The other day, I gave a talk at the Barnstable Senior Center about my three-week meditation retreat in Burma. I showed slides of children in Mandalay and the ornate roofs of Kyaswa Monastery. I talked about our 3:30 a.m. wakeup bell, the pinked-robed nuns who chanted for us each evening, and the sunrise and moonrise over the Irawaddy River as seen from the porch of my kuti (hut).
But I know from talking about this retreat with friends that what people really wanted to know was, “Was it life-changing?”
Fair question! But a hard one to answer.
When one of the attendees asked if the trip changed me, I said it had, though I declined to say how. (I don’t even know if it’s true, except in the way we all change constantly in reaction to conditions.)
But if he had asked me what I learned…Well, THEN I could have bent his ear for hours!
I might have talked about how frequently I saw my thoughts being tainted with the feeling, “I should be different.”
And about how the words, “Of course!” had the power to cut through a lot of this self-judgment. Feeling restless, sleepy, inadequate? Oh sweetie…of course! Of course you feel that way!
I’d talk about how things I expected to be difficult turned out to be easy, and how things I expected to be easy were difficult.
But, as is the nature of all retreats, many of the things I learned were quite small and mundane. Because once our mind starts to quiet down, the small things start to shine.
I learned about the pleasure of sleeping under a mosquito net bathed in moonlight. I learned about the natural social behavior of dogs from watching the pack that lived on the monastery grounds. (Turns out dogs don’t actually do it doggie style once they get hooked up.) I learned about the taste and scent of clementines.
Last year, at the end of a retreat at the Providence Zen Center there was a sharing circle. One young guy who had been on retreat for three straight months shared what he had learned: that oatmeal is really awesome with peanut butter mixed in.
Did the teacher think he was being a smart ass? I don’t think so. He told the kid to try oatmeal with peanut butter and kimchee. He said it was life-changing.