I chose to begin the solo without any specific plan about how to practice - no schedule, no particular commitment to one style of meditation, bowing, or chanting. The only thing I was sure I wanted to do was to chant "metta." Metta is typically translated as "loving kindness," and chanting metta has been my daily practice for 12 years. The chant of metta is an intention for all beings to be well, happy, free from suffering, and to realize spiritual fulfillment. It is based in the Buddha's teachings on the four sublime abidings or "brahmaviharas," together with compassion, altruistic joy, and equanimity.
There is much that could be said about the practices of metta and of solo retreat but, for now, I just want to say that each of the three weeks had its flavor. I was a bit surprised at the flavors that I experienced, even after many, many years of practice. The first week had the flavor of remorse. I had feelings of remorse about big things, about small things, about things I had done or said, or things others had done or said that I had been powerless to stop. I sat, and walked, stood still, and lied down with remorse sprinkled throughout the days. However, I was also chanting metta, for myself, for those I had harmed, for those who caused harm, and for my family, students, teachers, and all beings. I chanted and chanted, knowing that this positive intention for the well-being of others and for my own well-being has helped me to cultivate compassion and loving kindness in all the other parts of my life. Slowly the remorse subsided, and I felt much happier.
Then the second week was about the body. In very noticeable ways, my body began to feel more in tune with the forest. I could smell the pines, hear more birds and deer, sense the changes in the air. And I could relax. I was literally standing up straighter, and feeling the small muscles of my face get full and soft. Even though I was sitting many hours each day, I no longer had the pain in my right hip that I had been experiencing for years. All of this also meant that I felt happier and found joy, during times I was sitting and during the other times of the day. The body was finding its own wisdom.
The third week arrived. By then I was feeling comfortable with having no particular rhythm to the days. I would sit as I felt ready, and do walking meditation at other times. Yet I began to notice a pronounced inclination to meditation on the breath entering the body at the nostril, using it as an anchor for concentration. Though I had occasionally had this feeling in the facial area before, I had not made the connection that it preceded the deeper concentration until that moment. The mind inclined itself deeper and deeper into this concentration, experiencing things never felt before.
All of that was fascinating and brought up lots of new areas of investigation for me, but the most important part came a few weeks after the solo retreat ended. One of the other nuns gave me the reference number of a sutta (teaching by the historical Buddha) about one type of dependent origination that can lead to liberation. This was in response to some exploration we were doing in the morning readings. Looking up the sutta, I was deeply moved to find that the 11 steps that the Buddha describes begin this way...
"For a person endowed with virtue, consummate in virtue, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May freedom from remorse arise in me.’ It is in the nature of things that freedom from remorse arises in a person endowed with virtue, consummate in virtue.
“For a person free from remorse, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May joy arise in me.’ It is in the nature of things that joy arises in a person free from remorse.
“For a joyful person, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May rapture arise in me.’ It is in the nature of things that rapture arises in a joyful person.
“For a rapturous person, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May my body be serene.’ It is in the nature of things that a rapturous person grows serene in body.
“For a person serene in body, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May I experience pleasure.’ It is in the nature of things that a person serene in body experiences pleasure.
“For a person experiencing pleasure, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May my mind grow concentrated.’ It is in the nature of things that the mind of a person experiencing pleasure grows concentrated...." AN11.2
Now, I am not claiming that I have consummate virtue, or that I am half way to complete liberation, or even that I have fully plumbed the depths of this sutta. Still I found this very encouraging. It deepens my confidence in the path of practice that I am following when I can relate my experience directly to teachings that describe a path to freedom. For me, acknowledgment of the gradual nature of a path that leads to sudden moments of life-changing clarity and peace is most realistic.
Though there are others, this description of the path starts with virtue, a vast topic that the Buddha described in various ways. However, for monastics he was very clear about prescribing certain practices that he saw as virtuous, especially forgoing all sexual activity, maintaining frugality about eating and material belongings, and humility. In my view, this doesn't mean that some other path might not be better for someone else, or even for me at some point in the future. However, for my body and mind of this time and place, this practice is extremely supportive and skillful.