I’ve just got back from my longest retreat yet – an 8 nighter – and as one of the most personally significant things I do on a regular basis, I thought I’d try and explain in writing what a retreat is, why it is important to me, and why it might also be important to you.
I’ve done 5 or maybe 6 retreats now – not a lot, but enough to convince me that this is an activity I want (actually, I’d now say – need) to do on a regular basis. This is something that is hugely cathartic, deeply meaningful and immensely satisfying. It is – as my friend and fellow meditator Sam says – a way of “emptying out” after a stretch of time where the entirety of modern life has been filling you up.
Silent retreats vary from place to place, but the one I went on this time and last was at a Buddhist centre in Devon called Gaia House. Gaia has a long and fairly distinguished heritage in the UK meditation / Buddhist scene and since 1983 it has been a centre for deep contemplation and gathering.
A typical silent retreat run by Gaia has days that start at about 6:30 am and end at 9:30pm. During waking hours you typically meditate for around 8 hours a day. This isn’t all in one go: a session will be 45 mins or so and then there will be a change of format. So you might do seated meditation for 45 mins, then move on to walking, then standing, then there might be more sitting, a Dharma talk, then more walking – and so on. There are breaks for breakfast, lunch and dinner where simple vegetarian / vegan meals are served.
Silence is maintained for the vast majority of your stay. There is a brief introduction at the beginning where everyone has dinner with conversation, and then silence is introduced which lasts until a few hours before you leave at the end of the retreat, when it is lifted again. There are normally a couple of hour-long sessions with teachers when there is discussion of experience, but apart from that everything else is done in complete silence, including the daily hour-long working slots that everyone has to carry out as part of the retreat.
The settling in of this silence is profound, and it does some extraordinary things – some of which are quite clever from a group dynamic point of view, others of which are near-mystical in their effect and efficacy.
From a pure social-dynamic standpoint, silence makes it beautifully impossible for small groups to form. If you imagine any other scenario – a conference or a walking expedition or whatever – it is fairly natural for small clusters of friendships to start to emerge. And with this, the natural human tendency is to niche, to bitch, to compare. When silence is imposed, this is simply not an option. You have no opportunities to create friendships – and one might think that this might create quite a lonely experience; but in fact the complete opposite occurs – there is this strange and unusual new dynamic introduced by the environment where one is alone and yet also deeply involved in the community of people around you.
It’s very hard to describe how weird and powerful this is – really it has to be experienced to be understood. You might sit next to someone for a full week, never knowing their name, their struggles, their life story or immediate experience – but at the same time your boundaries soften as the silence deepens, and you start to feel enormous empathy with those you are sharing this space with. The small glimpses of personal stories through the limited spoken sessions with teachers only deepen this connection and empathy. It is a deeply moving and meaningful experience.
The actual practice itself – the meditation – is not, as is often portrayed (particularly right now in our world of “Mc Mindfulness”) about either relaxation or emptying one’s mind of thoughts.
This is in fact a highly dynamic and sometimes very challenging scenario. The core skill which is a huge challenge to many – most often to beginners, but also to seasoned meditators too – is to allow: to allow what is, to allow the experience to happen, to allow thoughts to flow and not become fixated on them, to loosen your hold on the whole experience as much as you possibly can.
I learnt this the hard way on a 5 day retreat previously. I had been hugely looking forward to this previous retreat – I turned up and was really annoyed to discover I’d got a really terrible cold which emerged in full power almost as soon as I arrived. For the first 3 days I got tenser and tenser – I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t concentrate, I couldn’t focus on my (snot-filled) breath – I got more and more fixated on my “lack of progress” and huge frustration that this retreat was a terrible disappointment and a waste of my time.
It was only on day 4, in a state of total exhaustion, that I gave up. I let go, I allowed this experience to just wash over me. I finally lost any sense of wanting something from the retreat. And – you of course know the punchline by now – it was then that I suddenly settled. I could at last relax into my sit, enjoy my retreat, and allow myself into the whole experience with a degree of equanimity. Anyone who has ever suffered from insomnia will recognise the exact same sting in the tail: the more you really want a thing, the less and less likely it is going to happen for you.
Many mediators make this mistake – the ego, the self, is there ready to trip you up at almost any moment. We’re so keyed in to the notion of “progress” in our Western world that we find it enormously hard to just let go and be.
When you’ve got a few months or years of meditating under your belt, a different wave of challenges appear but with the same set of weapons. This time it is this: you sometimes have deeply blissful moments in deep meditation, some of which are “insights” or moments of “no self’ – beautiful, empty, expansive times when you feel you could sit and revel in this place for hours… and of course, being human, you naturally latch on to these pleasant experiences and then begin to desire them. So next time you sit in meditation this desire is there, and of course if the desire is there then the experience never happens, and the resulting human response is a feeling of disappointment…
This is of course all an articulation of the very principles of Buddhist thought as explained in The Four Noble Truths. Very briefly: it is our desires, our cravings, which have a tendency to cause suffering- and no more is this highlighted more starkly than in our desire to “be a good meditator”!
The point here is that – almost as the ever-wise Yoda put it – “do or do not, there is no try“. The aim is to have no aim – and as you can imagine, for a room full of budding mediators who have put aside their week of their time, not to mention a cost for the retreat – everyone naturally arrives with the aim of “having a good retreat”. To bust out of this frame of reference is truly one of the hardest challenges that many people face both in their normal meditation path – but it is particularly hard when in the retreat context.
So…what actually happens…?
As with almost any experience, you really have to have the experience to even begin to understand it. Me telling you about the amazing meal I had at my favourite restaurant is a terrible and very bland proxy of the actual meal. It’s the same with this. But here goes: the feeling is of an gradual but intense “opening up” throughout the period of the retreat. Tears are frequent – not always tears of joy or sadness, sometimes tears of gratitude or just feeling incredibly moved at something someone did. You miss your home life and family, of course, and this triggers more intense feelings of companionship and compassion.
The sitting itself varies. Sometimes (as at home), there will be a meditation session that feels wholesome and vibrant. Sometimes it is dull and sleepy. Sometimes beautiful images appear and sometimes there is violence and unsettling thoughts. Throughout this, the aim is to just continue – “carry on carrying on” – allowing the waves of experience to arrive and wash over you, trying to notice but not be carried away by thought, making yourself endlessly cycle back and begin again when the mind inevitably wanders.
Over time the silence deepens and the experience becomes more profound. Your empathy grows and the boundary you have built up – the boundary we all build up – between a notion of “me” and a notion of “other” begins, almost inexplicably, to break down.
Another core idea of meditative and Buddhist thought is here also exposed – that of non-duality: the notion that there is no “self” here. As you sit in deep meditation, the thinking mind recedes and it becomes clearer that there is no “me” here in this space of existence – there is only the awareness itself, all-knowing and boundless. More boundaries soften and some totally disappear – between the feeling in your hands and the knees that they are resting on or the body where it touches the ground.
Ultimately of course there are those who have what is called an “awakening” – those who take these brief glimpses of no-self and solidify it into a permanent experience of this connection.
Buddhism talks a lot about returning to the original mind or original nature – this is a process not of a accreting more stuff but a process of peeling away the layers of crap that we have accumulated over the years. Ram Dass talks about this as his “space suit” – inside is this naked, original nature, but we’re all forced (pretty much from birth) into various identities. Him or her, small or tall, pretty or ugly, clever or stupid, banker or fireman – the entirety of our life we’re labelling and labelled, and separated from something which is actually our “true nature”.
This all starts to sound a little esoteric. What actually happens is that whereas we might at the beginning of the retreat be thinking something like: “oo, look at that weird looking guy, he doesn’t look like the meditation type, bet he won’t be able to sit still all week” – by the end you have softened, realised that actually he’s just a person like you, with his own challenges, someone full of hurt and pain, hugely courageous in the face of the challenges he faces, and just doing what we all do – trying to make sense of this amazing, difficult, beautiful, challenging life. This is hugely and profoundly humbling.
In our Western world we have a fairly well defined, albeit totally strange set of priorities. We appear to be obsessed with bodies, and terrified yet in awe of the mind. From Descartes’ I think therefore I am we set the primacy of the thinking mind; and yet even today in the 21st century, we’re totally fine with a broken leg but utterly embarrassed by a broken mind. If Steve next door has depression, we all cross the street to avoid talking to him about it, but if he’s fallen off his skateboard and bust a rib? Not a problem, we can deal with that.
What’s also interesting is that given how obsessed we are with body image how little we actually listen to our bodies. One of the core tenets of meditation is this notion of embodiment – bringing attention into our bodies, really focussing on how an experience feels, physically. In meditation we aim to really feel tension around the breath, or pain in our legs, noticing how emotions like fear, love, dread, sadness actually appear within our bodies. This helps us with focus, but also provides opportunities to start to understand how important our bodies are – not in a superficial skin-deep kind of way, but as the framework for much of our existence. Retreat provides a deep and long opportunity to really understand this feeling of embodiment and to start to be able to notice – not change, but notice – how these feelings affect us in deep ways.
If you’ve come this far (as Andy Dufresne says in Shawshank Redemption), maybe you’re willing to come a little further…
It seems to me – has always seemed to me – that we have only one touchpoint with the world, and this touchpoint is our mind. All our physical experiences – the feelings in our bodies, the thoughts in our heads, depression, the things we see, hear, taste, smell, touch, the biases we have, the love we experience, the things we like or hate or don’t care about, the music that moves us, our fears and passions – literally everything – becomes experience through this channel. So the journey here – for me anyway – is about understanding this thing as well as I possibly can. And the journey offered by a meditative, contemplative path is the most obvious and direct way of getting to know this mind. It’s a difficult journey, and one that often opens up way more questions than answers – but one that I think is very much worth taking.
Our minds are all we have. They are all we have ever had. And they are all we can offer others. This might not be obvious, especially when there are aspects of your life that seem in need of improvement—when your goals are unrealized, or you are struggling to find a career, or you have relationships that need repairing. But it’s the truth. Every experience you have ever had has been shaped by your mind. Every relationship is as good or as bad as it is because of the minds involved. If you are perpetually angry, depressed, confused, and unloving, or your attention is elsewhere, it won’t matter how successful you become or who is in your life—you won’t enjoy any of it.Sam Harris, Waking Up