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Reflections on the Three-Day Retreat in Vancouver: Start from Hardship and Come Out Quite Happy at the End

This past weekend, from March 24 to 26, 2017, I took part my second three-day Chan meditation retreat at Dharma Drum Vancouver Center. Initially, I was worried about potential leg pains and wasn't feeling too hot about my life in general either. From Friday night until Sunday afternoon I faced hardship and deprivation, but came out at the end quite happy and ready to try more retreats.

Relaxation Techniques vs. Trying Hard

I began this retreat with one idea in mind: don't try too hard. I had ruined the experience on my last retreat by, ironically, trying too hard to relax. On that retreat, I ended up feeling grumpy and disappointed that my ability to relax my body seemed to be pitiful at best, despite my commitment of time and effort to the relaxation techniques. I had such a graven image of how soft and comfy my body could be in my head that my meditative abilities just couldn't manifest. You can't force relaxation. So on this retreat, I didn't spend too much time on the preliminary exercises; once I felt I had reached as far as I could with them, I moved on. I felt a little bit guilty about doing so, but considered that the alternative was worse. In the future, maybe I'll learn to strike a better balance between a laissez-faire attitude and following the instructions to a “T.”

Skip the Basics and Preliminaries?

I have noticed a trend in the teaching emphasis in the past two years towards a more detailed and thorough explanation of the basics. It seems many, myself included, were trying to skip the basics and preliminaries and just dive ahead into the method. I can understand the attitude wholeheartedly.

Knowing What to Expect

Based on my previous retreat, I had a rough idea of when the bells were going to ring, in what practice I was going to engage, and what I would have to do for my chores. I found that knowing what to expect this time had a soothing effect all its own, even beyond any meditative technique or attitude adjustment.

Effects of Minimal Translation

There was minimal translation this time, owing to scheduling conflicts, but to be honest I enjoyed it. Less talking allowed me to focus more on the method and be more mindful.

Delicious Food

The food was delicious, by the way. Although, I tried to restrain my appetite as I didn't want to cause drowsiness from overeating and I was worried about irregularity.

Sleeping Quality

Sleeping was hard on the first night, I kept worrying about how much time I had left. On the second night, I was much more tired and had no such qualms; I felt more willing to surrender to the program, an attitude that had a calming effect on my mind as I dozed off to sleep.

Meditation Comrades: Newer and Seasoned Veterans

I could not help but be by turns impressed and compassionate towards my fellow meditation comrades. On one hand were the new people, struggling bravely with the many sittings and hard-to-follow postures of seated yoga. On the other hand were the seasoned veterans, sitting for one hour at a time and never missing a beat during the moving exercises. I had the desire to see the newer people catch on and keep up their good hopes. And the seasoned practitioners, even if they may have been just brute-forcing themselves through the long sittings, still deserve credit.

Confront Pain Directly

I think there is something so ultimate about how Buddhism makes you confront pain so directly. I suspected that the repeated sittings would take their toll on my legs. In one sitting, they might feel fine for an hour and a half, maybe two hours at most. Much harder for me is a day packed with many repeated, even shorter half hour sittings. I never really dealt with the issue, as the retreat ended just when my resolve did. Venerable Chang Wu gave me something to reach for when she told me that during seven-day retreats there would be the opportunity for an interview, at which point I could ask for tips about how to handle leg pain.

More Mindful and Positive at Work

After my last retreat, when I got home, the first thing I felt was a high level of desire, a rebound of craving. This time, though, it was much more pleasant. I felt more evenness and my only concern was to slowly ease myself back into my normal life. I felt slightly more mindful and positive at work, which is by far my most challenging area.

Lure of Being Less in Thrall to This Transient Sack

Even though the retreat experience didn't involve any new, exciting, “whiz-bang” practice experiences and it took a lot of endurance, I'm still very glad I did it. I am now motivated to do a seven day retreat. The prospect that I might be able to at least endure the pain, if not live graciously with or overcome it, is tantalizing. It points to some mysterious power of Buddhism that I don't know experientially or even intellectually but for which have a healthy respect. I have a habit of obsessing over and pampering my body to the degree that I can, but the lure of being less in thrall to this transient sack of skin is quite attractive.

More Question than Answers

I think it's a good thing to come out of a retreat with more questions than answers, at least for a beginner like me.

I'd like to thank Rebecca especially for her translation, and all the volunteers, monastics, and participants. I look forward to seeing you all again.

By Merle Langlois

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