I have picked up books on Buddhism over the years, starting with Alan Watt’s “The Way of Zen.” I was in my early twenties when I bought that, living as a student in Paris, haunting “Shakespeare and Company” across from Notre Dame. It was a wonderful, quixotic bookstore, the kind of place where serendipitous connections could come about just by turning a corner or letting your eyes shift from one shelf to another. It was a privilege to have met George Whitman and roamed Paris when it was beautiful but also affordable. I remember being attracted to the tenets of Buddhism, which spoke to me in a way that Christianity did not.

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That interest led to a bookshelf laden with texts and the beginning of a dabbling interest in meditation, but no further. Until this last weekend. At various times in my life I have chosen to sit in on meditation courses in diverse places. The first happened while we were living in Hong Kong, some sixteen years ago. I met someone who was a regular practitioner and he agreed to start a small group that met one evening a week over the course of six or eight weeks. He always asked for feedback after each session and I remember being stunned to learn that one of my fellow meditators had used the entire time to plan a menu for a dinner party. She was completely unapologetic about it; she had a busy life and to her this seemed a good use of the time she had carved out for “practice.”

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I finally decided that I wanted regular meditation in my life about a year and a half ago. I used a kitchen timer to start with, but I discovered a wonderful Ap called the Insight Timer. It has a selection of bells that you can use to help establish a regular practice. You can keep a journal, connect with others around the world and it automatically keeps stats. I have meditated 661 times for a total of 328 hours since I started using my IPod as a timer. I’m not interested in stats, but I love the sound of the bell at the end of a meditation.

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Over the long weekend that ended on November 5th with the the “race that stops the nation-” the Melbourne Cup, I attended a silent meditation retreat in the foothills of the Dandenongs. It was led by Jaya Ashmore, a compatriot who seems to be as peripatetic as I am. Check out the website at opendharma.org where you can hear and see her yourself.

Two dozen participants arrived and settled in, filling out a simple form, meeting the welcoming “managers,” Mitra and Anton, and Jaya if we were newcomers. We chose or were assigned chores, then unloaded our packs in the dormitory area. The retreat began to take shape when the schedule was posted and we all dropped into silence. It is odd, but not discomforting to go without words. Much of our communication is nonverbal anyway. Silence eliminates pretence and posturing, self-justification and meaningless verbal attempts to find a common ground.

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From the Open Dharma website: “To bring about a culture of awakening, we offer teachings on a donation basis and rely on volunteer staff. Breaking the mold of meditation as a competitive sitting practice, we encourage people to try lying down for meditation and to play with meditative singing while in silence. Rather than promoting short-lived spiritual fireworks, we cultivate long-term friendships. We also continually experiment with different formats for teachings and retreats with the aim of bringing love and wisdom into “real” life.”

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Below is a typical schedule, but that does not really begin to convey what happened, or more importantly, didn’t happen, what dropped away.

06:00 wake up

06:30 connected movement

07:15 rest

07:30 meditation in the hall

08:15 breakfast

09:15 meditation in action (duties)

10:00 rest

10:15 meditation in the hall with instructions

11:15 walking meditation (and some group interviews)

12:00 meditation in the hall (and some group interviews)

12:45 lunch and rest

15:45 meditation in the hall (sometimes guided)

16:30 walking meditation

17:15 teachings

18:15 walking meditation

19:00 light supper

20:00 meditation in the hall

20:30 optional meditative singing

21:00 rest or further individual practice

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The group was diverse, but drew heavily from a younger, female population. Most of the women seemed to have acquired at least some of their clothes in India or an Indian shop. It struck me as odd that we make every attempt to fit in, no matter what the context. The clothing was colourful and shape shifting. Everyone had a knit cap, which proved useful on the colder mornings. Going naked would have removed the last vestige of convention and freed us from our tendency to hide in our clothes. Buddhist Nudists. It has a ring to it, don’t you think?

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In addition to the hours of meditation, there were inspiring talks, healthy, wholesome meals, chants and what Jaya calls “connected movement,” which I found absolutely fascinating. Who knows what your skeleton can do until your close your eyes and find out. There was the music of the birds and the long, slow climb up to the clearing, the rich poetry of Wendell Berry. There was ample opportunity to rest and open up, connect and see, perhaps for the first time, some of the residual pain within that has left scars on the emotional core, kept us trapped in a carapace like Kafka’s cockroach. There was the promise of healing.

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When you are chanting along in Sanskrit and you learn that the words can be translated as– He who has a vagina can give birth to himself, you can’t help but smile.

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