I recently had the privilege of attending a 5-day silent meditation retreat. This was both a wonderful and challenging experience. I have done this before, so I generally knew what to expect. The teachers were two engaging female Buddhist dharma teachers who guide retreats in the Vipassana (insight meditation) tradition. They were warm, welcoming and funny. They definitely made daily silent meditation practice from 6:15 AM to 9:30 PM as easy as possible. And the weather mostly cooperated, which definitely helped when engaging in walking meditation outdoors.
I had many interesting thoughts and a few small revelations during this time. The most lovely, however, did not occur during meditation. On the last morning of the retreat, all thirty of us and our two teachers gathered in a big circle to say goodbye and comment on what we had gained from our time in silence together. One woman, whom I had met on the first day prior to the start of silence, piped up. This young woman sat in front of me all five days. I had become accustomed to seeing her back with perfectly erect posture, sitting motionless and serene. She also roomed in the same building where I was staying, in the room next to mine. The retreat had been especially meaningful to her. She came to the retreat not knowing
what to expect. Although she is a very experienced meditator, she practices in the Zen tradition and belongs to a Zen temple. She had come to this retreat because Zen retreats are much more arduous with minimal sleep and austere conditions. She had recently been hit by a car and could not physically tolerate this type of practice at present. She began to eloquently tell her story.
She had been practicing Zen Buddhism for ten years and felt very welcome at this retreat. During the last day of the retreat it had begun to drizzle. We all left the meditation hall at 9:30 that last night and walked out into a wet and very dark night. The lights on the paths to our rooms were strangely unlit. She walked quickly toward our little house, but it was difficult to see and slippery. She and several others were picking their way carefully up the stone stairs, concerned with being unable to see well and possibly slipping. Then, she noted, light appeared from behind her. Someone walking behind her was carrying a flashlight and had raised it to light their way. She was grateful for this small kindness. More than that, though, it held a greater meaning for her. Her dharma name, she went on to explain, is “Kishin,” which means light bearer. She noted that the Buddha was known as the light bearer, so the name is particularly special to her. Now, however, she felt like she had new insight into just how important this name really is and what it signifies. All because of a raised flashlight on a dark rainy night.
I was the one walking behind her with the flashlight. I simply had noticed the group in front of me didn’t have any light and had slowed down to carefully make there way up the steps. It was a small simple kindness that I would hope anyone would do for me. I had no idea at the time how significant this was for my retreat-mate. I am so grateful she spoke and told her story. It clearly shows how interconnected we all are and how even our smallest actions can have meaning and consequence. So there is my true epiphany for the week. Everything we do, every choice we make, every interaction we have matters. You may not know it at the time or maybe ever, but it does matter.
I’d like to tell a story about the web. No, I don’t mean the worldwide web or the Internet. I’m talking about a different kind of web.
I went to a seminar several years ago about Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) with Jon Kabat-Zinn. The experience involved not only learning about MBSR, but doing various types of meditation including sitting meditation, body awareness (called the body scan) and walking meditation like at a retreat. I had many lovely little epiphanies during the course of all these activities. Spending a week with 200 other folks intensely interested in mindfulness can in itself be an enlightening experience. It was a cauldron of swirling emotion and intellect ranging from Buddhist thought and practice to clinical studies of mindfulness involving fMRI (functional MRI). All in all, it was a fascinating and stimulating time.
One moment stands out as particularly interesting to me. We (all 200 of us) were out in a grassy field next to the hall where the seminar was being held. This area was at least as large as a football field. Two hundred people were distributed throughout the space, each having staked out a little zone where they could practice walking meditation. This involved walking perhaps ten paces forward and then turning and walking ten paces back. This is all done with mindful awareness of the movement of walking. The idea is to be in the moment concentrating purely on the motion of your body. The pace is your own—some people move at a turtle slow pace, and others at a faster clip. It is done silently. We must have been quite the sight—two hundred zoned-out-appearing people walking back and forth at all different speeds with no seeming destination. Well, I was doing my own thing near one end of the field, slowly measuring my steps, stopping at the end of my line to pause, close my eyes and take a deep breath before turning to walk in the other direction. I opened my eyes after pausing and saw the most odd but lovely sight. It looked like a huge haphazard web of connections between each and every person. It only lasted moments—actually dissipating when I blinked. Of course I stood there wondering what I had just seen and if I was hallucinating. Then I continued on my walk.
Who knows if what I briefly saw was just a creation of my imaginative mind or a sudden subtle visualizing of something usually not seeable. Who cares. To me it is significant at least in its symbolism. In reality I do believe this interconnection does exist in some type of way. We all share a common humanity of worries, hopes, emotions, fears, joys and sorrows. Thich Nhat Hanh likes to call this Interbeing—not only are we connected, but everything is connected. In Buddhism and Hinduism, this cosmic interrelatedness is known as Indra’s Net, which is seeded with jewels, each reflecting and showing the reflection of the other jewels. In each facet of each jewel is seen not only each other jewel, but the net as a whole. This is not only a visually beautiful analogy, but consistent with the concept that nothing exists on its own. Everything is interdependent. Every thing is part of the whole, and the whole is part of every thing.
Not a bad insight into life for a week spent with my 200 new friends.
Dr. Heather's musings about medicine, mindfulness and life.
Heather Krantz, M.D.
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