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.