Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Retreat (2009)

Friday afternoon
we arrive, meet
our fellow meditators,
talk for hours
about the prospect
of not talking
for the next ten days


every morning
the gong waking us
into 4:30am darkness


for the first three days
we watch the breath


feel the breath entering
& leaving the nostrils,
channels of breath
gently brushing
the upper lip


stripped of speech
& gesture
how we still keep
a polite distance,
how I am careful
not to slurp at my tea
in the dining hall


writing is not allowed;
‘there is no need
to take notes’


no reading either
except signs & notices;
a makeshift sign
on the border of the property reads
‘do not go beyond this point’


every day after breakfast
taking a walk around the field;
around its perimeter
the long grass has been trampled
into a narrow path;
my toes,
exposed through sandals,
sprayed with dew;
grasshoppers leaping
away from each step


perhaps a sleepmurmur
is all that has exited
my mouth for days –
other than a cough
or froth of toothpaste


three times a day
a ‘sitting of determination’:
to stay still
for an hour,
observing the pain
in my shoulders and back
as it arises


towards the end
of each arduous hour
the coughing starts up
amongst the men
meditating around me
(this being their subtle way
of expressing discomfort)


remembered songs drop by,
wash uninvited through
the meditating mind


what is that sound?
two percussive blocks
knocked together
or a restless frog
in the dawn?


New Year’s Day:
close to forty degrees;
moths, mosquitoes & others
drunken in the heat
party around the nightlight
outside our dorm,
& the thought arrives:
any other year,
I’d be joining them


some afternoons
it must be 45 degrees
in the meditation hall;
I leave a pool of sweat
on the mat


I break my vow of silence
to inform the ‘male manager’
that the first toilet on the left
has a blockage


men & women are segregated,
have separate facilities,
though we all meditate
in the same hall –
men on the left,
women on the right


everyone is asked to dress ‘modestly’
to minimise distractions


meditating in the hall
at dusk,
intermittent mooing
of a distant cow


a spider on the door
of our dorm room...
is it? – yes, it is
on the inside of the glass


without communication
it's difficult
to come to an agreement
about whether the dorm door
should be open or closed
during sleeping hours


on white porcelain sinks
in the male washroom,
mosquitoes & beetles:
a growing collection of corpses


everything arises,
passes away

Note: This poem is based on my experiences during a ten-day Vipassana meditation retreat in December/January 2007-08.


  1. I do not know why but the pain and the tension are usually located in the shoulders (and also in the throad, but each one is a very different kind of pain)

    I was wondering what happen during or after the retirement that you consider relevant. If something.

  2. Yes, most of the intense pain was in my shoulders.

    The most important part of the retreat for me was learning to sit and observe sensations, and trying not to get caught up in craving and aversion. Easier said than done when you're conditioned to crave pleasant feelings and to be averse to unpleasant feelings such as joint pain or itchiness.

    I remember you said you were a meditator. Have you ever gone on a retreat yourself?

  3. Stu,

    This is lovely. Eavesdropping on your silence.

    Sympathize with the shoulder pain, have a good bit of that myself, though it's a post-stroke effect not to be blamed on meditation; in fact a little more meditating over the past six or seven decades might have prevented it. (Speaking of lame, I tried posting a comment earlier but I fear the gibberish word assignment may have eluded me.)

    So, then: how did you feel when it was over? Would you do it again?

    Was informed last week by a well-meaning soul that the following is a "Zen poem," though I harbour doubts (hadn't previously considered a bloody lip to be a meditation symptom):

    The Riddle

  4. Thanks, Tom. I love 'The Riddle'. :)

    To answer your questions, I'm planning to do another retreat later this year, although it'll probably be a 3-day. Then maybe I'll do another 10-day next year.

    On the final day of the retreat, the vow of silence is broken, and everyone (male and female) chats to each other, compares notes, etc. After sitting in silence for 10 days, I found this very strange and confronting. Conversations were odd, and I had a heightened sense of how spurious speech can be. Adjusting back to city life was weird at first. For the next 3 months I remember being very centred and aware, though not necessarily calm; I'd say I was somewhat hyper-aware of things.

    While there may have been some noticeable benefits, the 10-day retreat was more about getting a feel for the practice. I've sat and meditated almost every day since the retreat, but one of the reasons I feel I need to go back is to re-establish and deepen my practice...

  5. , never been, I tried to be one, but never made it, dough it is still in my life objectives. To me the most intresting stuff about meditating is learning to let thoughts go, and to get more in touch with your own body.
    Take care stu

  6. I would recommend it if you get the chance. It's hard work, but definitely worth it.

    Letting thoughts go and getting in touch with the body... yes, that's definitely a big part of it. Also breaking the cycle of desire - all that wanting, wanting, wanting... and learning to accept life's annoyances.

  7. Learning to accept life's annoyances==learning to accept life. This education continues forever. Two steps forward, three back.

    One feels the usefulness of but is never able to attain an infinite tolerance. But it always helps (said he) to attempt to look at things in

    A New Light

  8. I ll take your advice, very intresting.
    I have the fantasy, maybe I am wrong, that it can also help you break the instant satisfaction (if not instant frustration) way of life we are used to live; and learn that you need to work for long periods of time for achieving most of your relevant objectives.

  9. Tom: "Learning to accept life's annoyances==learning to accept life." So true. And yes, we're all still learning how to accept. :)

    Mariana: I think your 'fantasy' is right. It is about investigating this desire for instant satisfaction, and our tendency to respond with (instant) frustration when satisfaction doesn't instantly arise! You have to sit and quietly observe your reactions: to pain, to pleasure, to boredom, to thoughts, etc.