My poetry teacher recently began class by having us ‘sit and do nothing.’ She said this wasn’t meditation, that we didn’t have to breathe or sit in a special way or anything. Afterwards she asked what we noticed and mentioned that she noticed her sensations much more. Those few minutes of ‘doing nothing’ were very helpful to the students.
She may have thought that those few minutes were not meditation, but in fact they were. Meditation at its most basic is sitting and knowing you are sitting. Meditation is not about altering the breath. Noticing the breath — resting our attention with the natural breath — can be a useful way to anchor into a neutral, dependable sensation, but actively changing the breath is not necessary, and not desirable for the main body of the meditation.
For a few-minutes meditation it doesn’t matter too much how you sit, though even for short periods I find it useful to adjust to a balanced, unrestricted seated posture. The postural recommendations for sitting arise out of compassion for meditators so that they don’t end up with back aches, cramps and strained muscles after sitting for long periods of time. It is not a strict aspect of the practice, but a kind one! I think the poetry teacher was trying to overcome any resistance some of the students might have had to the idea of doing meditation, but she gave them misinformation that only reinforced their misconceptions. Still, offering a little meditation period before creative effort was very wise of her and I hope she does it again as we all felt much freer to simply write.
If those few minutes made such an impact, imagine how deeply felt an extended retreat is! We have first and foremost the opportunity to really remember to again and again set our paired intentions to be present and compassionate with ourselves. With each cycle of practice on a retreat, it becomes easier and more inviting to do. The awareness becomes both stronger and more subtle.
The alternating of sitting and walking meditation throughout the day allows our bodies to balance, but it also gives most of us more walking meditation than we would otherwise do. We develop a pattern of really being present as we walk. Out in nature, we attune to its rhythms and slow down our minds. We have lots of sensation as our body moves through space. And quite possibly when we return to our regular daily walks, we are able to become more present as well.
Greater opportunity for inquiry makes the retreat more than just a practice or a time out. The repeated sits have the effect of stilling the pond of our being, so that the patterns of thought stand out in contrast. In the silence we can hear all that thinking more clearly, and hopefully see it more dispassionately, with loving curiosity. We can ask “Is this true? How do I know this is true?” for any repeating statement or belief that arises. The insights that arise out of this process can stay with us and guide us in our lives in a meaningful way.
The tension that arises in the body — shoulders working their way up towards our ears, jaws clenching, hands tightening into fists, etc. — are our body’s way of holding on to the past or the future. When we notice a thought, we can pause and notice the related tension that has risen up to hold it. It is easier and potentially more productive to focus on releasing the tension than to talk ourselves out of thinking. When the tension goes, so goes the thought. It may creep back in five minutes later, but as long as we are able to be present with our experience, we can compassionately release it again and again. Eventually the pattern will soften and release to a greater degree.
The biggest gift of a retreat is silence. Letting go of the spoken word and eye contact is like a perfect bubble of release from the responsibility of perfecting our personality and all the decisions about how to skillfully interact with others. Entering this sacred silence is a delicious time out. The most important responsibility we have on a retreat is to honor each other’s space and silence. Imagine there is a buffer around each person at the retreat and we don’t invade the buffer zone. We may sit right next to each other in meditation or at a dining table, etc., but the buffer is there. On a longer retreat, the buffer is palpable like a force field of awareness. I have talked about this in sharing my experience of longer retreats, how we take refuge in the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha. We simply divest of that interacting aspect of our daily lives and go inward, sensing our connection in a much deeper way. We experience the compassionate support of the sangha, the retreat community, in the shared experience of the practice.
On retreat most meditators sink right into the silence with gratitude, sometimes surprising themselves. It is often the most talkative among us who find such relief in silence. Other retreatants may struggle with remembering their vow. Giving up spoken words is not something we are usually asked to do, or perhaps we were asked to do it as children and being asked as adults brings on a certain rebelliousness. But silence is a great gift to ourselves and a sign of respect and caring to those in our sangha on the retreat.
Because the weather predictions for last Thursday included rain, I developed an alternative indoor activity for some of the walking periods. As it turned out we had sunny weather, but all but one of the meditators chose to participate in the alternative activity as well.
Since we have been discussing balance for over eight weeks, and most recently have been focusing on the Buddha’s River analogy, I brought collage materials for the meditators to create their own versions of the river and the shores. Of course, they were free to collage anything they wanted, not just the analogy, but most of them actually did the river in one way or another.
My role was to provide supplies and to remind everyone to stay in the process and not think about the product. There was a fireplace in the meditation room and I told them to imagine that we would be burning our finished products at the end of the retreat. This was an attempt to free them from getting caught up in the fear-based ambition to make them ‘good.’ Of course, everyone took their pieces home at the end of the retreat. All the works were stunning, heartfelt and will most likely serve as valuable reminders of the insights that came forth in their making. Here is one student’s collage she generously agreed to share. You can see the river running diagonally and the two shores.
The students were instructed to pack themselves lunches and snacks that would be taste treat offerings. Since we all ate in different locations on the grounds, I don’t know what anyone else brought, but everyone said at the end of the retreat that they had thoroughly tasted and enjoyed their food in mindfulness that surprised them. One student said she was reminded of a Zen retreat she attended 30 years ago where she was told to masticate thoroughly. We talked about how valuable it is to notice these messages we come upon in our thoughts, a much more valuable skill than actually being able to chew 32 times before swallowing!
The day ended with an opportunity for each student to come out of silence and briefly share highlights and challenges they experienced during the day, if they wanted to. The sharing was rich and, because all the collagers were willing to show their work, quite beautiful.
I feel so fortunate to be able to share the gifts of meditation with my students, and with those who read this blog. May all beings be able to take time for themselves to unplug and dwell in sacred silence.
If you are not part of my class but would like to experience a retreat, there are many opportunities to do so nowadays, depending on where you live and how able you are to travel. I highly recommend Spirit Rock Meditation Center here in Marin County, CA, USA for any length of retreat.
If you would like to put together a group of meditators or people who would like to learn to meditate, and if you have a place conducive for a day long retreat, feel free to contact me either to be a retreat leader or to offer guidance. (I work as always on a dana (donation) basis. If it includes travel it would be dana plus expenses.)
On this blog there are seven labels for ‘retreat.’ To find out more about the retreat experience check them out. To create your own retreat at home, consider following Sylvia Boostein’s book Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There.
If you have sat a day long, then it is quite reasonable to believe that you can sit a weekend or week long retreat. Don’t doubt your ability to practice. It is the naturally-arising activity of our nature!