by Douglas Scherer
In the chapel where Copper Beech Institute holds meditation sessions, light streams from east to west, illuminating the floor and radiating through the hair of morning sitters. Above them, the large stained glass windows glow in deep bright colors with repeating images of outstretched arms, simultaneously an invitation and a reminder to hold an open heart and a beginner’s mind.
The images echo the environment created by the two instructors, Beth Mulligan and Jon Aaron, who led the institute’s five-night silent retreat during the first week of October 2016. For those who have not attended one of these retreats, they are wonderful opportunities to foster your meditation practice in a supportive setting.
The retreat was designed for intermediate and advanced level participants. I attended this specific retreat because it fulfilled one of the requirements for becoming an MBSR instructor. While I was prepared to advance my understanding of meditation, relaxation, and stress management, I took away all of that plus a strengthened knowledge of what I’d learned in the MBSR eight-week course. The impact of the retreat was just as the program’s description forecasted: life enhancing.
One of the most liberating learnings was the power of silence and stillness, which I interpret respectively as quiet among others, and quiet within yourself. The instructors’ overview of the retreat set the stage for the potential of silent learning:
“Extended silent retreat practice is a vital way to nourish our practice, deepen our awareness, and cultivate our capacity for compassion and kindness toward ourselves and others.” 1
I found the last bit of that description engaging. How can days of no interaction—and what to an outside observer must look like a bunch of folks ignoring each other for a week—cultivate compassion and kindness? I’d like to share two of the ways I encountered both qualities while on the retreat.
Silence and Safety
On the first night of the retreat, we dined with each other, then entered into silence soon after. As a group, our focus shifted from sharing our individual stories (such as what challenges brought us to the retreat) to supporting each other through common elements of meditation practice. Even meditating near one another sometimes became a pillar to help practice.
Silence helped nurture our safe-practice space, which bolstered our learning and encouraged a deepening awareness of our own inner experience. Jon Kabat-Zinn, who created MBSR, refers to this effect as a “context of emotional safety”2 in which we feel supported, and within that setting, can expand our ability to look directly into physical pain, for example, and the associated sensations in our bodies and reactions in our minds, and then rest with that awareness without having to do anything. This helps practitioners open to new ways of relating to experience as it unfolds.
During the retreat, we met with Beth and Jon in a couple of quick group and individual check-in sessions. They guided us to share questions about our meditation process, which reinforced our continued focus on the key learnings of the retreat.
Neutrality and Stillness
I once received a birthday card with a drawing of a smiling Dalai Lama opening an empty box and happily exclaiming, “Nothing! Just what I always wanted!”
Beth’s discussion on the value of neutral within the context of suffering carried an analogous and potent message. When we are suffering, it’s not unusual to try to find our way to happiness. For some, that may be a very long and exhausting journey that exacerbates their suffering. So simply accepting our arrival at neutral can transform it into a welcome rest area.
To me, neutrality felt like stillness. One night Beth focused our practice on compassion, which included lovingkindness intention, starting with our selves and emanating outward to all beings. She shared that wishes for others come back to us in return, which brought a sense of healing into the room, and somehow directed the flow of compassion to each of us.
Based on Copper Beech Institute’s Lovingkindness Intention Card
On another night, Jon guided us through a full body scan, and as he was closing I felt briefly weightless. There is something so welcoming in this stillness. Maybe it’s the permission it grants us to accept shelter right exactly where we’ve found it, or maybe it’s the opportunity to feel moments that are pain-free and to confirm that they do exist. Stillness whispers that we haven’t failed by anchoring at the island of neutrality.
for a moment,
On the final day of the retreat we each took a few minutes to address the group as we came out of silence. Several retreatants spoke of ways they’d reconnect to our week when they returned to their normal daily lives — by returning to the breath, planting Post-It notes around the house, or pausing before a statue of the Buddha. Jon Kabat-Zinn also invites us to take the practice with us when we leave a retreat.
But while participating in periodic long retreats may be necessary and extremely important for one’s own development and understanding, by itself it is not sufficient. Mindfulness in everyday life is the ultimate challenge and practice. Of course, the two are complementary and mutually reinforcing and deepening. And once again, we can remind ourselves that ultimately there is no separation between them, because life itself is one seamless whole.2
The image that reintegrates me with the retreat is the Copper Beech Institute campus. Four large copper beech trees are the institute’s namesake, and its buildings are surrounded by many other trees and trails. Recent research shows that trees communicate through a complex underground mechanism. Tiny root hairs receive and send messages through mycorrhizal (fungus) networks that spread from one tree to the next (Simard, 2016)3. The surroundings, the practice, the dharma talks, and the silent cohort, seemingly connect across miles by that endless networked mesh…and then to stillness.
To experience a weekend retreat in silence, we invite you to Waking Up Together: A Weekend of Zen Practice with Fr. Robert Kennedy Roshi, February 3–7, 2017.
Douglas Scherer Ed.D., CISA, leads a dual existence as an independent researcher in adult and leadership journeys, and as a technology leader. His current research interests explore ways that reflective learning and mindfulness help responders during real time crises. He can be reached at email@example.com.
© Photo by Andrew Hill. Licensed by Creative Commons.
1 Aaron, J., & Mulligan, B. (2016). Silent 5-night teacher led mindfulness meditation retreat.
2 Kabat-Zinn, J. (2011). Some reflections on the origins of MBSR, skillful means, and the trouble with maps. Contemporary Buddhism, 12(1), 281-306.
3 Simard, S. (2016). How Trees Talk to Each Other.