Sister Shalom, a short woman clad in Buddhist robes and headdress, is standing silently in front of a candle as we walk into her garden on this dark night and take our places across from her. Her bright eyes and mouth are only the surface expression of her smile, which seems to emanate from her entire being. She is not traditionally a pretty woman; and yet she is beautiful.
Welcome to Wednesday night meditation with Sister Shalom.
Once we have stood in silence for a few minutes to bring our attention to the present moment and discard whatever nervous energy we were carrying with us, Sister Shalom turns to a large bell that is hanging from the branch of the tree behind her. She slowly and methodically extracts a wooden stick from the crook of the tree, and noiselessly brings the stick to the side of the bell.
She rings the bell a few times, letting each gong reverberate as if it is a song unto itself. Then, she starts to sing with the bell:
Listen to the bell, it has no words
Listen to the bell, it has no song
Listen to the bell, I realize
That bell is me
Listen to the moon, she has no words
Listen to the moon, she has no song
Listen to the moon, I realize
That moon is me
Listen to the night, it has no words
Listen to the night, it has no song
Listen to the night, I realize
The night is me
Listen to the bell…
…and with that, she allows the bell to echo into the silence of the night. We are left to hear the sounds of “silence”: the owls, birds, possums, and gentle breeze wafting through the ferns and trees, under the almost-full moon.
Although sometimes Sister Shalom opens the meditation with some words of inspiration or instruction, tonight she simply says “Tonight is just too beautiful for words. Enjoy your walking and sitting meditation”.
And with that, she turns gradually and starts the walking meditation. We walk slowly and evenly in single file, following Sister Shalom as she walks through the garden in the moonlight. We pause at a pond full of lily pads and reeds, and contemplate the view as we turn towards the moon and listen to the frogs. After a minute or two, we continue the walk, contemplating each step we take, intentionally and reverently.
After about twenty minutes, she leads us up to Dharma Gaia, her “centre for mindfulness” that is just down the road from Mana Retreat. She takes off her shoes outside and enters the warm meditation room, bowing to her altar with a small statue of Buddha, surrounded by tiers of candles and flowers.
We silently take our places on red rectangular cushions with circular cushions for sitting cross-legged on. I do my best to get comfortable and settle in for the next 45 minutes, as sitting on the floor without losing all the feeling in both my legs is not my forte. I wrap my pashmina around my shoulders and let the ends fall over my hands for both comfort and warmth.
We are a small group of only six people tonight, and as some people shift to get comfortable, others are already sitting still with eyes closed. Tonight, my “monkey-mind” is racing, and instead of closing my eyes, I regard the situation with observational curiosity. I watch Sister Shalom as she methodically sets herself up on her meditation cushion, moving her long full robes aside to situate herself in such a way that is appears that she was meant to sit there forever. She takes off her headdress to reveal her cleanly-shaven head – an initially startling sight, but not – at all – an ugly one. In fact, it adds to her beauty.
She continues to look down (perhaps inward) as she puts her singing bowl on a cushion in front of her and with a small wooden stick, rings it three times. As with the other bell, she allows each peal to reverberate for its full song before ringing it again. Then she slowly puts the wooden stick down and begins her own meditation, resting her hands on her knees.
During my time at Mana Retreat, I’ve worked hard at the art of meditation. As a perk of WWOOFing at Mana, we are sometimes invited to join in the workshops and retreat activities of various groups, and shortly after my arrival, I enjoyed participating in some meditation sessions offered by a four-day silent retreat while I wasn’t working.
I have a love-hate relationship with meditation, as I suspect many people do. It’s an ever-changing practice, and even those accomplished in the art of meditation can fall prey to a session that is rife with playful inner voices (I call it my “monkey mind”) that distract us from the task at hand, which is to simply be present and silent – in every sense.
I know when I’m truly present in meditation, because I think of nothing, feel relaxed, and my body even responds with a tingling sensation that starts at my head and trickles like a waterfall to my toes. I don’t feel fidgety, my neck and back doesn’t hurt (as they usually do) and even my legs don’t fall asleep.
And as soon as I realize I’m thinking of nothing and congratulate myself for doing it, the moment is gone – because I’m thinking again! This is what makes meditation difficult – it defies the mind, because you can’t “think” yourself into a state of meditation…as long as you are actively thinking, you aren’t fully present in the moment. You simply have to shut down the inner voice, and relax into the present moment.
We spend our lives anticipating things, or reflecting on things. We are rehearsing a future conversation, figuring out how tomorrow will work, worrying about something, or dreaming of things we want or hope to have. Or we are replaying and analyzing a previous conversation, wondering what things would be like if we had done something differently, or trying to learn from our past.
While both anticipation of the future and reflection of the past are good, if we don’t know where we are right now, then anticipation and reflection are futile exercises.
I’m reminded of a story that the facilitator of the silent retreat at Mana told us one evening: he said he was at a silent meditation retreat in Tibet that was three weeks long. He was about halfway through and really suffering. He was bored – phenomenally bored, and wondering if he was going to last through the course. He wanted to be anywhere else but there.
So instead of trying to even more forcefully quiet his mind and thoughts, he entertained them. “If I don’t want to be here, then where do I want to be? What’s my ideal fantasy of how I want my life to look?”
“Well,” he answered inwardly, “I’d like to be surrounded by spiritual people, in a beautiful place. I’d like lots of time off to relax and contemplate things, and not to worry about work and the stuff we all tend to worry about.”
Then he opened his eyes and realized he was already there! And yet, here he was, continuing to strive towards something different, something more.
This is the human condition – to continually want something different, something more. Many of us know that the saying “the grass is always greener on the other side” isn’t actually true, but is a concept we all wrestle with nonetheless.
We can strive for fame, for wealth, for a partner/family, for happiness, for our definition of success. But when we achieve it, somehow we aren’t satisfied. We then seem to keep wanting for something more, something different. And although having goals is constructive in helping us to move through life and grow, if we aren’t ever truly satisfied with what we have, life continues to be empty and unfulfilling.
This is the art and practice of meditation (as I’ve come to understand it); to truly arrive at the present moment and appreciate it for what it is. To be here – not wanting to be somewhere else or thinking about something else. Until we have arrived, we can never go anywhere of meaning.
Even though I can conceptualize and rationalize meditation and what it means, tonight I’m still struggling. I can’t get comfortable, and the little voice in my mind won’t leave me alone. I think about silly and mundane things, and have an inner conversation with myself that borders on comical.
I’m reminded of the book Eat, Pray, Love, and the challenges the author has with her own inner voice during a meditation retreat in India. She writes about the fabulous – and hilarious – conversation she has with herself while simply trying to be quiet in the moment. For a moment I am her.
But then I’m not meditating – I’m reflecting on a book! Argh! It appears that tonight is not going to be the night of zen meditation that I had hoped it would be. Ah well; you win some, you lose some. I keep trying to simply sit with myself and quiet my thoughts for the rest of the 45 minutes, which feels more like two hours.
Eventually, I hear Sister Shalom’s robes rustling, and I open my eyes to see her reaching for the wooden stick again. She rings her singing bowl three times slowly, to bring us back to the room (from whatever wonderland we’ve been respectively visiting for the last while).
We finish the evening with a tea ceremony. Again without words, Sister Shalom slowly and mindfully picks up a tray of upside-down clay tea cups and sets it in front of her. She turns each tea cup over methodically, careful not to let them clink together and disrupt the ongoing silence. The only thing I hear is the ringing in my ears, and the occasional crackle of a candle.
She opens a thermos of tea, and pours some into each cup. The sound of the tea gurgling and splashing in each cup is almost deafening amid the silence. Then she holds prayer hands to the tray of steaming cups, picks one cup up, and passes it to the person beside her. The person receiving it holds prayer hands to the cup with a small head bow, reflecting love and compassion into the tea. They take the cup and pass it to the next person, and the next, who does the same until the tea arrives to the other side of our u-shaped gathering. This process is repeated with the tea until everybody is holding a cup of tea for themselves that has been “blessed” around the circle.
Then we sit in silence, and drink our tea. The sound of swallowing is almost deafening, as we sip and swallow the hot tea, which is absolutely delicious. I don’t know what kind of tea it is, but I suspect that I’ve had it before and simply never appreciated it as much as I do in this silent contemplative gathering.
I look over at Sister Shalom as she drinks her tea. She holds the cup with both hands, and before she takes a sip, she holds it to her face and inhales for a minute. I imagine her smelling the tea and feeling the hot steam on her face. Then she takes four consecutive deliberate sips before setting the tea down in front of her for a few minutes with her eyes closed, and repeating the same ritual. Even drinking tea is beautiful in the company of Sister Shalom.
One by one as we finish our tea, we carefully place our empty cups in the tray in the middle of the circle, and silently stand up to leave. Sister Shalom continues to sit cross-legged in front of her bowl, eyes closed, as we reverently bow to her altar – and to her in thanks – with prayer hands, and back out of the room. We put our shoes back on and silently make the 10 minute walk back up the drive through the forest in the moonlight, back to Mana Retreat, where we silently hug each other and go to bed for the night.
While I walk, I wonder how long Sister Shalom remains sitting, cross-legged in meditation, after we leave. But then, I realize, I’m not in the present moment, and I draw my attention back to the beautiful night, the bright moon, and the sounds of nature all around me. This – this, (for me), is the art of meditation.