Scenes from a Silent Retreat

I often go on retreat. My usual destinations are the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Mass. and its nearby sister organization, the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies. At BCBS, meditation is mixed in with study, but this time I went to IMS where the retreats are totally silent; the only exceptions are the teachers’ morning instruction and nightly talks. Cellphones are forbidden as are reading and writing – making the experience akin to fasting or sensory deprivation.

Friends have wondered why I would possibly choose to spend my time away in such restraint, but I find it freeing and an incredible opportunity to allow the mind to soften and become still. Insights invariably arise as a result. The journey within has always been one of my favorite ways to travel.

Indulging in simplicity

The retreat began on a Saturday and ended the following Sunday. There were about 100 of us in attendance, each with our own room. The rooms are simple, providing just the basics: a bed, chair, closet and sink. Mine felt spacious, especially because of the new maple flooring. I was inspired to keep it neat and spare, stashing all that I had brought behind the closet door.

I also had what is called a “yogi job”: a 45-minute work period each day. Every one gets one. I was a veggie chopper, but it was amusing to see the men handling the bulk of the housekeeping jobs – diligently going about with their dusters, vacuums and mops.

The rigors of retreat life

Of course, the heart of the retreat is the time spent in meditation, and at IMS, we alternate between 45 minutes of sitting meditation and 45 minutes of walking meditation beginning at 6:00 in the morning and ending at 9:15 in the evening. Our teachers are always present, providing instruction, guidance and their silent support as we, the stalwart students, do our best to practice mindfulness in every moment.

Not all retreats are happy. The body often experiences pain, a natural response to sitting in the same posture for days at a stretch. The mind, well, it does its usual thing but in the contemplative atmosphere, we get to really see what it’s up to when we’re not paying attention, and that can be downright discouraging. Rumination, harshness toward ourselves and others, sleepiness, the wandering mind, the planning mind, the craving mind, the aversive mind – on retreat, we get to see it all. But seeing it is precisely the point. It’s our only hope of steering our unwieldy ships of thought toward greater wholesomeness, happiness and most of all compassion.

Opening to each moment, whatever it may bring

On this retreat, I miraculously felt no bodily pain and my mind settled more quickly than usual. It indulged its routine patterns with which I have become all too familiar, but it also revealed new secrets when I turned toward what I’d normally bat away – a difficult emotion, an unwelcome thought or a pesky wanting for something to be other than it was.

I’ve found that something shifts in that simple act of opening to inner experience, whatever it may be. What might have seemed solid and unforgiving gives way, and we find ourselves dropping into a new territory that’s just a bit more open than where we came from. It’s not unlike a dream I’ve often had of discovering a new room in my house I didn’t know was there.

The rewards of a committed practice

We can slog along for years, faithfully sitting on our meditation cushions, rallying our minds, and doing our best to find little moments of quiet amidst the torrent of thought. Sometimes it can seem like our efforts go unrewarded, but bit by bit our minds begin to quiet and we begin to gain the perspective that allows us to face into the storms that arise rather than turn away.

This year’s retreat delivered subtle rewards, riches from beyond my usual horizons, and for that I am grateful. I’m amazed by how the simple practice of acceptance tempered by compassion and curiosity can be so transformative.

Rumi’s poem, The Guest House, is an inspiration:

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

— Jellaludin Rumi

If you’d like to explore a silent retreat in a weekend format, Copper Beech Institute has two scheduled for next season:  Centering Prayer in the fall and Waking Up Together: A Weekend of Zen Practice in the spring.

Kathy Simpson is a freelance writer with Copper Beech Institute who specializes in mindful living and holistic health. She is a regular contributor to Copper Beech Institute’s mindfulness and contemplative practice blog, Awaken Everyday.

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Being or Doing

by Miranda Chapman

Lately, I have been reminded of a phrase I once heard or read: we are human beings not human doings.

Two weeks ago I completed my stepping away from the administrative and program direction work with Copper Beech Institute to make more space for my teaching practice. I had been anticipating this reprieve, taking July and August “off” and resuming my teaching work at Copper Beech, and beyond, in September.

But, it’s interesting how I choose to fill this time. There are so many moments when I cannot allow myself to simply be but I must do: the laundry, the banking, meditate, something productive. The doing feels safer in some ways: I am protected from judgment of my perceived laziness by others and myself. Sitting and doing nothing, luxuriating in the unknown of the next moments: something about it doesn’t feel acceptable.

I often joke about my inner ‘overlord’ — this insistent voice in my head telling me what to do, how to do it, if I’ve done it good enough — which I then superimpose into my outer life and run myself ragged with all of the ‘shoulds.’

It doesn’t hurt that my partner and I have taken on the challenge of building a house from the ground up so there are innumerable tasks at hand. But, this morning, I give myself permission to be. I give myself permission to sleep in late and drink coffee on rising. I give myself permission to meditate and move mindfully for as long as I want. I give myself permission to stop all of the doing and rest back into the being.

Miranda Chapman is the founding Program Director and Senior Faculty at Copper Beech Institute, the nation’s newest retreat center for mindfulness and contemplative practice. Copper Beech Institute offers more than 40 transformational retreats and courses, as well as mindfulness practice and mindfulness at work offerings to help you awaken to the beauty of your life.

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Why I am not Always in Love with Summer

Can I be honest?

I am not always in love with Summer.

It rubs up against my need for solitude and structure.

Even though I know this, I fight against it every year.

I think it is because of my deep desire to be the kind of mom who truly embraces the messiness that comes from unstructured days with your own children. I have always been a bit envious of these types of moms.

I am fine with ending my relationship with the dark days of winter and the blistery cold weather. I love the freedom of not having to rush out the door, to make lunches, and to help with homework. By the end of the school year, I am always excited to throw out any schedule and breathe in the infinite possibilities found in long and uninterrupted warm weather days. It’s a time when life becomes a little less tidy, when the call of the outside world beckons me to play hooky from tasks at hand.

My favorite is the traditions that mark the start of summer. That first trip to the old barn for homemade ice cream, sitting on large wagon flats in view of the flowers and farm animals. My other favorite ‘firsts’ include gathering around the fire pit to make s’mores or the sight of the ocean with hot sand underfoot from our favorite beach spot or taking that first plunge in the cold pool. I gladly tidy up the wet towels piled on the concrete patio, I rehang the haphazard bathing suits, and clean up after sticky fingers. I remove sand from inconvenient places. I make lists for each adventure with items to buy, to pack up, and to make. I unpack and repack. I become the finder of lost items, the magician performing tricks to relieve boredom, the short-order chef, the librarian, the fun-maker and the taxi driver. I delight in these roles at first as each seems to mark the new adventures we plan and the celebration of being together as a family.

And then it begins to happen. It starts off like a slow slide. It’s like a fault in the large, flat rocks just off the shoreline.The movement is barely noticeable to the observer, but it effects everything around it. Unlimited options and possibilities don’t seem as expansive anymore, but rather overwhelming. Rallying the troops for an activity becomes an uphill battle instead of a welcome invitation. One towel too many ends on the floor, another text received that changes our plans…”but Mooommm, I have to go with them,” or one more excuse for not parting with some electronic device causes a subtle shift in my attitude towards these endless Summer days.

I can feel myself slipping into a place where summer starts to get under my skin, like getting sand stuck in your bathing suit. It’s just not pretty. I can feel my temperature rising and my voice becoming slightly higher, more shrill. I repeat my new mantra, “I am a carefree mom. I enjoy summer. I can do this. I embrace it all!”  I suggest to the water puddle maker how to clean up  the kitchen floor. I request that the popsicle wrapper owner see what was left behind. The games and books and legos start to creep out from their hiding and remain sprawled across the living room floor.

Then one seemingly innocent event tips the scales. An event so minor that without any context, like “this is the 108th time I have asked you to close the door…today!”, it would seem trivial at best. I suddenly see myself as this big pasta pot filled with water about to boil. I had been slowly simmering, heating up below the surface and now there was no turning back. That one moment when everything bubbles to the top and can’t be contained any longer. My words are like the foam layer, spilling over. I become that ballistic mom (which is exactly what my son told someone, that I was a ballistic mom leader, and not a holistic one…) I rant. I rave. I get more mad at feeling this mad because this is not the person that I am or want to be. I final remember to breathe. Stress is caused when reality is different than what you think it should be. I want appreciation and gratitude but realize these are not what I have been focusing on either. I decide to put a halt to Summer.

We slowly pick up the pieces together and we talk about our family needs and plans, wants and wishes. We agree to a certain set of time when we stick to family events. We dismiss the “Summer Rules” I wrote and instead agree on a set of principles to act by, such as “showing kindness and compassion to one another by doing your part.” I agree to be more flexible about when things get done, each being able to complete their chores when they want within a certain time frame. We realize we all need more time to be alone, away from one another. I remember childhood summers filled with my own adventures, like climbing my favorite tree in my front yard and reading in the branches.

I know I need time and space to cultivate my own inner summer. Recharging for me is like receiving a pair of goggles when you are in the deep end of the pool. Suddenly everything is in focus again and I can see things I wasn’t able to before. I struggle less to see clearly. I know an early morning hike or a visit to the labyrinth by myself would help to let go of what I don’t want and fill up again with contentment and gratitude. We all can shift into the summer mindset of carefree days when everyone is sharing in responsibilities and no one person is carrying the full weight.

Summer is a time to slow down and witness the world through the eyes of a child. I enjoy delighting in the efforts of a small bird landing on various long flowered stalks, sending each one towards the ground. I can join in with the laughter as we all watch this bird hop from one stalk to the next, enjoying the ride. I can delight in the joys of seeing my child’s face light up when she understands how a bright yellow flower soon becomes an edible squash or how the tall stalks of rhubarb become the sweet filling for our jars and pies.

I can savor these ordinary moments with my children again when I have taken the time to care for my needs along the way. This isn’t being selfish. This is giving myself permission to be at my best and decide that I want to thrive, not just survive this summer. I am okay with not being the “cool mom” who can relax and embrace every aspect of summer but rather I simply recognize my need for structure within our days, which at least will help me keep my cool. l am learning how to give my children the gift of boredom and I am letting go of being the only one responsible for creating lasting Summer memories.

When we arrive at the homemade ice cream farm stand, my youngest asks me to list all the ice cream flavors. I read each one slowly, often with her interjection of “what’s that?” and needing a full description. When we finally make it to the front of the line to place our order, she selects vanilla as her final choice. Usually I would persuade her to try one of the other creative concoctions, but it is easy to understand the choice of simplicity. It is something I crave myself.

Kimberlea Chabot is the founder of a hyper-local resource for holistic living called LuckyPennyFound. Please visit www.luckypennyfound.com for more information. Kimberlea lives in West Hartford, Connecticut and considers her husband of 18 years and their three children to be both her greatest blessings – and her greatest challenge to living mindfully. Kimberlea is a regular contributor to the Copper Beech Institute blog, Awaken Everyday.

Copper Beech Institute is the nation’s newest retreat center for mindfulness and contemplative practice located in West Hartford, Connecticut. We offer more than 40 transformational retreats and courses, as well as mindfulness practice and mindfulness at work offerings to help you find the calm, compassion and true happiness you seek.

Learn more about Copper Beech Institute l Follow our Awaken Everyday blog

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Live Every Moment

Learning Resilience and Courage on the Jetty

Tattooed teenaged lovers embrace, determined fishermen guard buckets of squid, skipping children shriek, feisty parents snap Facebook-worthy photographs, smiling mutts chase a soggy tennis ball…

This mosaic of images confirm that my vacation has begun as my family makes its annual pilgrimage to a jetty in Narragansett, Rhode Island. I have a special love for jetties, these carefully arranged walls of stones which protect beaches and vulnerable shorelines. Jetties create a sanctuary easing the impact of the waves upon the beach. All of us need a jetty from time to time to ease the waves of life crashing upon our shores. I smile at this thought as I hop from stone to stone.

So many people come here to this simple pile of rocks for reasons difficult to name. It feels safe and relaxed. It seems free from routine. Perhaps there is nothing essentially different here than in daily life, but here we give ourselves permission to live without an agenda and enjoy the simple experience of being alive. With space away from the drumbeat of productivity, we mark the spray of a crashing wave or the sudden dive of a sea bird as a celebration. Somehow in the thick stench of rotting fish, the ordinary becomes extraordinary.

Here to this jetty I escaped when my babies were colicky. I would strap them to my chest and march until the salty waves sang them to sleep. Here I came with my toddlers–their terrified hands squeezing mine as they imagined the chasms between the Volkswagen-sized boulders swallowing  them whole. Today my tweens sprint ahead of their turtle dad who craves the slowness to wonder about all the things a dad wonders when he realizes that he is needed far less than he once was.

Am I doing enough for them?
Have I done too much?
In the few years I have left, what else can I give these miraculous bundles of stardust so that they know courage, resilience, and fulfillment?

Before an answer comes, I realize how much this jetty is like the Copper Beech Institute–a safe place to seek refuge from the sometimes relentless waves that crash upon our shores. Here at the Institute we come to rest, to grow, and to wonder the things we wonder when we take a moment to breathe.

“Dad, come look quick! I found a crab,” an elated voice interrupts my thoughts.

A child delighting in a crab. Sometimes life seems so simple…because sometimes it is.

I look forward to welcoming you to this “jetty” which is the Copper Beech Institute very soon.

Wishing you a summer of ease,

Brandon

Dr. Brandon Nappi is founder and executive director of Copper Beech Institute, the nation’s newest retreat center for mindfulness and contemplative practice. Copper Beech Institute offers more than 40 transformational retreats and courses, as well as mindfulness practice and mindfulness at work offerings to help you awaken to the beauty of your life.

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