The purpose of most Buddhist retreats is to take you deeper in ones practice, in your understanding and appreciation of it, on technical, experiential and spiritual levels. I chose Receptivity, Death & Rebirth at Padmaloka Retreat Centre because, being a person who finds regular meditation a difficult ideal to consistently meet these days, its good for me to actively partake in a meditation retreat. They act as a reminder that its not impossible, given good circumstances, for me to still be an effective meditator.
There was a strong emphasis on the Just Sitting practice, of being openly receptive to the fruits of previous practice and encourage an open flexible experience of the present moment. 'Being in the present moment' is one of those terms tossed around quite loosely within populist psycho-spirituality, sounding so matter of fact and knowingly obvious, it appears as if this must be easy to do. It is far from being so. For what exactly is the present moment anyway? How could one become aware to it, when the practice as it presents itself is almost a methodless method.
Like in most meditation practices, a beginner's initial experience of Just Sitting will be of your attention being dragged left and right in a constant flux of distractedness. You just sit with this, with whatever presents itself to your experience within any moment. Any such perception is a subjective one, you cannot be truly objective about it. Objectivity would suggest that you and the present moment are something that could be stood separate from and be impartial about. This is not really possible. The looker and what is looked at are locked in an intimate embrace. Philosphically this can lead to more abstruse questions about whether ourselves or the world out there, actually have any verifiable concrete reality at all. Whatever the theoretical view of what the present moment is. experientially it is mediated through the feeling responses, mental ideas and concepts we generate around and about it. The lover and what is loved cannot be divorced without there first being a falling out of love.
What I began exploring on the retreat was how, and to what extent, it was possible to drop the interpretive filter that experience gets passed through. Could one just sit with experience as experience and not make it 'mine' by naming, defining and describing every single sensory sensation in a running commentary? To change awareness you must take closer notice of the timbre of that awareness . The Mindfulness of Breathing practice gave the first clues on how I might adjust my approach. I've heard it said numerous times that the key in the Mindfulness of Breathing is to take a real interest in the breath as a living changeable process, and how this affects and manifests itself in the body. For the first time I abandoned my previous view that the breath was inherently uninteresting, and allowed myself to become drawn into the gentler subtleties of the breath. Concentration arrives in the Mindfulness of Breathing when the breath and the present moment become intimately aligned.
Subtle and light, like dust specks caught in strong sunlight, is suggestive of the sort of qualities required in Just Sitting. One morning halfway through the retreat we were all sat in silence in the breakfast lounge. A thought crossed my mind, 'why don't you just listen to sounds in the present moment? ' So I took in sounds, of doors opening, toast being buttered, knives cutting on plates, people eating, people sighing, tea urns steaming, wind buffering against glass, wood stoves humming etc. It turned into a beautifully wrought and intricate symphony. The present moment does have a musical quality to it; of soto voce, everything under the breath, of crescendo to pianissimo and all manner of combinations and counterpoints in between. Gradually, visual movements, my own presence at the feast, and my responses all began to weave themselves into the fabric of the present moment. It became utterly beguiling, quite delightful, if not a we bit thrilling. This experience became the guide for how in the future I might approach not only Just Sitting, but any practice, even extending it to practice in everyday life itself. Adopting an air of interest that isn't possessive of what it sees.
The content of the present moment varies, somethings are currently still, for them movement is in stasis, but the things which are in movement do so in complex, simple, gross and subtle ways.. I sat at times in the shrine room, where everywhere appeared motionless in the meditative atmosphere, yet within this were tiny gentle sounds blending into the background, or the visually insignificant passing of a shadow across a vase of flowers. Our experience of the present moment can be over focused on the central dramatic event unfolding before us. Our senses becoming closed down, numbed or indifferent to the full spectrum of what is there within one moment. When you start to open up to just sitting with the present moment, it has a quality of wonder and childlike fascination to it, as it inhabits your awareness. One is no longer just the interpreter that collects and names experiences like ticking off a list - toast check, cough check, rain check, door closing check, feeling bored check etc.
At your best one sits in the present moment taking it all in, and being aware that you are taking it all in, with little or no subsequent analysis. The long term consequnces of regularly brushing against this state, learning how it might be sustained, cannot be underestimated. Just Sittng shows great potential for insight should one wish to go there.