The Mindful Return from Retreating at Nottingham

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The English countryside is so quaintly romantic. Right now I’m checking out little brick houses against a backdrop of greens hills while I roll by in train carriage F. The truth is, I am not a Buddhist. I like the idea of mindfulness, I’m actually (shocker) pretty good at being silent, and making healthy choices and being nice to other beings is definitely within a realm I would call reasonable.

I just spent the weekend at Tich Naht Han’s mindfulness retreat at the University of Nottingham, gettin down wit Thay and the Plum Village monks and nuns. But seriously, I learned how to beat box; we got down. It was pretty cool. Still, I’m not Buddhist.

I’m going to have to write and think more about this later, but for now, I will leave you with a short scene.

Apparently part of being mindful means that you need to do everything really slowly and think about it really hard. It’s challenging, to say the least. And for successful practitioners it’s supposed to be quite rewarding. At mealtimes, this practice translates into lethargically filling your plate and then sitting with about ten other people at a table – where sometimes you smile a little bit at each other, but mostly you try not to make eye contact because you’re not really supposed to talk and you can only smile at someone so long before it starts to get a little weird. Once you’re seated, you wait for the table to fill, and then read the Five Contemplations aloud, at which point you begin to eat, focusing particular attention on trying to chew each bit of vegan food thirty times. Think soup if you’re struggling to conjure an appropriately iconic vegan food.

Of course, the room is filled with people at various levels of comfort with the practice of mindfulness. Some, like me, didn’t really know what it was five minutes before entering the cafeteria, and others have been waiting for years to see Thay in person and to practice in his presence. Still, it’s a little awkward all the way around, because you just have to negotiate queues and chairs and empty containers without actually doing anything but smiling and maybe, if you’re not too sure it’s rude, pointing.

The monks and nuns, I should point out, are almost always smiling gently – probably because they’ve achieved nirvana and life is funnier after that.

But my favorite eating moment during the retreat came when I was chewing dutifully, thinking hard about my lettuce and whether I was managing to stifle its crunchiness, and I looked up, scanning my eyes across the room at the other munching faces. Everyone was gazing intently at their food or straight ahead. Their mouths were moving in a rhythm of chewing monotony and I realized, this was a zombie apocalypse. This was the perfect zombie army, fillings up before the next attack on all humanity.

Or… It was the version of the zombie apocalypse in which everyone has died without visible wounds and having risen from the dead, their lack of bloody reminders has made them vegan and collectively calm.

Anyway, I thought about that and tried hard not to laugh.

Laughing is not mindful.

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10 responses »

  1. omg the urge to laugh during meditation/prayer/solemn sorts of scenarios is the WORST. one time my roommate and I were at Drepung Loseling monastery for a meditation session and this older woman behind us started snoring really loud and after we made eye contact, all hope was lost. I had a stitch in my side from mostly containing my laughter afterwards.

    • Hahahahahaha….old people snoring is the funniest. And ESPECIALLY during a meditation. Fantastic. And it is absolutely the worst. I’m glad I can say at least that the situation wouldn’t have been totally horrifying if I had laughed, but relatively embarrassing for sure. Plus, I didn’t really know anyone there, so I wouldn’t have even had a friend to laugh with 😦

  2. I don’t think I could keep a straight face, daft thoughts would start popping into my head. It kind of puts me in mind of something my Gran might have said along the lines of “I’d be smiling as well if I got to sit around all day doing nothing claiming it is thinking. Some people have to work… ” – Although I guess she she got to sit around once she gave up work, well that and Knit, and cook.

    • Oh I can tell I would like your Gran. That’s pretty funny. I mean, I had some pretty ridiculous thoughts besides the one about zombies, but I also thought it was pretty interesting overall. Fortunately for me, a lot of Buddhists seem to have a pretty darn good sense of humor about it.

    • Hahaha! I’m so glad it hit you that way. I did think it was pretty hilarious, myself, and in the moment that wasn’t so helpful, but joy is good, even if sometimes inappropriately timed, right?

  3. …and the scene described is why I have no interest in doing anything similar! Well, maybe if I found myself paralysed and had to figure out more fun things to do with my brain…nah, probably not even then…

    • Oh well — it can’t be for everyone. Lol. I may not have given mindfulness enough credit here. Watch for a follow up post that will give a better sense of the positive aspects. You know, just for the sake of being even-keeled, right?

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