The Lasting Value of a Meditation Retreat

Last week we talked about the Three Refuges, ‘The Triple Gem’ of the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha, or as Rick Hanson in his book Buddha’s Brain calls them: teacher, truth and community. I shared how on a Buddhist retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, the gathered retreatants ‘take refuge’ formally by repeating a call and response chant the first evening before going into silence for the course of the retreat.

On a retreat this sense of refuge is palpable. Physically we are in a land apart from the hustle and bustle of normal life. No crowded noisy streets, no driving, no television, no telephone, no radio, no computers, no music except perhaps some evening chanting. No shopping. No reading. No writing. Just our own bubble of experience within the calm of a community in silence.

We are on retreat not just from busy-ness of our regular lives but from social interaction as well. We neither speak nor have eye contact with one another. We don’t need to think of the right thing to say or smile at someone.

There are many courtesies within this silence, but they are done synchronistically, needing no involved interaction. The only exception is during some yogi jobs that require teamwork and during short group meetings with a teacher, just to check in and see how we are doing. There are yogi jobs that require no interaction, and most teachers will respect your silence if you wish to maintain it in meeting, as long as they can sense you are okay.

This silent spaciousness to simply be can feel lovely or scary at various times throughout the retreat. Non-interaction is especially freeing for those who are compulsive talkers and interactors. Sometimes it’s a difficult adjustment, but mostly it is a deep and rich release, all the more profound for the contrast.

While silence does not free us from any interior turmoil that might arise, it does give us a lot of space in which to notice it. It’s similar to the way the refrigerator’s hum is hardly noticeable during the day, but in the middle of the night its sound is amplified. On retreat there is a lot of time to sit and walk with whatever arises, and a lot of support to stay with the experience, regardless of whether it is pleasant or unpleasant.

Usually by the end of a retreat the mind is clearer, the heart is softer, and the body is healthier. Having taken refuge in this safe environment that demands so little of us except to sit, eat, walk and do a yogi job for less than an hour a day, we settle in to ourselves and gain greater insight into the nature of our existence in this body at this time.

Most likely, having had a powerful positive experience on retreat, we set our intention to carry that clarity of mind and openness of heart out into the world, to give ourselves sufficient time to really meditate, to eat slowly with great appreciation for all who contributed to the meal from the sunshine and seeds to the cashier at the market to the cook, and to walk in nature at a pace we can really see, hear, smell and feel connected to the natural world.

We set these intentions and maybe to a certain degree we can keep them. We might come home and establish a more consistent meditation practice if we didn’t already have one, or renew our dedication to our existing practice, having seen how valuable it is. And at least for a while hopefully we are able to carry over some of that deep rich interaction with the world around us that we had on the retreat.

But it would be most unusual to be able to sustain that deep inner calm and clarity for very long. Out in the world, back in the fray, we find ourselves mindlessly munching, chatting away on our cell phone, watching something we don’t care about on television, and walking or running right by the trees and the lizards who whispered all their secrets to us on retreat. Chances are we barely notice the song of the birds or the sound of the water, or even the feel of the ground under our feet.

So what was the point of going on a retreat? Was it just an escape with no sustained value?

For most of us the lasting value of the retreat is learning that we do indeed have the capacity to be present. If we have never been on retreat and if we find meditation challenging, then this inner discovery is crucial. Even though we may not be present in every moment of our lives, we now know that we can be present. We know what being present feels like. We have learned what elements help us to be present and on retreat we have had extended opportunity to practice them.

These helpful elements include:

  • Setting our intention to be present.
  • Slowing down.
  • Making space in our lives for a regular meditation practice.
  • Intensive concentration training that shows us how to be with whatever arises.
  • Wisdom teachings in whatever form we receive them best.
  • A community of supportive practitioners who remind us that being present is possible in every moment.

So what we take home with us, when we have broken our long silence, is the Three Refuges – the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha.

We take home the Buddha in the inspiration of the historical Buddha and his followers right down to our teachers sitting before us, exemplifying dedication to spiritual development, helping us to understand that we each have access to our own Buddha nature.

We take home the Dharma from the nightly talks when the teachers tell stories to demonstrate the dharma, drawing from their own life experiences, their own unskillfulness, their own mindless moments, for the benefit of their students; and from our group meetings with teachers and the answers they give us to our questions.

And we take home the Dharma from the teachings of the natural world as we walk or sit in silence, opening to its wisdom, its ready answers to any question that is rising up within us.

And often the sweetest of all, we take home the Sangha – the feeling of being supported by each other during the retreat, inspired by each other’s dedication to the practice, to staying with our experience even when it is difficult. This may sound odd since we are in silence and have no eye contact and are in our own little bubbles of protected space. But during the days of the retreat, as the silence, relaxation and safety sinks in to our beings, we increasingly feel our deep interconnection. We begin to understand how it’s possible for that flock of birds to move together as one being, turning in unison as they fly. We sangha members move not in perfect unison, but with spaciousness and natural courtesy that feels as if our personal bubble is an energy field, and we all sense the energy fields when they touch, so that our bodies don’t bump into each other. Which is good, because in silence you can’t say ‘excuse me.’ I remember when we were given an hour of practicing coming out of silence the night before the close of the last retreat I was on, and suddenly we were bumping into each other and saying ‘sorry, sorry’ all the time! As if silence was what had kept us in a cohesive sense of unity.

Afterwards, when the retreatants have gone to their homes all over the world, there is still this awareness that they are there, connected through this shared intention to practice being mindful in our lives.

And having felt the sweetness of the sangha on retreat, we find our sangha in the outer world. Though they didn’t sit beside us in the meditation hall, or across the table in the dining hall, or share a room with us in the dormitory, or walk back and forth beside us in the walking hall, still we know them to be our sangha sisters and brothers, sharing our intention to hold the world in an open embrace. We recognize them in their compassion, their supportive or inspirational energy, and their willingness to be present. A sangha is not a clique or a club that let’s you in under certain conditions or has the right to keep you out. It is, in its broadest sense, those people in your life who nourish you, who support you in your practice, even if they don’t know it.

So after a retreat, even after the serenity has lessened, we take home the three refuges. In our daily lives we are supported by them. They comfort us, inspire us and keep us as present as we can be in this moment. That is the long lasting gift of the retreat. And it is a gift not just to ourselves but to those around us. Taking this time for ourselves is an act of generosity to the world.

Let me know your thoughts on this.

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