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Published: August 10th 2018
Around Vimaladhatu I
View into the valley.
In late July I went on a two-week Satipatthana retreat with my friend Christiane. The retreat was intended to explore the Satipatthana Sutta, a text describing the foundations of mindfulness. I guess most of my readers have heard of mindfulness before: it refers to non-judgementally drawing one’s attention to the experience as it arises and being present in the moment. We can be mindful in whatever we are doing, be it talking to another person, doing the dishes, or writing an email. According to the sutta, mindfulness can be the direct path to enlightenment, or the termination of all suffering. Thus, the mental capacity of mindfulness plays a key role in Buddhist practice. It is always available, but must be cultivated systematically, and for this the Satipatthana Sutta gives instructions.
According to the sutta, the four foundations of mindfulness are the body, feelings, consciousness, and mental objects. I won’t go into too more detail here. For those of you who want to learn more there is an article on Wikipedia
and an excellent website, Access to Insight
, where there is an introduction to the sutta, an English translation of the sutta itself, and extensive description and interpretation of its meaning and the
Around Vimaladhatu II
View into the valley.
practice of Satipatthana. I will just give a few examples. When contemplating the body, one usually starts with observing the breath because the breath is always there and can be an interesting enough object to keep the mind focused for a bit. When contemplating feelings, one observes how pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral feelings occur and fade away. When contemplating on consciousness or the mind (“citta” in Pali, which translates into “heart-mind”; Buddhists don’t see heart and mind as separate entities) one looks at various mental states; this can, for example, be emotions like hatred, or simply whether our mind is currently narrow or wide. Finally, mental objects one can contemplate on are, amongst many others, the Five Hindrances, five mental states that can make meditation very difficult: sensory desire, ill-will, sloth and torpor, unrest and anxiety, and doubt. As stated before, this is just an extremely brief outline to give you an idea what I am talking about.
The retreat took place in Vimaladhatu, a retreat centre in the region of Sauerland in Germany. It was led by wonderful Prasadavati, a member of Triratna Buddhist Order and experienced meditation and dharma teacher. She is amazing at explaining the dharma
Around Vimaladhatu III
View towards the village of Altenhellefeld.
and combining her talks with exercises in which one can put into practice right away what she just taught. Apart from me, there were 26 other participants plus the team of three that supported Prasadavati. Our days followed the routine that we usually have on these kinds of retreats: wake-up bell at 6:30 am, meditation from 7 to 9 am, breakfast at 9:15 am, input and practice from 10:30 am to noon, followed by an hour of bodywork, lunch at 1 pm, another input and practice session at 4:30 pm, dinner at 6:30 pm, and an evening ritual at 8 pm. During the input sessions we went through the sutta step by step, with Prasadavati explaining its content and meaning, always offering us a practice session right afterwards. This was often a guided meditation, but it could also be something else.
She highly recommended trying out different meditation poses. I was used to meditating while sitting or walking, but I experienced that lying down while meditating can be very relieving when the body gets a bit sore after a lot of sitting; and that standing up while meditating can help when one is very tired. With respect to bodyworks
Around Vimaladhatu IV
Everything is subject to constant change. Like the weather.
we could choose what to do. This could be yoga or going for a walk, for example. But there was also the opportunity of participating in Chi Gong classes that Drdhadevi, another member of Triratna Buddhist Order, offered. I had never tried Chi Gong before, and I have to say that I found it very helpful. I don’t like yoga, but the Chin Gong practice in combination with the regular walking meditation that we conducted made me completely overcome some pain in my back that was still left from the previous year.
What I really enjoyed were mindful walks into the forest surrounding the retreat centre. Ideally one always chooses the same route for these mindful walks so that the mind is not too distracted or too much seeking for new experiences, and then one can observe how things change from walk to walk. And it is a great way of experimenting with the mind. For example, I experienced what I knew from research: thoughts are narrow when one is in a negative mood, and there are wider associations when one is in a positive mood. It was also fun to observe how things become interesting when one starts
A painting by Aloka depicting Buddha Shakyamuni.
observing them. For example, when watching a bumblebee fly from flower to flower, will it fly to one flower twice or not? Is there a certain system? How many flowers will it fly to before moving to another spot? How heavy might the pollen on their legs be? In doing so I could also see how we start deriving hypotheses right away, how we try to find causes for what is happening, and, based on them, predict what will happen. And how associations come up, how one thought triggers the next, and so on.
It was great to be able to share some of these impressions and ideas with Prasadavati. Several times during the retreat, all the participants had short (10 minute) interviews with someone from the team to share their experiences and to receive some guidance. Prasadavati always gave me the impression of really listening and understanding what was on my mind, and then giving just the right impulse for new approaches and exercises.
We spent ten of the 14 days in silence, which was another great and helpful thing. I love periods of silence, and they again and again show me how many of the things
Buddha of Wisdom
we talk about are useless chatter. I also refrained from reading, and it was good because we usually clutter our mind with way too much information. Being in silence with the others was also very special. Although we did not talk to each other, there was deep connection between all of us, and maybe it was even more intense because of being in silence together.
I got back home with so many experiences, and everyday life offers us so many varied opportunities to practice mindfulness. For example, we can have one mindful meal a day, a meal during which we don’t watch TV, listen to the radio, text other people, or talk; when we just enjoy the taste and consistency of the food we are eating, the way it looks and smells. Or we can do one mindful walk a day, for example on the walk to the train or bus. During conversations we can try to just listen, to be present, not be distracted from the other person and what they are saying, notice the feelings and thoughts that arise in response to what the other person is saying. And so on. The opportunities for practice are all
Bodhisattva associated with deep compassion.
there, we just need to take them!
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