I just returned from a week-long silent meditation retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Marin County, CA. Ah, bliss!
On the last day of the retreat I felt like my mind was a still clear pond. I wasn’t spaced out or off somewhere else, as you might expect, but, on the contrary, more fully present than I had ever been. I could see my life, my choices and if there were any decisions that needed making, this would be the ideal vantage point from which to make them.
I also felt such a tender heart, as if I had set all my barriers down – fears and judgments – leaving just an expansive sweet fondness for all beings, especially my sangha (community) of 80+ fellow retreatants. Over the course of days we had become a lovely organic entity, moving smoothly and with tender care for each other, honoring each other’s practice. So that the beautiful gate down at the road really meant something: That within this area, held in this silence we could totally relax, totally release our defenses.
The silent etiquette of the retreat was the only ‘communication’ between retreatants, but it was a deep one. In our daily lives out in the regular world, this same kind of silent etiquette would smooth many passages. I think especially about going through doors on the way in and out of the meditation hall and other buildings. At Spirit Rock the hall doors all close by themselves, so if there is someone behind you, you hold it long enough for them to take over. There is this sensing of a presence behind you, a slight turn of the head to acknowledge this shared task, a sense of giving, a sense of gratitude. All done without comment or eye contact.
What rose out of the fertile spaciousness, expansive sense of time and the silence was a relaxed presence, an inner focus supported by a gentle network of kind intention and conscious awareness.
For those of you who contemplate going on a retreat but aren’t sure if it’s for you, here is a general run down of a day on retreat.
All the days between the first day and the last day hare pretty much the same schedule, which is relaxing in itself. No decisions needed, just listen to the bells and do the next thing. Bells ring to let you know it’s time to wake up, time to sit, time to walk, time to eat. Things get very simple. You get very slow. You stop and smell the proverbial roses, which in mid-summer at Spirit Rock take the shape of delicate bright yellow flowers massing in the dried golden grasses glowing in the sunlight, lightly dancing in the breeze; the scrubby golden hills studded with deep green oaks casting changing shadows from first light to last light, and you follow them all.
And then of course there are the deer, lizards and wild turkeys all of whom have a very different view of what bipeds are like from their counterparts beyond Spirit Rock. Sometimes I imagine some county-wide deer conference, and the deer from the rest of the county are skittish when they even think about bipeds. “They are loud, fast, thoughtless, especially when they are in their hard shiny moving shells. Run when you see them coming!”
And the Spirit Rock deer might say, “Hmmm, haven’t seen much of those. We don’t run from our bipeds. Why would we? They are silent, slow, and stare deep into our eyes. They’re a little strange but harmless.”
On the bulletin board where retreatants post notes to teachers and staff with questions or requests, I saw a note “To the deer” – an enraptured love poem no doubt. To my knowledge the deer never got to read it. But I’m sure the sense of it was felt.
The schedule for this retreat was a little different from most because it was a yoga and meditation retreat, so some of the walking meditation periods were replaced by yoga. But other than that the following schedule, recorded to the best of my recollection, is not atypical of a day on retreat.
7:30 yogi job
9:45 walking meditation
12:30 lunch (a large meal)
3:15 walking meditation
5:30 tea (a lighter meal)
7:45 dharma talk
8:30 walking meditation
9:00 meditation & chanting
If you do not get to the first meditation, no one will come pull you out of bed, but it is highly recommended, in order to get the full benefit of the retreat experience.
Retreatants are in silence all of the time except in interview with teachers. We meet in small groups twice over the course of the retreat so the teachers can check in with us, see how we are doing and answer any questions.
The teachers are not in silence but are respectful of the silence, as are the staff, so that you don’t hear talking very often. If you have a question or problem, you leave a note on a bulletin board for housekeeping, cooking staff or the teachers. You can’t leave notes for other retreatants.
No Reading and No Writing
Yes! I know, these are two activities that are so closely interwoven into my normal daily life and the lives of so many people I know, and never with any sense of them being activities one ought not to waste time on (like TV) that it comes as a shock to be asked to relinquish them. At dharma talks so much wonderful information is being so entertainingly shared, it is challenging not to want to make notes, but for the most part retreatants resist. The dharma talks are taped and made available on Dharmaseed.org, so notes aren’t necessary. But no reading? Not even something at bedside? It really does seem like being requested to give up oxygen. But it’s surprisingly easy to do. And valuable to experience.
How’s the food? One word: delicious! Also nutritious and bountiful. You will not starve on a Spirit Rock retreat. The Buddha taught the Middle Way, so denial of simple pleasures is not one of the Buddhist tenets.
That said, if you are an avid meat eater, there will be an adjustment to a vegetarian diet. While you are allowed to bring your own cooked, canned meats, I recommend giving Spirit Rock cooks a chance to convince you that you can survive without it. There may be foods you haven’t tried before, but it’s all good. To calm the terror of people who are afraid they will not get enough food or enough protein in particular, the communal refrigerator is stocked with hard boiled eggs, nut butter and other goodies. And the cupboard has crackers and other fillers. You can stop in to the dining hall any time day or night and nibble or drink tea. But the meals are quite filling, and I found I never needed a second helping of anything, and in fact had to cut back to even smaller portions as my britches were getting tight!
Retreatants can bring their own special needs food as well, but it must be stored in the dining hall refrigerator and cupboard. No food is allowed in the rooms.
Special dietary requirements (gluten intolerance, allergies) are accommodated with substitutes for main dishes at a separate table. But the cooks request that these be actual physical necessities rather than preferences, as it is a challenge to create extra dishes when you are already feeding 80+ people three times a day!
The dining hall itself is an architectural delight and an acoustical disaster. On my previous retreat I wrote a poem on the fourth day that likened all the plate clatter and chair scraping to a symphony. This retreat I never quite got to that point of aural euphoria, but even so, there is a sweetness to it if you recognize that all the noises are products of the earnest efforts of mindful diners. For those who can’t take it, there are picnic tables outside and beautiful quiet views.
The four dormitory buildings at Spirit Rock are built in the same beautiful Japanese influenced architectural style as the rest of the retreat area. Each is named for one of the Four Brahmaviharas: Metta (loving-kindness), Karuna (compassion), Mudita (sympathetic joy), and Upekka (equilibrium). Each building is two stories with eleven rooms on each floor. Each room (many singles, some double) is simple white walled, with a single bed, bedside table, folding chair, small sink and storage for clothing and personal items. Each has a single window either looking out over the hills or into the woods.
You can bring your own sheets and towels or rent them from Spirit Rock ($10 for all).
Each floor has an ample bathroom with double sinks, two toilet stalls and two showers (one has a tub). I never had to wait for use of any of the above.
There are accommodations for special needs such as wheelchair access, chemical sensitivities and allergies.
Except for those kinds of special accommodations, retreatants are asked to have no preferences as to shared or solitary room. It is part of Buddhist practice to accept what is given without preference. Our preferences really just get in the way of being available to whatever experience arises. You may prefer a solitary room but discover a sweetness in sharing one with someone you never met. You just don’t know.
After meals there are free periods where you might take hikes around the land. Spirit Rock has lots of hiking trails, through the grassy hills, up onto ridges, or up into canyons. Most trails offer a little Buddhist treat of a stone Buddha statue, a platform to sit on and meditate on the glories of nature, or an altar on which you can place mementos of loved ones who have passed on.
Because Spirit Rock is truly out in the middle of open nature, if you have any issues about lizards, snakes, etc., this might not be the retreat center for you. However, it might be just the place to work through your issues. Your choice!
At some point during your free periods, or possibly during a walking meditation period, you have your ‘yogi job’. Every retreatant signs up to participate in the loving care of Spirit Rock or the feeding of fellow retreatants. The daily jobs are simple kitchen or housekeeping tasks that are easy to fulfill. The retreatant who takes them on with a ‘chop wood, carry water’ meditative attitude can find insight in even the most mundane tasks. In general the kitchen jobs require some degree of coming out of silence, since some collaboration is required. The housekeeping jobs are more solitary and can usually be done completely in silence. Full training for all jobs is provided the first evening of the retreat.
The belle of the retreat ball is literally the Buddhist bell. And my greatest joy on retreat is to be a bell ringer. I wrote a poem after my last retreat about the joys of bell ringing, and how the bell bowl, shown at the top of this blog, was purchased at the end of the retreat as a result of this powerful emotional response I seem to have to the bells. On this retreat I was too late to sign up for bell ringing. I was disappointed, but the disappointment was just fodder for noticing preferences. But that first evening they announced that they still needed a 2:15 PM bell ringer, and my hand shot right up! That was the bell ringer I was last time, and it’s a wonderful two-fold task, where you take the portable bell through the dormitories to wake any nappers, and then go out and ring the big bell in front of the meditation hall.
On the last day that I would ring the bell, I was full of so much emotion at the thought of not being able to ring it again, and also the retreat coming to a close, that my eyes welled up with tears. Powerful stuff, these retreats.
I am one of the fortunate ones who is at Spirit Rock once a week all year long. So many people came from all over the country, all over the world even, to attend this retreat. But even I in my weekly visits don’t see the beauty of the early morning sun filtered through the fog, the last light in the afternoon casting great shadows and shimmering the tips of the golden grasses. Nor do I get to walk out, the chanting of Om Mani Padme Hum ringing in my head to lie on a bench and stare up at the stars – the same stars as every place else, but somehow richer and deeper in the light-free San Geronimo Valley where Spirit Rock is nestled.
I hope I have given you some feeling of what it is like to be on retreat. Everyone’s experience is different, but they are really just variations on a theme. Everyone struggles with their own thoughts and emotions, their own physical challenges with so much sitting, their own weight of expectations and judgments. But at the end of the retreat, you can see in the faces as we form a closing circles and the nameless fellow retreatants become named, that all have been touched, moved and changed by the richness of this very personal experience.
The Spirit Rock website is listed in my list of links on the right side of this blog. Check it out. See if there is a retreat for you!
Please feel free to ask questions by clicking on ‘comment’ below, in case there is something I haven’t addressed to your satisfaction.