Oh, I Am A Weak-Willed Wretch

thailand buddha wat phra keo

So, what’s it like to leave behind the everyday trappings of life?

Mixed bag.

I’ve been a bad girl in connecting to the Internet to blog, read Facebook and answer and send email. We have broken silence by whispering to one another. I have listened to music, using earbuds, on my laptop.

Technically, I should not be doing any of this. But I am not a practicing Buddhist, more here to support the devout faith of the sweetie. And, yes, I am sufficiently weak-willed that I cannot fill 6+ hours a day merely staring at the trees.

I’m learning.

I attend the teachings, of which there are two or three a day, beginning with chanting and meditation, and which last 60 to 90 minutes. It can get very esoteric, with endless examination of concepts like mind, clarity, self…It’s both stimulating and a little exhausting.

The lama, who’s also a friend of ours, is funny, down to earth and everything he says makes perfect sense in the “real world” beyond the stone walls that enclose us.

It is odd to be surrounded by 64 strangers, from teenagers to seniors, with whom we’re (blessedly) forbidden to speak. It’s such a relief to not have to talk or listen or react or remember. To drop all pretense of being social or friendly. But we’ve also been admonished to be even quieter, as some of us have been whispering to one another while outside away from others, or in our rooms.

It’s also interesting to be surrounded by people with little or no way to assert status: their schools, graduate degrees, job titles, neighborhood, clothing, jewelry, handbags, cars, shoes. What we see is what we get. What we see is all we know. What we “know” is only surface anyway, here and elsewhere.

We watch one another and wonder what their story is, with students here from Europe, Canada, South America: the beefy, the lame, the bald, the long-haired, the lithe.

It’s an elegant, self-imposed house arrest, our only allowed territory the halls, rooms and grounds. The highway is just at at the end of the driveway and our car sits right there, for once — yay! — undriven.

(I know others are breaking the rules by actually going off-campus, using cellphones, etc. I’m not the only one succumbing to temptation [she said defensively].)

So, here, we look inwards or outwards, sky-gazing.

Remove the usual distractions of kids and pets and work and commuting and movies and shopping  and ATM withdrawals and buying gas and groceries and paying bills or playing Angry Birds — and you suddenly find time to read, think, paint, draw, take photos, sleep and — of course, pray, listen to teachings and meditate.

It will be a challenge for all of us to re-create that sacred quiet space within the craziness of “normal” life. It’s also quite moving to share space and time with others on, for this week anyway, the same path of questioning and learning. Five students have left along the way. Without ever having exchanged a word, you notice their their silent absence immediately.

On Thursday, a new influx appeared, a spiritual shift change.

The physical space enclosing us all is lovely, a four-story former Catholic monastery now open to other faiths, and a frequent site for Buddhist retreats. It faces — what else? — West Point across a narrow stretch of the Hudson River.

You have to love the irony of prayers and chanting and meditation literally facing the academy training soldiers to kill and be killed. The hiking trail through the woods includes (!) Benedict Arnold’s escape route.

We eat vegetarian food, four choices at every meal, at long communal tables, sitting on wooden chairs. Everything is spotless, polished, cared for. There are vases of fresh flowers and bamboo from the gardens, so there is, everywhere, something beautiful to look at, touch or smell.

The garden has a huge lavender bed filled with bees, a wild garden with green peppers and sunflowers and gerbera. A huge bamboo grove looms over a bench where you can sit and read in the shade. I enjoyed an hour there watching a bad bunny eating anything he could find.

Such a calm and quiet place to escape the relentless chest-beating of ego assertion!

I’ll miss this as I plunge back into the elbow-in-the-eye world of professional journalism in New York.

But boy am I ready for a tuna melt with fries and a cold beer! (Or a steak and a martini.)

26 thoughts on “Oh, I Am A Weak-Willed Wretch

  1. Imagine me quietly typing: I really, really like this post. Really. Although, I have to disagree with the title because you’re not. Really.


  2. I bet you are so ready for a steak and martini too after all that enlightment! I come from a very chatty family, so if we aren’t talking, we generally have something shoved into our mouths and we can sometimes still talk even when that happens.

    1. I’ve never before just eaten vegetarian — one thing I’ve noticed (and trying to figure out) is why I’m so much less hungry here! Lunch is at 12:30 and dinner at 6:00 p.m….I sure can’t go that long at home without a snack, but here it’s no big deal. The sweetie thinks it’s because we have no stress and do little that is physical.

      I’m normally super-chatty as well. It’s been surprisingly great not to do it.

  3. Craziness. It just occurred to me that one of the fellas I was at the ashram with last month said he’d be attending a silent Buddhist retreat later this summer. Is there a skinny baldish fella in his 20s with unsual tattoos and a slight overbite running around and randomly doing yoga poses there?

    Except for the silence and location, this reminds me so much of my retreat this summer.

    1. Define “unusual” tattoos! There are people with Buddhas and Om’s on them. Not many guys in their 20s but many are bald and skinny! The only one who vaguely fits this description here is much older.

    1. Too funny!

      The exercise — and one I have really found worth it — was to (re) define what’s normal. Buddhism calls into question our habitual choices and that’s a valuable thing. I don’t think I’ll come home super-enlightened, but even a bit enlightened is better than none!

  4. So interesting! I am right in the midst of the busiest, loudest, most boisterous time of the year in terms of work (hello, tourist season!), so I would honestly LOVE a silent retreat right now. I’ll have to wait for anything resembling silence until October, so thank you for writing this post– I can live vicariously through you! 😉

    1. Yeah, Victoria in summer is insane!

      One of the issues discussed this morning in teaching — as we all head back to noisy reality in two days — is exactly how to carve out 20-30-40 minutes every day to be STILL and silent. It can be done, but it requires planning and discipline. (Easier for people without very small children.)

  5. I envy your ability to to take such a retreat. If only my life would allow me to do the same. I suppose I need to find small ways to take silent retreats in everyday life.

    1. Not sure where you live, nor your budget, but there are many one or two-day retreats around that are affordable, accessible and can really make a difference. One of the reasons this was appealing to me was having done a one-day Christian retreat in NYC where we spent the morning in silence. What a shock when everyone started chattering away at lunch.

      This was my birthday gift from the sweetie, so I was lucky he had the means to pay for us both, but it was (I think) very affordable for the quality….$900 for the eight days.

      Not to be bossy, but I think it is totally essential for everyone to make that kind of time, even 20 minutes…in a park, in your car, even locked in the bathroom if you have to! I am amazed at how much calmer I feel as a result of this time away from all the insanity, even while blogging and emailing for business reasons during it.

      I will really miss this silence!

  6. I love how you are showing up in a perfectly imperfect manner. Last year, when I turned 40, I went on a self-directed silent retreat at my fav local resort, Alderbrook Resort on the Hood Canal. I had to write my dinner orders on a pad of paper and folks thought I was a little nutty with my “observing silence” badge. When I went home, I told my husband that I watched a movies at night. He was shocked. I reminded him that it was self-directed and I chose to mindfully watch movies!

    I have also done the 10 day Vipassana retreats and welcomed the Q & A session loophole in the afternoon. I stood in line EVERY day to ask questions about the cuckoo stuff that I was observing between my ears. Only later did I realize I was using it as an excuse to chat. Oh well, perfectly imperfect am I.

    1. Good for you!

      The coolest part of this is that everyone here, de facto, is on the same page. Where else can we find (or enforce?) silence. Nowhere! I’m OK with movies. We’re told here to minimize writing and reading. It’s how I breathe, so I am OK doing what I need to, (yes, mindfully) to stay healthy…Right now, the sweetie decided (based on the &^#!!* with the debt crisis) to put all his investments into cash to avoid a market tank…If we had totally unplugged, as we should, we could go home to a much smaller retirement fund. So unplugging is great, but not always!

      Our teachings have Q & A as well, but they are short — no more than 4 or 5 questions at most. As it is, we’re already pretty tired from listening. I also, I confess, a limited amount of patience for some of the questions….arrogant of me to say that, I know.

  7. jacquelincangro

    You made some observations I hadn’t even thought of. “It’s also interesting to be surrounded by people with little or no way to assert status: their schools, graduate degrees, job titles, neighborhood, clothing, jewelry, handbags, cars, shoes. What we see is what we get.”

    What a relief, really!

    I hope the calmness and peace can be translated into your everyday life.

    1. I was struck by that on the very first day as I overheard someone saying “I have a Master’s degree in international relations.” I’ve learned that in our group we have an artist, an acupuncturist, a former dean/chancellor of a university, a NJ high school teacher and an ex Wall Street finance person.

      I prefer just watching them all without having to get all tangled up in what those tags and identities, (including mine!) mean. We are always so eager to peg and pigeonhole.

      Thanks for the good wishes. I hope it translates as well. I know it will be a challenge.

  8. Lisa (Woman Wielding Words)

    It seems to me that, despite your forays into whispers and technology, you have absorbed the lesson of the silence in a truly profound way. Good luck carrying it with you into the real world of chaos.

  9. Thanks…

    It’s hard NOT to absorb it when you are surrounded by it 24/7 for eight days! The only verbal “noise” here (chatter, and it’s hardly that) is the teachings….which of course stand out so much more sharply in relief when they are islands of wisdom in a surroundng sea of silence, not just one more pile ‘o words competing for what’s left of our fractured and weary attention.

  10. After a particularly stressful morning with employees clamoring for guidance, and me with no answers, a retreat like this would be so welcome. I get so tried of the chatting. Before I head for home tonight I may have to do a little online guided meditation…

    1. I wonder if (?) without being weird and nasty about it, you could even institute a silent hour or two in your workdays with them. In all seriousness. When you are forbidden to speak, you think a lot harder about what — if anything — you REALLY need to say. (They could just communicate in an email instead.)

      I think the single most powerful thought here is mindfulness. What are we doing and saying? Is it necessary? Helpful? Or just filling up space and time?

      One thing that is terribly helpful, for me, is the sounding of the gong. It’s beautiful and timeless and very clearly marks the beginning of…silence…and the temporary end of…chaos! Then you can ring it when you’re done. We have one at home. Maybe we’ll start using it.

  11. I loved the sense of retreat you portrayed, and watching others , 1wondering what theri story is”> would be very happy to enjoy a tuna melt for that matter. Nice to come across your blog through a lady called “Dawn”

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