back to the body during your meditation and by doing that you come back to NOW. That’s why the body is a good meditation object to work with.

2. Feeling — that which has the capacity to move us

Beauty vs. ugliness
Where do my eyes linger vs. where do the eyes skip over?

It’s important to get sensitive to what it is I am doing to realize what is meaningful to me? What is my desire in a deep sense?

Superficial desires
What I want now?

Deep desires
What are my deepest aspirations or what do I want do accomplish before I die? What am I doing with my life? What is it for?

We want to LIVE BETTER
but in order to
DO THAT
we have to become sensitive to what
we’re doing
NOW.

3. Heart/Mind — our experience package

The aware-center.
What undergoes the experience
The Soul: the felt essence of a person.
One’s inner state: how I am at this present time.

For example:
“How are you?”
– “Good.”
vs.
“How are you?”
(you go into a meditative state, look deeply inside, and explain ‘how you are’ at this time)
– “I am … at this time.”

Awareness is like water: pure, transparent.
Meditation is about clarifying awareness.
To open this all up:
Where are my decisions coming from?
Why do I ‘got to do this?’
What’s going on?
What’s moving me?
How am I moved?
And how can I make better decisions?

Day 10

“What is the practice for?”

Think of painting.
It starts with a single dot.
Then one more,
one more,
one more,

And suddenly a pattern emerges.

The meaning is in the pattern because from the pattern an insight follows.

It’s the distractions in our practice where we get the eventual insight from:

We’re developing concentration,
but there’s value in the “cracks” of our concentration:
the cracks are packages of experiences we can learn from.
We have to ask ourselves: what is feeding this? what is the cause?
This is how we learn from the patterns.

“Settle into your pain, just as you would in your
FAVORITE EASY CHAIR.”

Patrick mentioned 5 obstacles that disturb our practice:

  1. Desire
  2. Hatred
  3. Stiffness and dullness: too little energy
  4. Restlessness and worry: too much energy
  5. Paralytic doubt “I can’t do anything”

We should note these in our meditation both in

  • presence: is the problem?
  • absence: is the problem not there? (was it there before?)

We need to familiarize ourselves with the patterns by asking ourselves questions:

  • What do I do that FEEDS these obstacles?
  • How can I abandon this, let it go?
  • How can this aspect of this problem be outgrown so it does not return?

What we need to do is to develop mindfulness so we learn to recognize this ‘presence or absence’: a continuity of awareness which has a smoothness to it, a smooth flow.

A clear perception stimulates mindfulness.
How do I make it stronger?
Encourage it?
Learn to live in it?
Through developing an understanding
based on seeing
experience as clearly
as it is.
A different way
of seeing the world.


The little tree and the big tree. I laughed at my over-obsession with progress.

Day 11

“The wise treasure the awareness they have cultivated as their most precious possession.”

Today, we talked about insight:
about training ourselves to

notice change

We learned that if you want to develop INSIGHT,
you need to become interested in CHANGE.

“The insight meditator becomes a ‘connoisseur of change.’”

One consequence of this, is that you can never get bored in your practice — and if you do get bored, it means you’re NOT seeing the change.

We were told to continually ask ourselves: “what’s new?” because

Wisdom is like a breeze flowing
through an open window.
You cannot control the breeze,
but you could open the window.

We make it complicated,
because we want something out of it.
It’s the consumer-mentality:
“What’s in this for me?”

The only thing you need to do is to be aware of the body
without wanting to get something out of it.
Without a sense of something to win or to lose.
It is just
WHAT IT IS.
Once we realize we don’t want something from it,
it’s great.
It is just what it is.

We need to cultivate a sense of PLAY with it:
to practice at this moment just for the sake of practice.
We work to get something, we play just for it’s own sake.
That is why you need to EXPERIMENT.
To get a sense of intimacy with the practice.
Experiment because it opens up RIGHT EFFORT.

At the end of the evening Patrick shared a story about a retreat he attended where it was constantly raining.
In short, the ‘tourists’ who were attending the retreat were complaining because of the constant rain. They said “the rain was bad!”
The teacher then went on sharing a story about the farmers outside the retreat location who were probably very happy right now because the rain gave them a nice harvest: they thought “the rain is good!”
Finally, the teacher concluded that both of them were looking at rain with wrong judgment:

The rain is not bad.
The rain is not good.
The rain is just wet.

Day 12

We talked about two phases of insight:

  1. Before independence: desire, aversion, delusion
  2. After independence

In phase 1 “we want something better than THIS, so we practice to get it.” The practice is instrumental.

We have ideas, fantasies about what we want in the future created by delusions.

In phase 2, independence, any alternative to THIS becomes really impossible because you became very intimate to THIS.

We realize that

everything that happens,
happens because of multiple
other things
out of my control.

Show me your current state of mind!
Show me who you are!

Who am I?

No description works.
No concepts work.

What is real is
WHAT WE DO.

Performance,
not description.
Not the stories others tell about us
No the stories we tell ourselves.

YOU can not be described.
I can not be described.

I live independently,
not clinging to anything
in the world.

How do you live independently?

  1. We uncover to what we cling, we uncover our distractions. That’s why knowing our distractions is so important: we learn form them.
  2. Relax
    If we relax — at some point — we let go.
    Clinging takes energy.

Doing the dishes is good practice.

Day 13

Today’s Dhamma subject was “How do you find The Truth?”

How do you find the truth, in a society where there are already many truths?

How do you live?
Greed.
Hatred.
Delusion.
The characteristics of The Unwholesome.
It means they are not whole.
Because they have something extra? or less?
They pursue a lifestyle that HARMS them.
Why would you go after something that’s hurting you?
BUT…
everyone is doing it!
AHAH!
Unwholesome or wholesome?
Blameless or blameful?
I don’t know,
what do you think?

Non-greed. Anti-greed.
Non-hatred. Anti-hatred.
Non-delusion. Anti-delusion.
=> Long-term welfare & happiness list of ingredients.

The four sublime states:
1. Love/loving kindness
2. Compassion
3. Joy
4. Equanimity

These are the universal values for a stable, civilized society.

If everything depends on
YOUR EXPERIENCE,
then isn’t it important
to train
to clarify
what is your experience?

Imagine you’re
always moved
in a smooth way.
Never in a hurry.
Calm.
Free in attitude.
Steady in his practice.

Day 14

Who/what is the Buddha?

One who knows,
One who has woken up.

A collection of qualities developed to the ultimate degree.
A posture that embodies these qualities.

Day 15

Our last full day today.

“It’s not for sure.”

Things that start, end.
Endings are bad.
Endings are good.
No, endings are just things that happen to things that start.

Kit and Patrick talked about most people have lost their connection with their body and the signals it gives you.

When the body is calm, the mind has more chance to become calm as well.
When the body is agitated, the mind has less chance to become calm.
So calming the body is a good first way to calm the mind.
“You need to prepare the instrument.”
When you are more comfortable, more relaxed in your body, your mind practice can develop faster.

Day 16

My last day at the retreat.

I talked a little to Kit Laughlin before leaving and he told me about the name of his company: Shoshin — Beginner’s Mind.

“At 29, 30 years old I came by this
and realized you can’t
really learn anything new
if you don’t have Beginner’s Mind.”
– Kit Laughlin

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