Sunday, I attended an all-day, silent meditation retreat as part of Peace Week in Honoka‘a. I love that the Peace Committee always includes a Day of Mindfulness with Peace Week. This year Gavin Harrison, (http://gavinharrison.net/ ) Buddhist Monk, author, and Big Island resident led the non-denominational program. The day focused on inner peace, a fitting end to our outward prayer for world peace all week long.
I almost didn’t go. The all-day aspect seemed daunting. I knew I could bring a chair instead of perching on a cushion, but the idea of meditating for a whole day and being silent for a whole day, even during lunch, seemed beyond my meditation skill level. But I regularly attend a Mindful Meditation group, and my fellow members, most of whom are on the organizing committee for either Peace Week or the Mindfulness Retreat, encouraged me to come.
This fellowship of meditators has helped me immensely over the couple of years I’ve been attending. We meet weekly at the Hongwanji Buddhist Temple Social Hall, spending 25 minutes in seated meditation, 15 minutes in walking meditation, and ending with a discussion. These people, now friends, have helped me grow in my meditation practice, become more grounded, and experiment with the way I meditate. We even take field trips to participate in meditation sessions around the island. Now they were offering me an opportunity right in town, so how could I not go? I’m so glad I changed my mind. Even the silent lunch, with a focus on mindful eating, was an opportunity for personal growth, and by the way, made the tasty food even more scrumptious. If you must eat alone, this is the way to go.
During this retreat, I took the opportunity to examine my meditation practice over the past 10 years. Frankly, it’s been sporadic and definitely at a beginner’s level. In my book, Manifesting Paradise, I recommended the following meditation practice for those seeking a change (1):
For years my mantra has been peace (said on the inhale), serenity (on the exhale), peace (inhale), tranquility (exhale). Mechanically, this mantra does two things. First, it causes a longer exhale than inhale, because the words have different syllable lengths (one versus four). This produces a deeper relaxation. Second, it focuses my mind because one time I’m saying serenity on the exhale, and the next time tranquility. So I have to pay attention.
Mechanics aside, continual thoughts of peace, serenity and tranquility have produced that in me. They say that you are what you eat. But it’s even truer that you are what you think. Back in the corporate world…I thrived on action, passion, doing. That pressure was self-induced. The pressure of latter years was driven by things outside my control: my boss, corporate politics, the economy. Either way, self-induced or circumstance-induced, my thoughts weren’t about peace, serenity and tranquility. I needed a big change.
…Anyone can do this. But make sure to pick words that mean something to you. Choose wisely; you are (or will become) what you think.
I seldom use this mantra now, though I still recommend some version of it to those beginning to meditate. It’s all part of the journey, and this first step provided me with something to hang onto while I tried to calm and slow my busy mind, constantly whirling with schedules, project deadlines, due dates and the minutia of corporate politics. This aided-meditation gave me the chance to relax my body, slow my heartbeat and breath, and unclench my muscles. I noticed the magic of decreased stress and increased serenity, if only briefly. The more I repeated it, the more relaxed and serene I became, and for longer periods of time. It was a good result, and any meditation practice that gets you to a good result is a good practice. But I thought there must be more than just reducing stress. That’s when I found the Mindfulness Meditation group right in Honoka‘a.
Listening to my fellow group members during our discussions, I realized I was still caught in thought, in words, with my beginner’s practice. I was keeping stray thoughts away by filling my mind with a mantra. So I began to experiment, then converted to just focusing on my breath, the in and out, to stay in the now. I allow thoughts to float through, neither following them, nor admonishing myself for having them. They just are, so when they float by, I again return my attention to the breath. I am no longer frustrated with the need to refocus often during a meditation.
Sunday at the Retreat, I learned a new technique of listening to sounds while meditating. Just let them in, don’t assign meaning to them, or labels, just let them be. And listen to the silence between the sounds. I find this harder than focusing on the breath, but I will practice it to see what new insights this brings.
But I still wasn’t satisfied with what “the more” of meditating was. On Wednesday, in the dentist chair I had an “Aha” moment. They weren’t even working on my teeth yet; I had just snuggled under the warm fuzzy blanket they provide and I realized that I was on automatic pilot, focusing on my breath and deeply relaxing.
This thought, of course, interrupted my relaxing, but instead of letting it pass through, I followed it. I wondered when I had learned to lengthen and deepen my breath with a laser-like focus during dental procedures. It was the perfect antidote to my dental anxiety that used to leave me gasping and gagging, a frankly unsatisfactory situation for me and the dentist.
I thought back to Gavin’s talk on Sunday, and remembered him saying that each meditation is a drop in your bucket. After years of meditating, your bucket starts to be full enough to sustain you in the now when you need it. I had heard the staying in the now concept many times, but in this moment, I understood it – or a small piece of it anyway. In this dental context, I have learned to stay present, rather than remembering the pain of procedures in my youth, or anticipating what pain might come in the next few minutes. I didn’t know it at the time, but this dental practice was my first meditation practice. Today, I can meditate easily in the dentist chair because of decades of repetition and association.
There’s a reason why they call it a “practice.”
You can hear Gavin’s talk from Sunday on Gavin’s website (http://gavinharrison.net/ ) Go to Resources, then Library of Talks, then Selection of Recent Talks and click on “Peace Retreat – Day of Mindfulness” (52 minutes).
For my other essays on Honoka‘a’s celebration of Peace Day, see:
- The ones left behind,
- Our little town invites world peace,
- Traditions and family values, and
- Honoka‘a Peace Parade page 209 in Chapter 11 of my book, Manifesting Paradise.
Stories related to dental meditating: A walk on the beach; or was that a root canal?
(1) Paintbrush meditation page 67 in Chapter 4 of my book, Manifesting Paradise.
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