Observance Days (written 2015)
Last spring I entered training as an Upasika, under the guidance of Ajahn Sona at Birken Forest monastery in Kamloops, BC. There are some 30 or more of us, undertaking to deepen our practice in a variety of ways. Having been devoted to ongoing study and a daily sitting practice for years, I was unprepared for the way some simple new commitments have deepened my own practice over these months. One significant discipline has been to designate one day a week as an Observance Day.
The marker of my personal Observance Days is to choose to refrain from entertainments. At first I made this into a mental exercise, worrying about what moments in my day were intended to entertain and distract me...like pausing to rub the dog or pondering what I'd like for lunch. This in itself became a distraction, a useless mental exercise that led into the entertaining world of convoluted internal argument, a mental theme park I'm all too familiar with, having been a graduate student in philosophy. But after a bumpy start, I settled on simple guidelines. In my life, entertainment mostly means books, and though many of these are related to Dhamma, I also have a love of poetry, an interest in sciences, and a passion for novels of many, many kinds. There you go then...no dipping into novels, poetry and scientific ramblings on Observance Days. And no impulsive decision to join my husband watching a movie, which I generally do once or twice a week. There are obvious addenda: I don't schedule chatty lunches or coffee with friends on those days, or go window shopping. I don't deliberately court “chat” through phone calls or e-mails to friends. And beyond that I don't worry at the details too much. The dog gets his walk and his ear scratches. I don't dash out of the room if music is being played. And I don't force myself to eat something I don't like. This is not about punishment.
The process is about noticing the innate distractability of the mind. The deep grooves of craving and of habit that mark the human mind. Before this I had experienced the boundaries of a retreat for up to several weeks at a time. And I was certainly acquainted with taking windows in each day for meditation, along with building personal ''bells” into my days that reminded me to come back to my body. But I still allowed the mind to lead me when it came to downtime, in the evenings in particular. An old habit. I didn't look at the whys or wherefores. Barely considered the impulses. I might mindfully settle with book in hand. Even take moments to reflect on the actions of characters as they related to Dhamma teachings. I generally knew when I was tired and was disciplined enough to choose sleep so as to be able to keep my early morning routine of meditation. But, because I habitually fell into a certain pattern of relaxation in the evenings, I didn't understand how the craving for diversion was working there.
It became very clear early on in the weekly Observance Day ritual. As evening approached, the attention I was able to give to the Dhamma books I was studying or the talks I was listening to, or the degree of stillness I was able to cultivate sitting was undercut by the pull of my whining monkey-mind. “I've only got a chapter left in that great novel.” “The new book of poetry looks so delicious.” “I'm too tired really. Watching a light movie would be a great way to mellow down before bed.”
These, of course, were not new thoughts. The difference was that previously, since they came on cue at a certain time in the day, I didn't hear them at all. Like my dog who goes to sit in his kennel at 5:20 knowing dinner will be served soon, my mind hit pause. No more pondering, no more concentrating, no more “work”. It's time for something mind-less.
As a good Dhamma friend says, I've been “teaching the mind who's boss” on Observance Days. I'm noticing what it's up to. Like my dog, it will wait patiently awhile, it might even whimper or bark, but then it goes to lie down with a sigh. Choosing not to do what I want has the indescribable taste of freedom.