It’s Just Vedana: Reflections on the (Rain) Forest Retreat
There is a sound I hear when my mind is clear and focused. It is not a high-pitched ringing sound like you might hear when you are underwater or leave a loud rock concert… It is a musical note that is sustained and continuous, like an organ pedal tone. When I concentrate on the sound, sometimes notes are added to it, as in a chord of music, or overtones of that note. I usually hear the sound during times of rigorous meditation practice. Sometimes it is faint, and sometimes it is so strong that there is no other thing happening in my mind. Sometimes it goes away completely. It is interesting, but no big deal really. I don’t think it means anything special. It is just an interesting experience. There is some pleasure I take from it though. It is very calming and at times very joyful.
I returned two days ago from a 7 day meditation retreat. I am still hearing the sound here and there, in between the distractions of work, bills, keeping house and taking care of my kids. It is a pleasant reminder of those few days of stepping away from the world.
I was actually surprised that I did hear the sound this time. For this retreat, I had a management role so there were a lot of things I had to take care of in between the periods of sitting and walking meditation. I didn’t expect to reach a very deep state of concentration since there were many retreat logistics to take care of. I had never managed a retreat before so I didn’t really know what might come up. I helped set up, take down, welcome people to the retreat, make announcements, keep an eye out for issues that might need to be addressed and address issues that were brought to my co-manager and me, usually via notes tucked into the manager’s folder on the bulletin board.
I love noble silence while on retreat. I love having the pressure off to be someone. It takes the pressure off to make good impressions socially. The silence makes it easier for me to see what is in my heart and mind. But as a manager, I had to do a lot of talking in order to make sure things were clearly communicated to the retreat participants and other staff. Even then it was still difficult to communicate clearly and well sometimes, as I tried the best I could to protect the atmosphere of silence.
Mistakes were made, some things were missed, and there were some things I neglected to bring to the retreat that I should have. It reminded me of putting on a theatrical production. Props go missing, people forget lines, people get sick… but the show must go on! Flexibility and improvisation keep the show going. When you forget a line in the play, you make one up and then keep moving forward. And later the cast and crew have a good laugh about it. Usually the audience is oblivious to the errors, or have a good laugh along with the cast and crew. In my experience of theater, there is a lightheartedness about it all. We put on the show because we love putting on the show.
I felt lighthearted and joyful managing the retreat. I took care of things that needed to be cared for, but kept it as light as possible. There were some people that needed some help during retreat and I took that very seriously. But things forgotten or minor things that went wrong were no big deal to me. My co-manager and I improvised. I did my best to take all feedback in stride and not take anything too personally. There was a bit of work involved in that regard. There were a few notes that pushed my buttons. And on retreat, when we are really looking deeply inside ourselves during long periods of quiet meditation, there really is nowhere to run from the defensive feelings that naturally popped up for me at times. But the beauty of not being able to run away is that when we examine the afflictive state closely, it loosens its hold on us more quickly. I sat with those feelings and realized how strong the urge is to protect my precious ego. I just wondered about that. I just held myself in compassion for being such a normal and vulnerable human being.
Perceptions are relative. People have different perceptions about things based on their conditioning and personalities. I am always careful not to label my own perceptions as absolute truth because of this. And I am careful not to take either praise or blame too much to heart. I received a bit of both of these as a retreat manager. I did my best and I learned some things. I served joyfully. I am happy with that.
Ajahn Chah used to ask the people that came to his monastery in Thailand: “Did you come here to die?” This practice is about destroying our self-centered points of view. It is about learning how to become self-less. It is about learning how to stop taking everything so personally and stop worrying about how I look to everyone else. The first step is to catch ourselves doing these things. Observe without judgment. Observe with compassion.
I was able to find some peace and clarity this past week – even as a retreat manager, even with mosquitoes, even with five straight days of nearly constant rain (yes, I said five). There were unpleasant physical sensations and pleasant physical sensations. “It’s just ‘vedana,’” Ajahn Chandako would tell us, about these pleasant and unpleasant sensations arising due to the conditions around us. We will not find true happiness by chasing down pleasant experiences and running away from unpleasant experiences. Only by accepting these experiences as the way it is, can we have peace. So I will end this little reflection with a section from the Vedana-Samyutta, translated by Nyanaponika Thera:
6. The Dart
“An untaught worldling, O monks, experiences pleasant feelings, he experiences painful feelings and he experiences neutral feelings. A well-taught noble disciple likewise experiences pleasant, painful and neutral feelings. Now what is the distinction, the diversity, the difference that exists herein between a well-taught noble disciple and an untaught worldling?
“When an untaught worldling is touched by a painful (bodily) feeling, he worries and grieves, he laments, beats his breast, weeps and is distraught. He thus experiences two kinds of feelings, a bodily and a mental feeling. It is as if a man were pierced by a dart and, following the first piercing, he is hit by a second dart. So that person will experience feelings caused by two darts. It is similar with an untaught worldling: when touched by a painful (bodily) feeling, he worries and grieves, he laments, beats his breast, weeps and is distraught. So he experiences two kinds of feeling: a bodily and a mental feeling.
“Having been touched by that painful feeling, he resists (and resents) it. Then in him who so resists (and resents) that painful feeling, an underlying tendency of resistance against that painful feeling comes to underlie (his mind). Under the impact of that painful feeling he then proceeds to enjoy sensual happiness. And why does he do so? An untaught worldling, O monks, does not know of any other escape from painful feelings except the enjoyment of sensual happiness. Then in him who enjoys sensual happiness, an underlying tendency to lust for pleasant feelings comes to underlie (his mind). He does not know, according to facts, the arising and ending of these feelings, nor the gratification, the danger and the escape, connected with these feelings. In him who lacks that knowledge, an underlying tendency to ignorance as to neutral feelings comes to underlie (his mind). When he experiences a pleasant feeling, a painful feeling or a neutral feeling, he feels it as one fettered by it. Such a one, O monks, is called an untaught worldling who is fettered by birth, by old age, by death, by sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair. He is fettered by suffering, this I declare.
“But in the case of a well-taught noble disciple, O monks, when he is touched by a painful feeling, he will not worry nor grieve and lament, he will not beat his breast and weep, nor will he be distraught. It is one kind of feeling he experiences, a bodily one, but not a mental feeling. It is as if a man were pierced by a dart, but was not hit by a second dart following the first one. So this person experiences feelings caused by a single dart only. It is similar with a well-taught noble disciple: when touched by a painful feeling, he will not worry nor grieve and lament, he will not beat his breast and weep, nor will he be distraught. He experiences one single feeling, a bodily one.
“Having been touched by that painful feeling, he does not resist (and resent) it. Hence, in him no underlying tendency of resistance against that painful feeling comes to underlie (his mind). Under the impact of that painful feeling he does not proceed to enjoy sensual happiness. And why not? As a well-taught noble disciple he knows of an escape from painful feelings other than by enjoying sensual happiness. Then in him who does not proceed to enjoy sensual happiness, no underlying tendency to lust for pleasant feelings comes to underlie (his mind). He knows, according to facts, the arising and ending of those feelings, and the gratification, the danger and the escape connected with these feelings. In him who knows thus, no underlying tendency to ignorance as to neutral feelings comes to underlie (his mind). When he experiences a pleasant feeling, a painful feeling or a neutral feeling, he feels it as one who is not fettered by it. Such a one, O monks, is called a well-taught noble disciple who is not fettered by birth, by old age, by death, by sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair. He is not fettered to suffering, this I declare.
“This, O monks, is the distinction, the diversity, the difference that exists between a well-taught noble disciple and an untaught worldling.”