Grand Silence in Santa Barbara or How to Meditate
“Three monks decided to practice meditation together. They sat by the side of a lake and closed their eyes in concentration. Then suddenly, the first one stood up and said, “I forgot my mat.” He stepped miraculously on the water in front of him and walked across the lake to their hut on the other side.
When he returned, the second monk stood up and said, “I forgot to put my laundry out to dry.” He too walked calmly across the water and returned the same way. The third monk watched the first two carefully in what he decided must be the test of his own abilities. “Is your learning so superior to mine? I too can match any feat you two can perform,” he declared loudly and rushed to the water’s edge to walk across it. He promptly fell into the deep water.
Undeterred, the monk climbed out of the water and tried again and again, only to sink into the water. This went on for some time as the other two monks watched.
After a while, the second monk turned to the first and said, “Do you think we should tell him where the stones are?”
I have just returned from a silent meditation retreat at Casa De Maria in Montecito, California. Casa De Maria is the perfect setting for a retreat. It originally belonged to the Order of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart. Nuns lived and worked here in silence. During the day there was gentile silence and at night there was grand silence. The grounds are beautiful with paths, woods, organic gardens, orange groves and the San Ysidro creek . There are fountains , sculptures and memorials to the children of Hiroshima and gang violence. There is a swimming pool, meditation chapel and a simple beautiful church.
It is said that with meditation comes clarity and insight. There are studies that twenty minutes of meditation a day will change our brains. We can have less anxiety, stress, depression and hopelessness and more focus and peace.
Sounds good to me. I have attempted to do it for the last seven years. Sometimes I am better than other times . Mostly I am in the other times. I take classes in mindfulness and meditation at UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center with Diana Winston. It keeps me on track. At least on the days I don’t meditate, I think about doing it. It’s amazing how many things I can find to do instead of meditating. When I do it, I feel great.
Meditation did not come easily to me. It took me three six-week sessions to understand how to do it. I used to come late on purpose for the mindfulness training and skip the meditation. I was definitely meditationly challenged. I also have the active busy mind that is hard to shut off. One day, for whatever reason, it clicked. I got it. Meditation wasn’t sitting in blissful silence. It was sitting “with a lunatic in a phone booth trying to get out.” Even the most advanced meditators living in monasteries in Tibet or caves in India had bad days when they couldn’t quiet their minds. But when you learn and apply the techniques of meditation, you can find out where the stones are.
if I can sit and meditate when I am stressed, afterwards I feel better. So, I was ready for a weekend retreat. This was a year ago.
My first experience with a weekend retreat involved flies. The first morning, I had done a walking meditation to the creek. In the next sitting meditation session, I had a fly in my ear. I dealt with the fly exactly how I dealt with every problem in my life.
I start with – it’s my fault because I shouldn’t have walked to the creek. I brought the flies in. Everyone else is having a peaceful meditation and I am miserable with a fly. Then I go to the worst case scenario. The fly with get stuck in my ear and lodged in my brain. I will never get rid of the buzzing. This continues with, someone help me solve this problem. I will ask Marv and Diana what to do and they will help me. But Diana just sat with mosquitos in Burma, I don’t want to do that. I will ask Marv.
It turned out that the flies were bothering everyone. I hadn’t brought them back from my walk. I was the person that said something and once I did everyone chimed in. People even thanked me when they were leaving for bringing it up. ( We had a few question periods. ) There was no way a fly could get lodged in my brain. My choice was to mindfully swat them away or sit with them and see what happened. By the end of the weekend, I sat very still, with the fly walking up and down my glasses in front of my eye.
I understood for the first time what it meant to sit with pain and uncomfortable stuff. There is some inner strength you get from sitting with something uncomfortable and knowing you are ok. Life has pain and can be uncomfortable also. I couldn’t learn that in twenty minutes.
So I was ready to come and do battle with the flies and tap into my inner strength once again. This time they announced that there would be flies as one of the meditation obstacles. But the flies did not choose me. Flies keep you in the present moment. Apparently so does counting. I began to count. Counting is a meditation tool. You can count your breath for a bit and stay centered . I was counting everything -the leaves, the trees, the flowers, the stones, my footsteps, my breath. By dinnertime , I was sure I had become Jack Nicholson in As Good As it Gets. I must have OCD. Who knew?.
After dinner, I have nothing to do for a half hour. The meditation is pretty structured – a bell rings, you wake up, a bell rings, you do sitting meditation, a bell rings for breakfast and mindful eating, a bell rings for walking meditation etc. This goes on throughout the day. I knew I would hike on the break. But I had a half hour without a planned meditation or hike, and so I went to a bench by a fountain and began to meditate and I stopped counting.
I had somehow given myself permission to do nothing – to stay in the present and be with what is – both the good and the bad. My mind did not have to be doing a job. The counting never returned for the rest of the weekend.
What we do with our time, is what we are doing. We spend our lives by how we spend our days. We need to always be present, stay focused and notice everything going on around us to have the best possible lives and make the right decisions. I wish I had learned this when starting my adult life. I looked at the UCLA undergrads there this time and thought how lucky you are that you are learning this now. But I still have plenty of time, so I will keep trying. Now, if only I hadn’t used my meditation time today to write this.