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"Meditation Journey" by Kelly Knopp

I recently attended the three-day retreat at the Houston Zen Center. In the weeks prior to the retreat, I looked forward to going. I thought of the retreat as an adventure of sorts, an important opportunity to learn something about myself. One requirement was to memorize the Heart Sutra. I began studying well in advance so that I would have the Heart Sutra memorized before the retreat. It was not until a few days before leaving for Houston that I started to worry. I began wondering if I would have the proper clothing and bedding, if I knew how to bow and prostrate correctly, and if I would regret being there and want to leave before the retreat ended. I thought about being away from my family and about whether my loved ones might want to talk with me while I was at the retreat and unavailable except in an emergency. I managed to pack and get to the airport despite my last minute concerns.

Upon arrival at the airport in Houston, a volunteer from the Houston Zen Center greeted us warmly and escorted us to his car to take us to the Center. From this very first encounter with someone from the Zen Center, and throughout the retreat, it was clear that the people there have worked diligently to create an environment for the participants to be fully engaged in the retreat experience, to have everything they need, and to be free from distractions. If a participant has a concern, the people at the Zen Center have already thought of it and there is a solution readily available.

At the Zen Center, I spoke with a volunteer who led me through the simple check-in process and gave me a badge with my name and room assignment noted on it. Typically, participants are asked to recite the Heart Sutra during the check-in process.

I happened to be the first among my roommates to arrive. I wondered whether I should select one of the beds and make it up. Which bed? I stood there for just a moment before I realized that the beds were identified with a number which matched the number on my name badge. I identified my bed easily. There was no need to ask the question. Throughout the retreat, it is not necessary to consult a watch or clock to adhere to the schedule. In the morning, the sound of the wake up boards lets the participants know that it is time to get up. Later, the bells announce that it is time to get to the meditation hall. Everything is provided. All you have to do is show up.

When I returned to the room later that evening, one of my roommates had arrived. When I entered the room, her back was to me although I knew she must have heard the door open. At first I thought it was odd that she did not acknowledge my presence, but I realized later that in order to fully participate in a silent retreat, you have to stay within yourself. Even insignificant interactions or exchanges with others, such as eye contact or a small smile in greeting, draw one’s attention away from the purpose of the retreat. For me, greeting others is automatic. It is an effort to refrain from communicating with those around me. As the retreat continued, I understood that my roommate had taught me a valuable lesson. I learned that the simplest way to avoid communication with others, to allow my focus to be drawn away, was to keep my eyes averted or my back turned, and to keep my attention focused inward.

Early in the retreat, I continued to fret about whether I would be “comfortable.” The weather was unseasonably cool and I needed warmer bedding. I was concerned about the food because I have food allergies and I was worried about how to communicate my concerns. The first day of the retreat, prior to an afternoon meditation session, I heard the Abbot in his clear and precise enunciation, say, “Do not waste this precious time.” I can hear these words even today. The Abbot’s admonition penetrated the veil of my anxiety (or perhaps it was a fog created by my ego to prevent me from being fully engaged in the retreat) and I knew he was right. My needless fretting about insignificant concerns was wasting my precious time. From that point, I let go of my worries and became more fully present. I was grateful to be there and grateful for the opportunity to practice meditation in a supportive environment without distractions.

In the short three days, I began to understand the value of silence. I found that it was a relief to have a single purpose and to pursue that purpose. It seemed natural to surrender into the experience. There is an intrinsic peace in the monastery. Or perhaps the surroundings allow or even invite a serenity that is more difficult to access in other places. There is a wonderful simplicity about following the daily schedule. Everything that was necessary was provided. I did not feel the need to communicate with the world outside the Zen Center. I followed the schedule, I had everything I needed.

At times the longer periods of meditation caused my feet to be numb. I tried to resist the urge to fidget or reposition my feet and legs. At times, I did fidget and move around in an effort to be more comfortable. I worried that my movements during meditation might be distracting my companions who sat on either side of me in the meditation hall. Despite the fact that I had not met the other women in the retreat, I appreciated their presence there, sharing the experience with me. I felt a sense of solidarity with the other participants as we meditated and experienced each day in silence.

The three-day retreat was a very valuable and precious opportunity to be in silence and to practice meditation. I have a new awareness of the superfluousness of conversation and a greater understanding of the value of silence. During the retreat and since then, I have experienced the Heart Sutra as a source of guidance and inspiration. Prior to the retreat, I had been meditating regularly for 17 months, but the retreat provided a foundation for my meditation that I did not previously have. I have developed a greater understanding of meditation, more patience for the ebb and flow of my daily meditation practice, and a more clear perception of each meditation experience. I recognize that I have barely begun the meditation journey; the three-day retreat gave me a small vision of the road ahead and I am very grateful to have been a participant.



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