“Do not speak unless it improves on silence.” ~Buddha
I’ve re-entered the world and am sitting in an Ashram in Haridwar. After spending 10 amazing days in the hills above the town of McLeod Ganj, far away from electronics, cars, music, buses, shops and other distractions, I’m back at a computer. To be honest, I didn’t want to turn it on, for fear of bombardment. Many things happen within every second, every minute and every hour of every day. It was nice to not be influenced by all of it and to have limitless space to go inside myself.
It’s hard not to be positively affected by 10 days at a Buddhist Retreat and Meditation Centre in India. Life was blissful at Tushita. This silent retreat was the greatest gift I have given myself. It was expansive, pure and full of heart work. I will be forever grateful to the people I met there.
On the first day I introduced myself and explained why I signed up. I remember saying to the group that I was there to grow and learn – to become a better human being. Well, what I got was so much more than that.
I will first explain how the retreat was organized. The “Introduction to Buddhism” course was taught by two individuals – Jonas, a sweet 30-something Swede who was our meditation instructor and Venerable Sarah, a 60-year-old British nun who has been studying Buddhism for over 30 years. She gave us Buddhist philosophy lessons in such a simplistic yet meaningful way. They were both great teachers with wonderful senses of humor. I think we got lucky.
The class had approximately 85 students from all over the world: US, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, Portugal, Colombia, Argentina, Spain, Belgium, Switzerland, France, Bulgaria, Italy, Germany, Cyprus, Finland, Sweden, Austria, Ireland, Czech Republic, Mongolia, Russia, India and Poland. The gender split was pretty even; it was very inspiring to see so many men and women seeking the same things – ways to live a simpler, happier life. We were also obviously all there to improve our meditation practice as well. They run this course multiple times throughout the year and it’s always full.
There were a few individuals who didn’t necessarily have strong motivation for being there and perhaps were not ready to handle the intensity of the situation. A few young men were asked to leave for breaking the rules (going off the property and talking) and a few others left on their own accord throughout the 10 days. No judgement although they did test my patience and compassion– this just wasn’t meant to be for them right now.
For the rest of us, days started at 6 am and ended by 8:30 pm. We had 3 amazing vegetarian meals a day and an afternoon tea break (the cooks were incredible). A gong-ringer would alert us to either wake up, eat or return to the beautifully ordained Gompa for class. We had four 45 minute meditation sessions per day (six during the final two days), two separate 2 hour lessons with Sarah and 1 hour to spend in a discussion group. The remainder of the time was for eating or to do as we pleased. There was a library and plenty of lawn and trails to scour; I read 3 books on Buddhism and did a lot of writing and walking.
I shared a basic room with 3 other women – it was interesting to just communicate with them through hand signals or facial expressions. They were all lovely and easy to be around.
I found it quite easy to remain quiet, especially because I did not enroll with a friend or partner like many others did. Furthermore, discussion groups gave us an opportunity to debrief with other students about what we were learning each day. We also had karma jobs assigned to us to keep the place clean and running smoothly. I was on the team who cleaned breakfast dishes. We hand-washed well over 100 sets of dishes every day. With love!
This experience and the teachings will enrich my life for countless years to come. Here are 10 points I’d like to share from my notebook – one for each day I was there. When you study Buddhism, you really study yourself.
- We are the creators of our own happiness and suffering. It only comes from one place – our minds. We all have the power to choose how we react to what happens in life.
- So many people want happiness and look for it outside themselves. The things we think make us happy don’t last and lead to suffering. Sarah used an example of eating chocolate – we think it will bring us happiness but too much of it ultimately ends up making us feel unhappy (or sick). The pleasure doesn’t last and isn’t universal. Forgiveness, compassion, loving kindness and appreciation towards others gives us way more lasting happiness than things.
- Compassion is not a suffering mind. The final teaching words from Sarah were, “Just be kind.” That’s it. There’s always an opportunity to be kind. The goal of living is to benefit others.
- We can’t cultivate anything useful on high, only in the lowlands; meaning, when we’re going through a difficult time, it’s the perfect opportunity to change and develop.
- If there is no enemy on the inside, there is no enemy on the outside.
- Attachment is anything that stops us from being happy and tortures the mind. It exaggerates the positive aspects of a person or situation and then projects these positive qualities onto it falsely. There is a gap between reality and what the mind hallucinates. These ‘delusions’ interfere with pleasure.
- Love is completely a giving act. It’s not fickle and totally unconditional. If you expect something in return, that’s not love. It’s a business transaction.
- Painful things have to happen to bring us to where we need to be. They are our teachers and messengers.
- Whatever comes, let it come. Whatever goes, just let it go. Let’s not cling to our sad stories. This just perpetuates what has already happened in the past, and why do we need to do this? Furthermore, if it can be remedied, why be upset about it? If it cannot be remedied, what is the use of being upset about it?
- We can diminish feelings of attachment by thinking about impermanence. Everything is impermanent and changes from moment to moment. You, me, this computer I’m typing on. Nothing lasts forever.