Part ONE of THREE Part Extended Blog Post
I believe it was somewhere around when I was walking back to my sleeping quarters of a one-person standalone cabin/shack in the complete and total darkness of the hills of West Virginia, in the type of darkness that can only really be experienced and can’t be described; that I thought to myself, ‘I might be in over my head on this one…’
I will say that my three days of silence spent at the beautifully serene Bhavana Society lived up to everything I expected, in that I had no idea what to expect.
We can read all we want academically about what certain experiences in life are like, whether it be sky-diving, skiing, playing guitar or in this case spending three days of silence in the woods with a group of trained Buddhist Monks. But until we physically experience them, and live them out ourselves, these experiences can only be expressed in words and in language. And sadly language fails to fully describe the richness of these experiences, and any attempt to do so is ultimately always doomed to fall short.
That said, I’ll do the best I can to describe my personal experience. Again, I reiterate, this was my personal experience viewed through the lens of life that I like to call ‘James’. You’re experience would be different. But as Bhante J advised me at the end of the retreat during an informal one-on-one talk reviewing the retreat, rarely does our intuition lead us the wrong way in life. If you feel this is something you need to do for yourself, then I encourage you and support you to take the steps needed to do this as well.
DAY ONE: GETTING THERE / VOWS / WHAT HAVE I DONE / OH GOD… SPIDERS
A little quick background on where exactly the Bhavana Society is for those who may or may not be aware of the logistics of getting to the monastery. The monastery is next to High Hill, West Virginia which is essentially where Virgiana, Maryland and West Virginia all come together.
Another way to describe where is the Bhavana Society is at, is to describe a part of the county in which Spirit smart phones don’t have coverage (no sir, I cannot in fact ‘hear you now’) and where man made light and noises are the exception, not the rule. As a guy who used to live in an apartment in the heart of downtown Indianapolis, trust me, there’s a bit of a difference.
Upon arrival the registration process was smooth and friendly. Looking around the monastery’s campus I’m surrounded by tall trees of every shape and color, the leaves have just begun to change their color here.
In the retreat guidelines it’s not made clear whether coffee is readily available or not. This clearly is not an option for a caffeine addict like myself. I’ve brought backup. A jar of surprisingly tasty Kroger instant coffee (don’t judge me). I ask whether it will be permissible during our retreat to consume said instant coffee. To which a shaved head white monk who I haven’t been introduced to yet with a gruff New Jersey accent replies in a stern voice, ‘YES. But no cream and no sugar.’
Without any hesitation I instantly reply ‘ya, that’s works’. The monk laughs and breaks into a warm and welcoming smile that I would get to know well over the next three days. Leans over to one of the office assistants and jokingly says ‘Wow, this guy is eager!’ He then turns to me and with a gentle smile clarifies ‘Don’t worry we have plenty of coffee, sugar and cream here. We have a full coffee bar in the Sangha Room’. It might not be a Starbucks, but the coffee bar at the Bhavana Society gets four stars in my book. Many thanks to the gentlemen who helped keep the coffee bar cleaned and fully stocked during our entire stay. Due to the silent nature of the retreat I was never able to fully express that to him while we were there.
After a short meet and greet hour with the other thirty or so retreat participants, and a basic tour of the meditation hall, we’re provided an outline of the requests for personal conduct while on the monastery grounds.
First rule of silent Buddhist meditative retreats… Respect ‘Noble Silence’. You… don’t… talk… during… Noble Silence.
Second rule of silent Buddhist meditative retreats… Respect ‘Noble Silence’. You… don’t… talk… during… Noble Silence.
Outside of that, as outlined on their website, they do request participants to follow the eight precepts of Buddhism while on the grounds.
- Abstain from killing: All meals will be vegetarian in nature. And don’t go actively killing any living beings on the campus grounds, including bugs and spiders. More on that second part in a moment.
- Abstain from taking what is not freely given: Don’t steal anything or take more of something than what is freely given.
- Abstain from sexual misconduct: Check!
- Abstain from false speech: Lying, gossip, and idle small talk to fill time all take away from mindfulness and all fall under this category. Hence the Noble Silence.
- Abstain from intoxicants: No worries, I left my giant bag of LSD and psychotropic drugs in my car so we’re good on this one as well.
- Abstain from eating at inappropriate times.
- Abstain from singing, dancing, playing music, wearing perfume, and using cosmetics or garlands.
- Abstain from luxurious places for sitting or sleeping, and overindulging in sleep.
The last three are specific to staying at a Buddhist monastery, and all hinder people’s attempts to maintain mindfulness during the retreat. That said, for those who may be unfamiliar with Buddhism, and come from a Christian upbringing like myself. Most of these directly overlap with the same rules that are expected of you if you were to stay at a Catholic monk monastery. You’re there for a retreat and for self-reflection. Not a vacation and a party.
Having taken the vow of silence, and vow to follow these eight precepts for the next three days, we’re silently sent back to our huts in the darkness of night.
WHAT HAVE I DONE
Up to this point, I would say it had been a ‘fun little trip’, and a lot of the things leading up to this moment had been fun exercises in what I like to refer to as ‘Hey! I wonder if I could do that!’.
I’m not sure of the exact moment, but as I’m walking in the pitch blackness of the hills of West Virginia, it’s at this point that mind starts to play a fun little game I like to call ‘Oh dear god, what have I done?’.
I say it happened at this moment because the only lifeline I have to any man made light source is a little palm sized hand powered night lamp, that conveniently has a strap just large enough to wrap around my wrist. Let me reiterate. As a city boy. Due to the height of the trees, the thick leaf coverage, lack of moon, and lack of any human made forms of light…if I lose this night lamp…I’m going to be lost in a bug invested, poison ivy filled wonderland of darkness feeling around on my hands and knees looking for my one lifeline finding my cabin for the night.
And knowing my luck, the silently invisible wolves that are clearly circling me in the darkness will finally have their chance to strike.
Courageously though. I survived the walk of darkness. Only to be greeted by the deafening silence of a well insulated shack in the woods. I’ve never experienced such silence. In fact, I’m not actually a big fan of silence. Some people say ‘silence is golden’. Silence is not golden. I love the sounds of a busy city. Some of my most beloved memories of living in downtown Indianapolis are of siting by my window on my mediation chair with the windows wide open, and listening to symphony of chaos and disorganization that is a cityscape.
Silence is not golden. In movies, things go silent in the woods immediately right before you get attacked by the monster lurking in the dark.
My mind may be playing tricks on me at this point. Still unclear.
So, sitting in my cabin in the pitch darkness. With essential a toy night light for a lamp. And left to the sound of nothing but my own swallow breathing it dawns on me…. there is literally no way out of here. Logistically, I’ve put myself into a pitch dark, void of silence…. and I can’t even go running into the night if I wanted to… because hey… that would only make things worse… cause #PoisonIvyIsLiterallyEverywhere
OH GOD… SPIDERS
Taking a few deep breaths. Refocusing my mind. Give myself a nice little pep talk of wondering, ‘is this what David Thoreau felt like at Walden’s Pond’? Well if David Thoreau can do this for a year, I can do it for four nights.
I look to my left to the humble wooden book shelf that stands beside the bedding area. I see a large can of bug spray, an oddly placed bottle of hand moisturizer, and then a sign from the universe that I’m in the right place after all. A small jar of Folder’s instant coffee that the person who stayed in this cabin before me has left for the next guest. I silent smile to myself and know that I’ll get through the night ok.
…then the spiders…
Hey, remember that part of the eight precepts where Buddhists aren’t suppose to kill any living beings. Guess who snuck in on to that list…. yep… spiders. Unicorns and leprechauns might not have made the list, but spiders did.
With my flashlight shining on my bedding area, as I’m review the personal death trap that will be my bed for the evening, I begin to channel my inner Indiana Jones quietly mumbling… “Spiders!… Why’s its always have to be SPIDERS!”.
Already an hour in, I’ve broken noble silence with myself. Thankfully no one else was around to hear me.
Screw it. I’ll survive. I’ve got a sleeping bag.
Lay down. Zip up. Zip up some more. Pull the hood down. Close hood. Go to sleep. Await to wake up at 5am the next morning to go find enlightenment….