Three takeaway lessons from participating in the Southern Insight meditation retreat

This year in February, I participated in my first meditation retreat with the Southern Insight Meditation at a place named Staveley camp. Staveley camp is nested within Mount Somers area in the South Island of New Zealand.

Map of Staveley Camp

This was a silent insight meditation retreat and the participants had to abide by the following rules:

  • Everyone must maintain silence for the duration of the retreat (there were some periods of exception, when speaking with the meditation instructors at designated times)
  • The silence would mean that we were not allowed to speak even during the times when we were back at our cabins for rest; we were not allowed to use cell phones (at all times), we were not allowed to read anything, nor were we allowed to write notes (for example, no journalling).
  • We had guided and unguided sitting meditations, standing meditations, and walking meditations. These were rotated throughout the day.
  • Some days we had meeting with the instructors to discuss our progress and issues we faced while meditating. These were the only times we were allowed to speak. Even then, when we were in a group, we were instructed to listen to other people rather than interjecting or speaking out of turn. This would mean that a person would normally have only one turn to express his or her ideas.
  • Each of us was assigned a duty that had to be done. For example, my duty was to clean the dining space after breakfast. Work was done as teamwork; the team communicated using scraps of paper on which messages were passed and pasted on a notice board with people’s names on it.
  • We were allowed three catered meals a day: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The dinner was served at 5:30 PM; after 5:30 PM, we were allowed only hot drinks, no solid food (you would not eat food and store food in your cabin)
  • The day started with meditation or physical exercise (simple calisthenics) to loosen the joints and get going. The weather was good throughout the retreat period so it was fun going outside in the early morning hours for the exercise. One day it was raining in the morning and we had exercise in the meditation hall.

I have three take-away lessons from the camp, these changed my life.

  1. I have unlearned how to walk, and I have relearned how to walk, and that has made a difference. — In the walking meditation instructions, the instructor guided us to walk at a pace where we would feel the sensations on our feet while we stood, then how we lifted one foot (and which foot), shifted our weight to the other foot, then moved the foot across in an evenly paced motion, dropped the foot on ground in front, shifted the weight evenly on both feet, the shifted the weight to the forward foot, lifted the back foot, moved across, dropped. This cycle of moving the feet as we walked paying close attention to the muscle tones, the sensations on our feet or beneath our soles, the balance forced us to slow down our pace of walk. The instructions were to walk a short distance and then turn back. I did this practice a few times, and then started pacing the compound whenever I could. After ten tries, I realised that even during my regular paced walking, I became aware of my feet, the pressure on my soles, the movement of my limbs, and the process of my walking across. As a result, I slowed down in my walk, and started walking differently that I walked before I joined the retreat. I walk slowly now, but paying attention to the process of walking. Walking is pleasure now, rather than a “means” to go anywhere.
  2. I sleep differently. — The first day, when I realised that I’d have to be silent for the duration of the retreat, I was not sure how to react or what to do. A lot of ideas came crowding in my head as I went to bed that night. The chatter in the head was driving me crazy, as I never noticed them before. Then, with repeated bouts of meditations throughout the day, starting second day, I focused on my breathing as I went to bed. I focused my breathing on exactly at my nostrils, and felt the breathing as I lied down and closed my eyes. The chatter went away after a while. Every now and then, the chatter would resurface on mind, and then I would observe the chatter and then “gently” coming back to my breathing. This worked in the retreat to help me get to sleep; this has worked since I returned from the retreat. The sleep patterns have changed and when I wake up in the morning, I know that I have had a good night’s sleep. I was never a ‘morning person’, but since return from the retreat, I can see I get up early in the morning refreshed.
  3. I have stopped reacting. — I have ranked this at point 3, but I’d say this is perhaps the most interesting observation. In the retreat, I underwent a continuous process of paying attention to my breath, my bodily sensations, my feelings. I learned to check what was my state of mind. Did I feel pleasant feelings, unpleasant feelings, or did I not feel anything? If I was bored, could I probe? Could I look into the boring feelings? Running this process continuously whether I sat down, I stood, I walked, I ate, or whatever I did on the retreat campus made me take a different look at life. After a while, I learned to view things “as they appeared” not attaching any of my “own stories” to things I observed. For example, on the second day of the retreat, there was a windstorm, and the wind blew so hard that it dislodged a branch of a tree. I had parked my car below the tree; the branch hit the window pane of my car and cracked it. When I discovered this in the following morning, I was surprised to notice that the only thing I could manage to say (silently!) to myself at that instant was “the windscreen is cracked”. I can tell you that had that happened even a week before, I would burst out in expletives and call the insurance company to get it fixed at that instant. I did not expect this and at first I dismissed the whole thing as blunting of my reaction as a result of too much meditation. I thought this would pass, and this calmness would go away once I was back in “real life”. Back at home, I continued the meditation practice (roughly half an hour a day every day); the calmness persisted. I started noticing that there are far more challenges that I uncover every day. Colleagues are mean, I face discrimination at work, waitresses at the local Subway acted rudely with me one time when I went to buy sandwiches for me and my daughter and asked if I could have a glass of water for my daughter, I could name tens of incidents. But for each one, I find (rather amusingly now), that I cannot react. I have not “reacted”. Gradually, I start to realise that there is indeed a difference if you open up your vision to the way things are when you do not attach “a story” to them. The interesting thing about taking this relaxed look at life is that they stop to bother you within minutes of arising, and it helps as you learn to move on. You realise that your “story” does not change the fact, :-), and somehow your mind adjusts to move on. It is scary but I am adjusting to this new outlook.

I have scratched the surface here of everything else that could have happened or has happened but I do not know. I suppose a lot more could have happened, and more subtle changes may have happened to me than what I can understand. It is an ongoing process. I have learned to relax my muscles except for the ones that are engaged at any moment in the activity that I am engaged in. For example, while typing this post, I have deliberately relaxed my shoulder, feet, back, neck, except for the fingers that keep typing at the keyboard. There are few spelling errors, and when they are, I am more accepting of these errors than I have ever been. I have learned to focus on the task at hand. My tendency to multi-task is gone. I eat slowly, savouring every morsel of food. The world looks different now. A sense of passionate liking for stuff and a sense of disgust has disappeared from my life. Have I become more blunt in my feelings? I do not know, not that outwardly I am any different.




Professor @ University of Canterbury, Doctor, scholar, data scientist, Cantabrian. ENS: arinbasu.eth & mastodon instance:

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Arindam Basu

Arindam Basu

Professor @ University of Canterbury, Doctor, scholar, data scientist, Cantabrian. ENS: arinbasu.eth & mastodon instance:

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