What’s the longest you’ve ever gone without talking to anyone (not counting yourself)? An hour or two perhaps? A full day? I once went seventeen days out in the bush without conversing, which felt like an eternity (a longer story for another time). I’ve also done several silent ten-day meditation retreats, which is silence of a different kind when you’re surrounded by people without any interaction. It has been some years though since I’ve made any formal commitment to hold my tongue, so it was with some curiosity last week that I travelled to Victoria’s Strathbogie Ranges forfive days of silent meditation.
Anyone who has tried to meditate knows that although there might be silence on the outside, there is often little on the inside. The first couple of days were a stark reminder of the true nature of the monkey mind. Hour after hour I watched my thoughts swing from branch to branch, climbing up any story that took their interest, and throwing wild parties from the canopy. It was one crazy jungle in there. Gradually though, as I returned again and again to the monotonous rise and fall of my breath, the monkeys were lulled into snatches of sweet sleep.
One of the things that attracted me to this retreat was that rather than merely shut-eyed within four walls, the practice included time out in the expansive grounds, a mix of open grassy space bordered by mature eucalypt wind breaks, and a boulder strewn hill. Outside, the meditation practice was that of walking, which would appear to the onlooker as a stroll in serious slow motion. The mantra goes something like – observing foot lifting, observing foot pushing, observing foot placing – with one giving full attention to the nuances of sensation in each footfall. During the middle of the day, it was warm enough to removemy socks and really feel the ground (and occasionally the ants) underfoot. It’s infinitely easier for me to be absorbed in the present moment when in nature, so rich is the experience of sky, earth, the caress of sun on cheek and breeze in hair. I played with focusing on the sounds of the forest – alternating between the loudest bird call (white cockatoos commandeeringmuch air time), followed by the quietest(the striated pardalotes pinging in the distance).
The Buddha, who is said to have gained enlightenment while seated under a Bodhi tree, recognised the power of practicing in the forest. He encouraged monasteries to be set in places of wild nature, partly because dwelling in the wilderness with its ruggedness and danger, such as tigers and snakes, was an excellent arena for spiritual training and overcoming fear. Moreoverthough, it was because the wilderness with its simplicity, quietude, and natural beauty provided a place for joyful meditative concentration. The forest monastery tradition still continues in south-east Asia, and in contemporary retreats like this one.
It was during one of those meditative walks, when just for a few seconds, everything lit up in neon brightness, the sky bluer than blue, and the tree silhouetted against it more graceful than I could imagine. It was as if all the filters through which I usually view the world were lifted and I was seeing life without the expectation of how it was the previous moment,with the freshness and innocence of a child.