By Karen Spiak
Here at New Life, we just finished hosting our second annual silent retreat with Dave Smith. Dave is a Buddhist meditation teacher, addiction treatment specialist and published author from Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society, based in the US.
When we spoke to Dave, he shared some great insights into the concept of mindfulness and how retreats play such an integral role in supporting it. “The word mindfulness on a global level has become such a popular and almost everyday term. It has entered the modern lexicon and the modern world and in doing so has gotten kind of watered down. A bit like McMindfulness, a quick fix, a fast food mentality. For those who truly want to integrate mindfulness into their life in a very meaningful way, it is difficult if not impossible to do so without having some retreat experience. If you are interested in mindfulness and think it is important, you should sit a retreat and sit a retreat soon!” (Read our full interview with Dave Smith here).
Taming your monkey mind
When a retreat is here it is a chance for the entire Foundation to slow down and self-reflect. New Life offers a unique opportunity to share the experience of a retreat while remaining in community. We spoke with a few of the 32 participants before they entered the retreat and caught up with them afterwards to see the changes the experience had brought them.
Alex, who joined his second retreat here with Dave, stated, “I am really glad that I did a retreat here at New Life. It is nice to experience it in a place where you live with the people before and will continue to live with them after. It feels better than going into a retreat with strangers and then never seeing them again.”
When asked what he thought would be the most difficult part of the retreat for him, Alex replied, “The most difficult thing will be the physical pain and trying to keep my crazy mind in check.” So what was the actual experience during retreat? “As expected my mind was almost completely out of control. I did find one teaching on the fourth foundation of mindfulness very useful. We were instructed to see thinking as just another object of awareness, even though we give it more attention than the other senses, we shouldn’t treat it as any more important. So with this I was able to get some distance from my thinking and it naturally fell into proportion with my other senses.
I was ill for most of the retreat which was an unexpected struggle. I had to sit with uncomfortable symptoms all day, every day. On the other hand, the symptoms of the illness distracted me from the physical pain of sitting for so long…. I feel now that I have some faith or confidence that I am doing the right thing by going on retreat and there was never a point during it that I wanted it to end or that I should not be there, regardless of how hard it was.”
Awaken to wonder through meditation
Being silent allows us to be with ourselves in a new way. We asked Jasmine why she chose to join the retreat, “This is my first silent retreat and I am curious to see if there is another level to my meditation that I have not discovered yet. Any boundaries to open that I have yet to experience.”
After the retreat she shared, “When I was actually in meditation I didn’t think I was going deeper. But at one point after we had talked about confidence, I felt really connected and confident in my body. The idea of a headstand came to me, which is something I had never been able to master. Later that day, in my free time, I felt encouraged by this connection … and went straight up into a headstand. I had the confidence in the capability of my body and had no fear.
I also appreciated the walking meditation. I am highly visual and really enjoyed the discovery of so much detail in things around me. I talked to the plants during meditation and collected leaves by asking the plants’ permission. It was inspiring to be so connected to nature and awakened the wonder and passion I felt as a child. My early artwork was inspired by my love of nature. I can’t wait to go home, walk in nature and start creating some art from it.”
Smile, breath and go slowly
In today’s busy world it is often a challenge to grab a moment of silence. What would it be like to experience 7-10 days of it? Silent retreats are growing rapidly in popularity and are attracting diverse groups of people from across the world. They provide an opportunity for participants to unplug and recharge themselves in a guided and supportive environment. What draws individuals to a retreat is as varied as the gifts they glean from them. While it is hard to generalize these aspects, there are some common factors of most silent retreats. On most insight meditation retreats you are encouraged not to distract yourself with anything external such as communication, the use of electronic devices, reading or writing or the use of your sexual energy.
Should I try a silent retreat?
If you are considering whether you should do a silent retreat, gather information to help you decide for yourself. We asked some of this year’s participants why they decided to do the retreat. Jasmine did some research and told us, “I watched a documentary on Pema Chodron that talked about when you remove the distractions in life, all that left is YOU, you have no where to hide.” This intrigued her enough to join. Simply observing other retreats can be enticing as well. Michael offered, “I volunteered at a silent retreat in Hawaii as an outsider, I look forward to being on the inside this time. I think it will be interesting to be inside that container where you are not communicating what is going on inside to the outside world. You are being discouraged from transferring your internal thoughts to the outside. I am really looking forward to that.”
We also asked Michael what he thought he would gain from the retreat, “Gosh, I actually have no idea. Is that okay? Some insight into something hopefully.”
What he did find were tools for self-discipline and self-acceptance. “The dharma talks were based on ancient Buddhist principles. We did a metta, or heart, meditation every day on either being at ease, forgiveness, equanimity or awareness. In addition to following your breath we also focused on the 5 senses, sight, sound, taste, smell and touch. I walked away with a solid foundation with tools and techniques to help my meditation practice grow. I also realized through the metta meditations that I was far more okay with myself that I thought. I was easily able to offer myself acceptance, gratitude and forgiveness, I was not fighting myself as I thought I might have.
I was also surprised by the bond and emotional connection that occurred amongst the group without any communication. On the last day it felt like we were a community that had been through something together. It carried a palpable emotional impact that we had become a sangha.”
What are the lasting benefits?
A retreat provides the time to take a break, to be with ourselves in a way that is not possible in everyday life. This produces a deeper connection, a time to heal and reflect. Often participants describe their experience as a life-transforming way to help bring more balance into their lives. Even though they are silent, retreats are fundamentally a group process that produces synergy and connection amongst individuals. This helps to nourish our enthusiasm to go deeper into ourselves.
Jasmine observed, “I did notice how far I had come from my initial meditations. Relearning the steps of meditation reminded me of when I first started and how far I have come in my practice. I really believe in meditation and want to share it with others. Because of the retreat, I know that I am on the right track”
Bring your mind home
We asked Alex to describe what meditation is to him, “Meditation and the experience of sitting silent retreats is hard to describe, as it differs for everyone and is more experiential than intellectual. In the Against the Stream retreat, we were systematically taken through various meditations based on the 4 foundations of mindfulness. Each instruction is designed to bring us more into contact with the present moment and to be open to whatever arises. The aim is not to become enlightened or to even improve ourselves, but to become more intimate with the whole spectrum of our thoughts, feelings and sensations.”
When asked what is the greatest benefit he receives from leading retreats, Dave said: “It reminds me how important it is to sit retreats. It gives me a tremendous sense of confidence and faith in the dharma and in the philosophical structure and ethics of Buddhism. To watch people go through the retreat experience as a teacher…it becomes so obvious that this is something that is really good for people to do.”
For information on upcoming retreats at New Life, please click here.