The Sounds of Silence – My Metta Retreat at IMS

IMG_1766It’s been a week since I returned home from a most amazing, 7 day silent Metta Meditation Retreat. As with all retreats, I came home feeling refreshed and renewed. This time I also feel amazingly clear, calm, and content, as if I’ve come to a deeper understanding of myself.

IMG_1760I’d heard of the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) but always believed it to be too hard to get to. I don’t like to drive long distances and there are no train stations or airports close to the town of Barre, MA. One must take a taxi or some other form of transportation after arriving by train in Worcester or landing at Logon airport in Boston. I don’t remember how the February Metta retreat came into consciousness but the moment it did, I knew I was ready to make the trip no matter how challenging it might be.

The transportation schedule didn’t sync with the retreat schedule so I packed my bags for an extra two days IMG_1773 and stayed the night before and night after retreat at a sweet B&B, The Wholesome Hearth. IMG_1752 The Wholesome Hearth B&B was built in the mid 1800’s. It’s owned and operated by Lisa, who also works at the Forest Refuge – part of the IMS. I was happy to have travel days on both ends of the retreat and the B&B was a nice, cozy place to relax and prepare for silence, and then relax and prepare for reentering the world.

I’ve shared that before going on retreat I was experiencing a great deal of fear. For some reason I had begun watching the nightly news. If that wasn’t bad enough, one way or another, I heard the murder count in Baltimore – every single day at the beginning of the year, there was a murder in Baltimore. I’m not sure what the current count is. I also watched a video about the Knock-out game, and heard that a woman walking alone was the victim of the game, right here in Baltimore. I began feeding on the negativity found on Facebook…I usually focus on the fun and happiness found on Facebook but in past months I began noticing that even on a happy post, someone had something mean or negative to say. I was finding people to be especially angry and fearful, and downright nasty.

On top of it all, there’s the big game of politics. Like many others, I’ve become wary of President Obama’s Administration and fearful that the next election will bring an onslaught of the religious right, in an attempt to tilt the scales of government away from what has become a very ineffective government. Maybe most of all I’d developed this odd feeling of fear, no matter where I went, of crazy people with guns. The workplace, movie theaters, and shopping malls.

To avoid the craziness I was distracting myself with craziness – mainly, watching television shows like Breaking Bad, Scandal, House of Cards and The Borgias. I binge-watched entire series and began eating sugar again. I was addicted and felt like my mind was going crazy! It was all getting to be too much for me and I knew I needed help. Intuitively I knew the help I needed could only be found in my own silence, facing the fears that had paralyzed my mind and driven me to destructive distractions. I signed up for this retreat in September or October. I didn’t stop meditating, but admittedly, I only meditated for 10 minutes a day.

Through some miscommunication with my ride to the Center, I arrived much later than I had planned but early enough to go on a tour of the facility, register, find out what my daily work schedule would be, take my luggage to my room, and have a quick dinner. I didn’t meet any of my fellow participants prior to entering silence around 6:30 or 7pm on Friday.

To keep cost down, all participants have a job to do while on retreat. My job was to clean two bathrooms and three shower stalls every morning between 0730 and 0830. My cleaning partner was Jennie and after the first cleaning, we broke silence to agree we would take turns and do the cleaning alone. This gave us both free mornings and I used mine to walk the three mile loop that consisted of paved and dirt roads. IMG_1753 Roads were treacherous as there was several feet of snow on the ground and the dirt road that was part of the loop was as slick as icicles. It was also bitter cold and over the course of seven days, I only walked the full loop three times. I really needed to be outside so on the other days I stayed on the pavement which wasn’t quite so treacherous.

When I was given my work assignment I felt like, “Great… bathrooms!” But I have to say that it wasn’t long before I was very grateful for that job. I looked at how much time it took others to work in the kitchen or cleaning the coat room and I felt blessed to have a job I could complete in less than an hour and do only every other day. I also felt honored to do the job. With my Virgo desire for cleanliness and sanitation, I thought I was the perfect person to have the responsibility of making those rooms clean and disinfected!

In a typical day, we would wake up at 0515 and meet in the Meditation Hall at 0600 for our first sitting. There were 93 participants and the furthest traveler arrived from United Arab Emirates. Our teachers were Sharon SalzbergLarry Yang, and Winnie Nazarko.

After our morning sit, we would have breakfast in the dining hall IMG_1764 and then perform our morning work. Then, we went back to sit, and afterwards did walking meditation in one of many rooms set up for indoor walking IMG_1763 or, we joined a very gentle yoga class led by the NY instructor, Booker. While I sat in a chair for most of the time in the meditation hall, I had some issues with my back for the first few days and I was extremely grateful for the yoga sessions that began Monday morning. Between the yoga, walking outside, and sitting in my room with my legs up the wall, my back relaxed and the pain subsided.

After yoga we had more sitting, walking, lunch, walking, sitting, walking, sitting with Q&A, walking, a light dinner, sitting, walking, and at 7:30 pm, Dharma talks. All three teachers were fantastic in their presentations and understanding of the Buddha’s teachings. I always went to bed after the Dharma talks but there was another walking and sitting meditation on the schedule for those who were interested. Except for Sunday when I met in a small group with Sharon and Monday when I had an interview with Winnie, my schedule was the same. IMG_1767

I should say something about the type of meditation we practiced. Metta is the Pali word for Loving Kindness. To practice Metta is to practice the act of loving kindness towards oneself and all beings. My explanation is simplistic and for a deeper explanation, click on the word Metta above.

We start the practice by concentrating on statements such as, “May I be happy” “May I be healthy” “May I be safe.” We start with ourselves as it might be easier to send loving thoughts to our own selves. We progress to a benefactor; someone who supports us and only wants our well-being. We think of that person and concentrate on, “May you be happy” “May you be healthy” “May you be safe.” Next we concentrate on a friend; someone who makes us smile. Next, a neutral person; someone we see every day but really don’t know anything about – a bus driver, school crossing guard, Starbucks barista. “May you be happy” “May you be healthy” “May you be safe.”

The next person we focus on is a difficult person. During retreat we were guided to think of someone who is not too difficult; just someone who may be difficult in the way we relate to one another. There was a participant who had never meditated in her life and well-seasoned participants. The teachers took us through the process gently to accommodate everyone.

Eventually the meditation goes out to everyone – all beings in the retreat center, all beings in Massachusetts, all beings in North America, and so on and so on… Metta usually ends with, “May all beings in every Universe….”

IMG_1768I think Monday was the day we were on the Neutral person. What I’m about to share may be upsetting to some. I share it now because the experience I’m about to describe was so unexpected to me and at the same time, it’s such a perfect example of what this practice can do. It is also why I’m willing to do the work it takes to heal old wounds.

I was in my room, on my bed with my legs up the wall, stretching out my back. I was concentrating on an individual I thought of as neutral, when someone else came into my awareness; someone from my past.

When I was twelve years old I often walked alone, two blocks from home to the convenience store for chips or candy. One summer day I was walking to the store and a boy or man (I don’t really remember) stopped and asked me if I wanted a ride. I loved motorcycles and couldn’t say no to such an offer. I hopped on back and he turned the bike around in the direction of the store. However, he didn’t stop at the store. Instead, he drove past the store and towards the woods. He stopped the bike, pulled out a knife, and I was sexually assaulted. I was not raped.

I didn’t tell anyone about my experience for fear of being blamed – I was either dressed inappropriately or stupid for getting on the back of a stranger’s bike. So I buried it deep in my subconscious and never thought of it again until sometime in my 30’s when a friend gave me a craniosacral session for my birthday. During the session the memory came flooding back and it was like watching a movie of the experience in my mind. I shared what happened with the therapist and my friend. I may have also shared later with one of my sisters. I did the work….allowing myself to feel all the anger that I had suppressed for so many years and eventually forgiving not only the man who committed the crime but members of my family who unknowingly created an unsafe environment for a very young girl who had no one to turn to.

So during my retreat when I was concentrating on my neutral person I was very surprised that this man showed up. While his face isn’t clear in my memory, I turned to him and asked, “The two of us are the only two people who were in that experience. Have you ever thought about it since then? Are you remorseful? Do you consider it just a part of your youth? Do you have daughters now? Do you think of what you did and get off on it?”

Using a technique taught by Debbie Ford, I asked myself, “Who would do something like that? What kind of person would do something like that to a child?” And I thought, “A tormented person. A person who was in pain and who was suffering.” The answer to this question brought understanding.

At that point I realized that the questions I asked of him really didn’t matter to me. While I felt no great rush of love, I also felt no aversion towards him. I thought, “If I ran into him on the street and knew it was him, I would feel completely neutral towards him.” And with that, he became my neutral person for that sitting. And in that neutrality, I eventually felt deep compassion.

Now I want to say that I immediately thought of others who I might consider neutral and they were not. I wasn’t ready. And I’m not suggesting that anyone needs to feel this way toward their oppressors or those who have endangered them in one way or another. I’m just sharing that I was not at all expecting to feel this way or have this experience while sitting and yet it happened, and after that sitting I felt lighter and more compassionate to all people in the world.

I also remembered later in the week that when I left Atlanta and moved to Baltimore, I was practicing Metta meditation if not daily, then at least several times a week. I wondered if that’s why, when so many people warned me about living in the City of Baltimore, I felt no fear. I believe so and have recommitted to the daily practice. I’m back to meditating 20-30 minutes every day and at least a portion of that time is dedicated to Metta.

While many shifts in my perceptions and consciousness occurred on this retreat, there is one other I would like to share…

Our teachers shared how the mind will grasp at what feels good, resist what feels bad, and get bored with what’s neutral. That is how we make decisions when aren’t aware of our thoughts and how (or why) we experience suffering – we are always dissatisfied with what is.

Of course I’ve heard this teaching many times and over the years have become much more mindful of my thoughts and choices. But now I see clearly and understand my life based on this experience of my mind. It occurred to me that I have no drama in my life at all – there is nothing super great or super bad going on in my life. Right now, I’m living in the neutral zone. I have a good job, cozy home, good health, happy pets, and really, everything I need. So I’m bored. And because I’m bored I look around at others, friends who are teaching meditation in their home, walking the Appalachian Trail, buying a new house, or going back to school. Rather than remain satisfied with where I am and what I’m doing, I focus much of my attention on retirement and when I’ll be able to do those kinds of exciting things. And by focusing on what might be, rather than what is, I’m not happy….I am a victim of my own suffering.

Since I’ve returned from IMS I’ve made different choices. I only worked a few days this past week but while I was at work, I chose to enjoy what I was doing. I noticed that there is no drama in my office – no horrible thing that makes me miserable and nothing that makes me especially excited to be there. It’s just neutral and neutral is not a bad place to be. In fact, neutral can be quite comforting and enjoyable when I choose to remain engaged, rather than bored.

Once we broke silence and I was back in my room I turned on my phone for the first time in a week. The most challenging thing for me was to stay off my phone/Facebook/email. But I did it and it felt great. The first thing I did when I turned on my phone was take a picture of the view outside my window. IMG_1757 I didn’t write much about the actual silence. I loved every minute of it. And I suspect I will write something about it soon. I also suspect this retreat will become an annual event for me.

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