I never expected going on a silent meditation retreat would feel like going to war. I expected peaceful serenity. A time to be alone with my thoughts. A time to relax. A time to rest.
Today I returned from a 5-day buddhist “vipassana” meditation retreat at the absolutely breathtaking Spirit Rock Meditation Center, located an hour north of San Francisco. Vipassana is a type of mediation that focuses on mindfulness (more on that later). My experience with meditation prior to the retreat consisted of one short 20 minute introductory session at a temple in Kyoto, Japan in late 2011. That’s it.
From the moment I mentioned that I’d be going on a retreat, everyone has asked me to give a full report after. Here’s my attempt at that. Part of the experience just cannot be put into words, but I’ll do my best to paint a picture of what the last 5 days of my life have been like.
Why I Went
It may seem odd to sign up for 5 days of constant meditation after having only meditated once. And it was odd. The truth is that 2012 wasn’t a great year for me. The most important relationship of my life came to an end and dealing with the pain and grief around that consumed most of my mind for the second half of the year. This created great challenges for me in my career and I was less productive than I’ve been in a long time. Overall, I was excited for the year to end and look very optimistically at a better, happier 2013.
That said, there is still a lot I’m working through, and while speaking with a variety of people, the idea of going on a retreat came up several times. I looked into it and was delighted to not only find an amazing center just outside of my city, but also a place where a friend had gone and recommended.
I hoped the time away from normal life would give me a chance to process a lot of what happened last year, come to peace with it, and help me create a roadmap for the next phase of my life. And 5 days of thinking in silence seemed like a good method. So I signed up.
How I picked which retreat to attend
Spirit Rock offers a ton of different retreats, all different lengths with different focuses. I had talked to enough people to know that I wanted to do one that was more than 3 days, and ideally 8 days. The 8-day retreats were all full for the next few months and I really wanted to do one sooner than later, so settled on one called Essential Dharma, a 5-day retreat that was accessible to beginners and focused on the basics. Seemed like a good place to start.
A lot of people choose their retreat based on the teachers, or topic. For me it really came down to schedule, length, and availability.
Spirit Rock is absolutely gorgeous. Seated in that wonderful, indescribable northern Californian landscape that rolls on in a series of greens, browns, and blues. Just gorgeous. On the land there were tons of animals that almost lived comfortably among all the people, including wild turkeys and deer.
There were about 10 buildings on the property, including 4 residential halls, a few administrative buildings, a dining hall, and a meditation hall. Simple wooden structures embedded in beautiful hills.
There were 92 people on the retreat, plus about 10 staff, and 3 teachers (2 meditation teachers and one yoga instructor).
Computers, cell phones, cameras, and any kind of technology were not allowed unless needed for an emergency. This meant no one was walking around texting, tweeting, taking photos, or anything else that would have their face buried in their phone. No one even had their phone with them. It was blissful.
Other surprising things that were prohibited: books and journals. It was recommended by the staff that while on retreat, we closed ourselves off to new information, so we were encouraged not to read or write until the retreat was over. No inputs would allow us to work with what our mind brought into the retreat, nothing new.
This is essentially the schedule every day. One of the teachers put it very well on the first day by saying “You have a very full schedule of doing nothing.”
- 6:00 AM - Wake Up
- 6:30 AM - Seated Meditation
- 7:00 AM - Breakfast
- 8:45 AM - Seated Meditation
- 9:15 AM - Walking Mediation
- 10:00 AM - Seated Mediation
- 10:30 AM - Walking Mediation
- 11:15 AM - Seated Mediation
- 12:00 PM - Lunch
- 2:45 PM - Seated Meditation
- 3:15 PM - Walking Mediation or Yoga
- 4:00 PM - Seated Mediation
- 4:30 PM - Walking Mediation or Yoga
- 5:15 PM - Seated Mediation
- 6:00 PM - Dinner
- 7:45 PM - Seated Meditation
- 8:15 PM - Dharma Talk
- 8:30 PM - Walking Mediation
- 9:00 PM - Seated Mediation
- 9:30 PM - Sleep
The food served was 100% vegetarian. I’m not opposed to vegetarian food, but it’s not something I choose to eat exclusively. So this was a bit scary to me. I expected to the same (probably bland) food over and over again. I also expected to be hungry most of the time.
But the food turned out to be one of the biggest surprises. The cooks made absolutely delicious food every day. I didn’t miss meat for a single minute of my time there. The meals were balanced and the variety of tastes and textures was outstanding. I’d happily be a vegetarian if I had those cooks making me food everyday. Total, delightful shocker. I miss the meals already.
While on retreat, everyone agreed to participate in Noble Silence. This meant during the retreat we did not speak, unless we were asked a question by a teacher or had a question to ask them. That was rare, so for the most part, silence.
When I told friends I was going on this retreat, this was the constant concern. Most people didn’t think they could deal with not talking. For some reason, it never seemed that crazy to me, but even with that attitude I was totally taken back by how easy and enjoyable it was. We live in a very loud world, and being able to shut up for 5 days felt like an enormous gift.
In addition to the silence, we were asked to avoid eye contact, and give everyone their space to have their own solitude. Again, this was really nice. Awkward at first, it was very easy to get used to and suddenly you realized that while you were there with 100 other people, you had your own space to think and be alone. It didn’t matter who you were, or what you did. Because you were alone. Again, a huge gift. I loved it.
As mentioned, I’m not a seasoned meditator. Hell, I don’t really even know the proper way to sit. But that was okay on this retreat, because the focus wasn’t on meditating with a specific posture or method. They provided seating objects of all kinds (cushions, mats, benches, chairs). So it didn’t matter, what mattered was being with your mind.
There were two main types of meditation, seating and walking. Seating is what we all think of when we think of people meditation: people sitting on the floor, legs crossed, straight back, eyes closed, silent. We would sit for 30 minute periods. Because these periods were interspersed with walking, I never experienced any great physical pain, which is what I was most worried about.
The walking meditation was a bit strange, but I liked it because it added variety to the day. It is basically slowing walking in a somewhat small area and focusing on the feeling of walking and being mindful of your surroundings, which brings me to the big focal point of the retreat: mindfulness.
This was a vipassana retreat, which is the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness is essentially recognizing what is happening right now, living in the present, being aware of your surroundings. In this practice, the anchor to be mindful in your body is to focus on your breathing. When the mind starts to wander, just focus back on your body physically breathing, and you anchor yourself back in the present moment. While this seems very simple, it’s not as straightforward as you may think.
When we sit quietly, for many people our minds fill with thoughts. Vipassana focuses on acknowledging those thoughts but letting them go and returning to the present moment. Seems easy, but as soon as you let a thought go (if you’re able to do that at all), another one comes flying in. Over and over and over. “Awakening” for many people is being able to tame the mind and be totally present with your mind and body. Again, I’m greatly simplifying all of this, but hopefully that makes sense. Here’s more info if you want it.
For me, this was the war. I’ve always had trouble concentrating and never been good at sitting still and focusing. My mind likes more active tasks. In high school, I scored unusually high on my Math SAT but very low on reading comprehension. It’s just the way my mind works. I learn by doing, not by sitting and listening. So sitting still and trying to not get distracted by my overactive mind is almost a fools errand for me. I couldn’t do it. I’d let thoughts go and turn around and there’d be 1000 more. Some would be personal, emotional, and heavy. Others would be trivial and stupid. But they were all there, coming at me like an army of soldiers intent on not letting me move another inch forward.
This made the retreat very challenging for me. This is why it wasn’t relaxing. Sure, I was sitting quietly for 30 minutes, but in my mind I was fighting a battle. And losing. Every time.
But this is the whole purpose of the practice. It’s not supposed to be easy. No matter how long you work at it, your mind always wants to win. And it’s why I want to keep trying. Because the few tiny moments of freedom I had felt absolutely amazing. Though they were practically over before they even began.
Presence is something I’ve always cared a lot about. So much in fact I used to give the book The Precious Present to people as a gift, as loving in the present was one way I defined myself. But somewhere in the past 10 years, I’ve lost this ability. I think that has to do with both the realities of becoming an adult and living in a world where multitasking and social networking takes our mind from place to place incredibly quickly.
But it’s something I want to return to. It was always core to who I was and I want to find it again. And I think that meditative practice is one way to explore that. It’s at least a tool to keep working with.
My Feelings Looking Back
Overall, I was overwhelmed with my experience. I didn’t clear my mind. I didn’t solve all my problems. I’m still in pain and I still have a lot of work to do this year. But I feel like I was given a new set of tools to grow and thrive in the life that I have.
The physical setting turned out to be very emotionally powerful. At times while meditating I’d open my eyes and see 90 people around me doing the same thing. This is one of those things that words won’t do justice, but on several occasions, just being surrounded by so many other people, all there for their own reasons, all dealing with some kind of suffering in their lives, brought me to tears. It was strangely powerful to spend 5 days amongst strangers who I hadn’t even spoken to and feel so connected and supported. Again, something probably that can only be experienced to understand, but immensely powerful.
If I could change anything, I’d have registered for a 8-day retreat (although again, that wasn’t an option this time). I say that because on a 5-day retreat, by the time you really settle in (day 3), the retreat is starting to wrap up. I think having 8 days would have given me a couple middle days where I was settled, but also not anxious about the retreat ending. I’ll definitely register for a longer one next time and yes, there definitely will be a next time.
On the last morning, as the sun broke over a distant hill and cast shadows across the home I’d had for 5 days, I sat down to jot a few notes. I’ll end this post the same way I ended that writing:
I leave this place with far more questions than answers, but I also leave with a new set of tools to use while finding those answers. I leave with a sense of self worth I haven’t felt in some time. I leave with hope that the things that lay ahead will strengthen me, as the things that have come before have. And I leave knowing I had the courage to give myself a gift that terrified me, yet finally helped me feel myself again.