For a decade or so, back in the day when I practiced meditation intensively, I attended a good deal of silent meditation retreats each year in the Theravadan Buddhist tradition. Some were ten day long retreats, some fifteen days, some thirty days. At this time, I, along with other participants would take a vow of ‘Noble Silence’ for the duration of a retreat. Silence of body, speech, and mind. The idea was to eliminate distractions in order to silence the mind whilst sharpening awareness, concentration and insight. Sometimes, in the long solitary silence, a day felt like a lifetime- twelve hours of meditation a day, sitting, walking, sitting, walking. The encouragement was to sustain mindfulness not only during formal meditation practice, but in between, while getting up, turning a door handle, swallowing a mouthful of water, lifting a fork. Sustaining mindfulness during a whole day is easier said than done. Needless to say, these retreats were hard work (for me). Interestingly, one of the teachings I often grappled with was ‘Right Effort’ (in Pali: samma vayamo) not striving so hard that you turned yourself into a tangled knot of tension and not putting in such little effort that you fell asleep. Striking that balance was a meditator’s saving grace, being there with the arising phenomena, being there with the cessation of phenomena, just enough to flow with the way things are, no matter if pleasant or unpleasant. If those experiences were painful being with pain, if they were blissful, being with bliss, if they were bland, being with bland. Not getting in the way, not trying to change the experience, but simply witnessing the changing characteristics of phenomena.
Fast forward to right here, right now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, I would do well to take a leaf out of my meditation retreat days and apply some of that wisdom to my current challenges. I keep thinking that if I was living on my own I would take this opportunity to do a self-retreat. Many of my meditation teachers used to talk about their experience of doing self-retreats- which they would set up for themselves in their own homes. Who knows whether in reality I would actually do a self-retreat, or whether I would opt to read books, eat chocolate, and watch Netflix. Regardless, right now, I do not have the option for a self-retreat even if I was disciplined enough to do one. Instead, I am one of the millions of parents around the world home-schooling their children. I should feel grateful. I am not sick, no one I know or love is sick, I am not living in a slum where I can’t exercise social-distancing, I am not homeless, I am living in Australia which is not one of the worst hit countries, I am living compared to global standards, in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, with some of the best health care available, objectively speaking I am decidedly one of the lucky ones. Do I feel this? No. I feel like an animal in a cage. Let us look at this statement more closely, which curiously, I keep broadcasting to friends and family. An animal in a cage, as my eleven year old would say, is a figure of speech. So, if being an animal in a cage is not a literal experience, it must be an internal, subjective experience. For me right now it is another way of saying ‘I am frustrated’. The right question to ask (I know that much) is not ‘why’. Why questions take us down impossible paths with impossible endings. Better questions to ask are how, when, where and with whom? And there you have it, my frustration is at its worse when I am teaching my eleven year old daughter mathematics and it is at its best when I am doing the grocery shopping. There are a multitude of factors for this, but the main one is that, unlike the silent meditation retreats which I used to attend in my twenties, or the self-retreats I currently fantasise over, I am not alone. Ever. Instead, due to the close proximity of self-isolation, I am embedded in a (slightly more intense than usual) emotional process with my immediate family- which currently plays out most sharply with my eleven year old daughter when I teach her mathematics. This is in part because I do not know how to teach mathematics, in part because she hates mathematics and would rather be doing anything else, in part because I do not like teaching her mathematics especially when she is playing with her hair or her hands, or doesn’t understand the concept I have just spent the last ten minutes explaining, or for any combination of these reasons to which I react ‘as if I am an animal in a cage’ (i.e. I am experiencing frustration which I am finding unpleasant and instead of ‘being there’ with the arising phenomena, ‘being there’ with the cessation of phenomena, no matter if pleasant or unpleasant, I am instead asking my daughter to ‘start understanding the math I am teaching her -ineptly- so I can stop feeling my frustration, please!)’. It might be clear by now that at no point during this sequence of interaction between my daughter and I, have I applied any wisdom from any past meditation retreat I have ever attended. I am simply reacting and not paying attention. I am trying to coerce my environment to change so that I do not need to do the work of self-regulation. Of course, the conditions are more challenging. Or are they? Sometimes during a meditation retreat, I would also feel like an animal in a cage. The animal was my unpleasant experience, the cage was my reaction to that unpleasant experience. Different conditions, similar experience. The conditions may vary- I am in a silent meditation retreat without any distractions, I am confronted with my internal process without using distraction to regulate the unpleasant experience. Or, I am teaching my eleven year old daughter math, I am confronted with my frustration and pressure her to change so I can regulate the unpleasant experience.
One of the teachings that was most difficult to integrate after my silent meditation retreats was how to apply what I had learned to my daily life. There was little point, my teachers would argue, practicing long hours of formal meditation if in the end we could not walk the talk in our day to day interactions with important people in our lives. As Jack Kornfield wrote, after the ecstasy, the laundry. Let’s face it, I am currently in the laundry. The thicket of family life. An enforced togetherness. While my automatic tendency is to self-regulate by having alone time, time away from family, to re-charge and come back refreshed, there is no such space to do this now. In the pressure cooker of nuclear-family-isolation I need to pause and remember how to apply mindfulness in vivo- in the interactions with important people in my life- which may not always be easy or pleasant. This clearly is the ‘work’, because, like it or not, wherever I go, there I am. May it be fruitful.