The awareness that comes from meditation can alter one's perception of time. By living more in the present moment, past events are not held onto nearly as strongly, and it can be difficult to remember when things happened. So I'm finding it hard to believe that I've been back home from a meditation retreat for almost a week. In one sense, so much has happened in the past week that I feel as though it must have taken place over a much longer period of time. On the other hand, the open state of "retreat mind" is still very much with me, so it often feels as though I have just returned a few minutes ago. It's also very difficult to describe what happened on the retreat. And by "what happened," I'm not referring to the schedule of sitting and walking and eating, or the words of the teachers and other retreatants. The important happenings on a retreat are the insights and internal transformations that come through doing the meditation practices. But I would like to try, in the hope that someone else will find the discoveries helpful or inspiring.
What came out of the retreat for me was a much deeper recognition of my habitual thought patterns and the subtleties of the grasping and clinging of the mind. For most of the retreat, I was doing an awareness meditation practice, which involves trying to pay attention to everything that arises--all of the thoughts, feelings, sights, sounds, body sensations, etc. As I did this practice, I first noticed some of the habitual thought patterns that I was falling into. When I'm on retreat, I often get into a bad mood in the first couple of days, complaining about the schedule, or the food, or the weather, or the behavior of some of the people on the retreat . . . when sitting quietly with nothing to occupy one's time, the mind finds plenty to complain about. But on this retreat, there was a shift in the way I related to the complaints and bad moods. While walking outside, I often discovered that I was falling into a bad mood. But when I looked to see what was behind the mood, I realized that there was no reason for it. Yes, there were the usual things to complain about, but I found that the mood was primarily a habit. My mind was used to getting in a bad mood on retreat, so I started doing that even without any provocation or cause. By seeing that the moods were simply a habit, I was able to bring my attention back to what was happening in the present, and the mood dissipated.
As I continued to pay attention in the present, I also noticed that thoughts seemed to be much more prominent than other sensations and perceptions. (It's important to note here that a common Buddhist view of the mind sees thoughts and feelings as simply a sensation that is perceived; the mind is a sense just as touch, taste, and hearing are senses.) So I would be sitting or walking, paying attention to whatever sensations arose, be they sounds or body sensations or thoughts or feelings. But when the sensation was a thought, I tended to grasp onto it and focus narrowly on the thought, to the exclusion of the other sensations. Thoughts just seemed "louder" than other sensations, and my mind attached to them more readily. When I saw this, I realized that I tend to believe that my thoughts are more important than everything else that is happening. But even more than this, I have realized that I wasn't quite viewing thoughts as just another sensation that could be noticed and released. I believed that my thoughts told me something important, and that each thought needed to be followed.
I worked on noticing thoughts when thoughts arose and still resting in awareness, noticing everything that was present. What I found next is some very subtle ways that the mind grasps onto sensations. Each time a sound occurred, for example, I found that I focused in on the sound, and tried to listen for other sounds. This may not seem like much of an insight, but it is a recognition of how the mind can grasp onto something while leading us to believe that we are fully present with everything. Over the course of the week, I kept watching how the mind notices and grasps onto perceptions, how the attention moves from complete openness to a more narrow focus on one point of attention, and how it jumps from one point of attention to another. And from there, I turned awareness in on itself. One of the special qualities of awareness is that it is aware of itself. There is a sense that awareness is present at all times, a knowing that there is knowing. Noticing the presence of awareness is yet another subtlety of understanding the nature of the mind.
Little of this was as smooth or easy as I may have made it sound, but it was a wonderful retreat. This is exactly the sort of insight that one hopes for on a meditation retreat. Why would anyone care about this insight, you ask? It will take some time for that to become completely clear, as there is always a period of integration when coming back into the world after a retreat. But what was clear from the very beginning is how much happier and more content I am from these realizations. I can see very quickly when my mind is generating (and about to get stuck in) a bad mood for no good reason. Often, it's triggered by simply a sight or sound or place, which begins a cascade of habitual thoughts and feelings. But this is a form of living in the past, being controlled by events that are not happening now and are no longer relevant. By recognizing the thoughts and moods as soon as they begin to arise, I can bring my attention back to the present before the mood takes shape, and long before an identity (e.g. "I am miserable," or "this always happens to me") forms around the thoughts and moods. And by noticing the very subtle ways that the mind grasps onto nearly everything that it perceives, I am free to experience everything that life brings without the suffering inherent in trying to prolong the experience (if it's pleasant) or trying to make the experience change or go away (if it's unpleasant). This is the true meaning of freedom or liberation. It's not about being able to do or have everything that you want. It means the freedom to fully experience life without grasping onto the experiences or forming an identity around them.
What I will do in the future is still very much to be determined. But whatever it is, I will do it with much less attachment and suffering, and with much more joy and appreciation than I otherwise would have.