I recently spent two weeks on a silent meditation retreat deep in the Scottish Highlands. I’ve done a silent retreat before but it was only 7 days long, and it was four years ago. I don’t meditate as regularly as I’d like to. So I knew this retreat would be a bit of deep dive. Like the weather, my moods and feelings kept changing mercurially, so what follows is not a literal day by day account, more an impression.
The whole experience was about becoming more still, and becoming more aware of your physical body and the surrounding environment; and to allow yourself to feel a part of that landscape, rather than separate from it, as most westerners do. Doing so makes us feel like we belong, and feel more supported. As the teacher, Paramananda, pointed out; ‘This land has supported life for hundreds of thousands of years. It can support you.’
The meditation posture (whether cross-legged, kneeling, or sitting) in many ways is the meditation: it’s all about rooting ourselves in the world, like a tree, balancing that movement down into the earth with a rising up to the sky from the upper body.
Days 1-3. To help us along, and because in some ways ‘the nature of reality is poetic’, the meditation teacher dropped in some splendid poems from time to time. To sit in stillness, feeling your body and sensing the landscape around you, and then encounter a poem like this one made it possible to enter a much deeper realm of experience.
Earth by Derek Walcott
Let the day grow on you upward
through your feet,
the vegetal knuckles,
to your knees of stone,
until by evening you are a black tree;
feel, with evening,
the swifts thicken your hair,
the new moon rising out of your forehead,
and the moonlit veins of silver
running from your armpits
like rivulets under white leaves.
Sleep, as ants
cross over your eyelids.
You have never possessed anything
as deeply as this.
This is all you have owned
from the first outcry
you can never be dispossessed.
Day 2. Weather turns wild and fierce, the wind hurtling and crashing down from the mountains all around us. I wake in the night as the house shudders violently, as if a gigantic animal has just leaped over it. At the sunrise meditation, I see a small sprightly 65-year-old woman doing Tai Chi in the midst of it all, valiantly greeting the elements through extended limbs as gothic black clouds rush above her. Snow falling thickly by end of day.
Day 3. The silence allows you to eavesdrop on some of your crazy thoughts, which can be uncomfortable. I want a pair of those ski socks she’s wearing. I’m the best meditator here! Look, I can just sit here looking out the window without having to pick up a book!
I’m becoming much more aware of sounds and physical sensations. Occasional aeroplanes soar overhead and the sound enters the meditation room. Have I ever noticed musicality of aeroplanes before? Maybe when I was a child. Today I hear the sound of the engine far above me descend through the musical scale. Not only that, I see an attendant image – a dark inky rectangle of blue paint, which moves as the note descends, almost like I’m seeing the sound in colour and movement. Hearing the rain on the other side of the stone wall of the meditation room, I feel a connection between me, the rain, and the stone. We are all part of this landscape, in this moment.
Day 4. Snow starts to melt and I venture out into a sparkling new world.
I find a tiny clover under a pine tree and wonder at it: how could something this tiny and lightweight survive the past two days’ battering?
The Buddhist emphasis on the impermanence of all things is borne out by the life around me, where fallen trees, taken by earlier storms no doubt, sprout myriad new life forms; pools, ferns, lichen, moss and fresh saplings.
Is this a branch or a clump of moss? Everything is in process of transmutation.
I’m noticing a lot of judgement. It’s difficult to sit in a meditation room day after day with a group of strangers. You develop a reluctant intimacy with each other’s bodily functions. Stomachs gurgling, noses running and whistling, breath clicking, swallowing, belching…is this amount of noise normal? We do a Metta Bhavana meditation on loving kindness and someone starts sobbing. Shut up! My ‘small mind’ wants to slap her.
The teacher is getting us to drop our own names in whilst doing this loving kindness meditation, to say our own names with love and respect. I ‘see’ myself calling my name over the mountains, my tracks in the snow petering out, I’m trying to find me…
Day 5. I’m the worst meditator here. If it’s just sitting, why don’t I go on a fishing holiday? Then again, a dancing holiday would have been much more enjoyable. At times I’m feeling trapped and bored to the point of exasperation with the relentless framework: wake at 6, meditate, break, then another meditation before breakfast which is taken in silence, then another meditation session from 11 onwards, then lunch, then meet again at 4 for another session, then dinner, then one last evening session after dinner. The bell keeps on ringing and sometimes I skip a session and sleep instead, or go for a walk. Then other times I feel peaceful, more immersed and think: ‘Great! Another 9 days of this!’ I’m realising I shouldn’t take a lot of thoughts too seriously – they change as fast as this weather.
Day 6. I really need to get out of the city more. I’m noticing my default urbanised response to things. Groggy, early morning, half awake after a poor night’s sleep frayed by tinnitus and a bad stomach, I hear my room-mate’s shower water pouring down the drain. Well I don’t – I hear a police siren. Then later, gazing out of the skylight in the meditation room I see part of crane – except it’s not, obviously, it’s a tree limb. I’ve suffered from tinnitus for the past four years or so, but haven’t been aware of it for ages. Now, in the quiet of the meditation room, it’s come back, and it’s driving me mad.
The Buddhist take on this is that there is pain in this world: that’s inevitable. However, the suffering which our egos add to this pain is not. It’s the way we try to escape pain, or crave sensory and other pleasurable experiences – this is the root of our suffering – our ego’s difficulty with being with what is. So I try to tell myself that how I feel now will likely change, try not to fret about the future (will it go? will it get worse?) and that my experience of the tinnitus will likely change as well. I’m feeling down and sad. I try to accept this. It’s tough.
A beautiful walk down to the lochside. The gentle water slurps and licks the shore like a mouth. A sheep seems to try to hide from my binoculars behind a tree – I can just see its muzzle peeping beyond the trunk. For a while standing there, I’m convinced there must be someone nearby, someone with a transistor radio, because I can hear constant murmuring high-pitched voices. It takes a while to realise there is definitely nobody around, and trace the ‘women’s voices’ to a tiny burn bubbling over some stones. I never heard water make a sound like that before. Maybe that explains the old stories about mermaids and sirens.
Day 7. I’m the worst meditator here. Not this again. This isn’t working for me. Tired, still not sleeping well, the volume of pulses and grains are doing uncomfortable things to my belly. Finding myself reading cereal and cracker packets in desperation at the lack of stimulus. ‘Nairns Crisps. Naturally energising. We’ve been baking since 1888.’ What the hell am I doing? Enjoying hearing owls at night and early morning. Also birds of prey keening over the loch and mountains.
Day 8. Better. Realised it’s ok not to be too rigid with the meditations and the instructions. If the technique ain’t working, ditch the technique. Felt a gentle joy by the loch’s edge sharing a mutual stare with a sheep as it chewed the cud, first one way then the other. Enjoying some beautiful body scans – imagining breathing in one side of the body, then out the other side of the body. Repeat on the other side, then the same up one leg and down the other. When one is concentrated and involved, then this experience is unbelievably peaceful.
At times I’ve become aware of myself as a life force inside my body, inside looking out. At other times I’ve felt myself as empty, like a vessel, and a sense of disbelief at the small size of my physical body, as if I were really much larger, part of the landscape in some way.
Day 9. I‘m the best meditator here. I’m the worst. Etc. Really enjoying the chanting of some of the mantras. Especially when I let myself sing harmonies and when we do cloud chanting (different people coming in at different times). At times it feels like the singing is just coming through with no effort from me at all, and I can’t tell whether it’s my singing or others I can hear. It’s as if we’ve all become one giant Tibetan singing bell which is playing itself.
I hear the faint cry of a bird of prey above the loch. Except it’s just the air whistling through my meditation neighbour’s nostrils.
Day 10. One of the participants breaks the silence in the evening to share with me, desperately. ‘I can’t stand this fucking chanting! I’d rather sing Morning has Broken! At least that it’s in English!’ Makes me smile.There’s been times I’ve felt like jumping up in the shrine room when it’s all quiet and we’re meant to be concentrated – and just screaming ‘FUCK!!!!!’
Day 10-12. Several days of moroseness, blankness, distraction and frustration. I climb a low mountain to the snowline and feel a bit better. I chant some of the mantras to the Highland Cattle nearby on my walks, who are the epitome of impassiveness. Nevertheless, one always stands on a high point looking out over the water. There is nothing much to eat on this spot and she is not chewing the cud. Yet there she stands. I can only assume that she likes the view. Who knows, perhaps she meditates.
Day 13. We come out of silence after lunch. I’m surprised to realise that part of me doesn’t want to. Realised that despite the silence over the days we’ve built up an intimacy and caring between the group members (about 15 of us). Strange to know this is possible despite very little verbal contact. Eleven inches of snow falls, spreading the silence all over the blanketed landscape. Great to share with others after so long, but speaking is still rationed: we will still stick to silence over night and up til lunch the next day. I like this blend of sharing and silence, which has now spread beyond our group to the snow-blanketed landscape.
Tonight, after the last meditation, I glimpse the Northern lights for the first time. I nearly miss it because I assume the moving floodlight over the trees is a helicopter. I must get out of the city more. I go back outside to glimpse a massive orange streamer flexing like the muscle of a huge creature hidden behind the sky. Then a massive stripe of firework-type light bounces across the entire horizon, as if an invisible hand has waved a massive wand.
Day 14. Group sharing is amazing. I wish this could have happened earlier; I might have realised that I wasn’t alone in some of my difficulties. Am deeply moved and admiring of the raw honesty of other group members talking about their experiences. I see what has happened over the past two weeks in a much larger context.
I’m definitely up for doing this again – I won’t leave it for four years til the next one. It’s easier with practice. I’ll leave you with a beautiful poem:
Lost by David Wagoner.
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you,
If you leave it you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.