Category Archives: silence

Great Gratitude Retreat

I just led a daylong Great Gratitude retreat that seemed to leave everyone in a state of bliss and yes gratitude, according to their end of the day sharing.



Going into silence is such a delicious thing to do, although people always think it sounds scary. ‘How can I possibly not talk for hours (and in the case of longer retreats, days) on end?” Easy! One student at the end mentioned how surprised she was at how pleasant it was to be quiet, to not have to think of something to say, and to be together as a sangha in mutual appreciation without needing to communicate orally or even by eye contact. This lovely interior experience is fully supported by the community, and that’s something people forget when they think about going into silence.


We did a traditional Vipassana Buddhist style retreat: sitting meditations alternated with outdoor walking meditations. The decks with their boards set the natural walking meditation aisles for formal walking meditation. The gardens were for less formal meandering and communing with nature. At different points throughout the day meditators would take a seat by the waterfall to do a listening meditation. One meditator kept returning to the base of an old oak. At the end of the day sharing she said it helped her feel her roots. One meditator took note of the great number of species of animals that share the garden with us, sensing community. Another noticed her comparing mind, how enjoying the garden got infiltrated by thoughts of ‘Why isn’t my garden like this?’ One meditator developed gratitude for her feet as she did walking meditation, and recognized what a gift they are, how some people don’t have the use of their feet or their feet are in pain. One meditator felt the flush of creativity that being fully present can provide.

You might say well of course it is easy to be present and grateful in a garden on a beautiful spring day, but what about being present amidst life’s difficulties? What about being present with pain and hard choices?

We practice in the garden so that we learn the way to the present moment in any situation. We learn here and apply what we have learned out in the busy world. Since so much of what we struggle with in life has little to do with conditions in the world but much to do with how the mind grasps for, clings to and turns away from whatever arises in our experience, it isn’t necessary to provide unpleasant situations to get the mind to struggle. The mind does this with everything, until we recognize it and find that we can make room for all of life experience if we simply expand our spacious open embrace.

Even in a lovely setting we can find something to bother us. As I walked on the cedar decking, I couldn’t help noticing how shabby it was, how mottled, how in need of repair. But after a few periods of seated and walking meditation, I walked the same course and found the same boards to be beautiful pieces of natural art! That’s how the mind is. It finds fault in conditions and situations, and then when it settles down — when the tuning fork of meditation has brought it into balance — it sees beauty everywhere. So if we took this retreat on the road, if we transported it to a slum in Mumbai, at first we might be overwhelmed by the squalor, but after a period of meditation we would begin to see the beauty of the people, the colors, the patterns, the sounds and the energy of life being lived. We would, as people often do, fall in love with something that we had felt such aversion for just a few hours before.

Another example: I used to go on a wonderful Buddhist women’s retreat up above the world famous Muir Woods where towering redwood trees fill a deep canyon. During each day of my retreat I would walk down the trail into the canyon and enjoy the quiet of the areas away from the tourist-trodden trails. Towards the end of the retreat, I decided to venture into the populated areas. In that state of mindfulness, my heart filled with such love for the flocks of this colorful species with their bright t-shirts and hats, each little grouping a family or fellow-travelers having its own little world of interaction. What a falling away there was for me of the attitudes, opinions and cynical judgments I carried about my species, especially in crowds. This is the gift of meditation. It doesn’t turn us into zombies. It removes the dust-trapped veils that have prevented us from seeing clearly and experiencing great gratitude for this gift of being present, wherever we are.

So what is ‘great gratitude’ and how does it differ from plain old gratitude? Plain old gratitude is counting your blessings, and that’s a lovely thing to do. What kind of unfeeling ingrates would we be not to be grateful for the good fortune we have? People who have less health, wealth, love and beautiful surroundings would say, ‘Hey, if you’re not grateful, then step aside. if I had what you have I would be soooo grateful.’ How often have we been in that position ourselves, thinking ‘if only’ we had the blessings some other person has, we would be so incredibly grateful? (That ‘if only’ is a very painful place, one that doesn’t disappear with acquisition, but sets the stage for more ‘if only’ desires.)


So we count our blessings. Of course we do. We are not automatons that don’t feel pain at the loss of these kinds of blessings. But when a loss happens, through our meditation practice, we stay present with the experience, noticing what arises. We might notice the heavy pressure in the chest that is so often associated with loss, for example. We stay present enough to hold ourselves with tender compassion. We are willing to feel what we feel and not rush to get past it. We understand that the dark valleys of our lives are where the fertile soil is. Instead of wallowing in the mud, getting stuck in our story of loss, we nurture ourselves, have patience with the process, and grow from our experiences.
One thing we learn from loss is that the blessings we can count on our fingers are conditional: our health, our wealth, our homes, our loved ones. These things we are grateful for are finite, changeable and undependable — all the things that make being attached to them a sure fire way to cause dukkha, suffering.

Is there anything that is infinite that we can be grateful for? Yes! We can feel great gratitude for this very moment just as it is, with all its joys and all its sorrows. As long as we are conscious we always have this very moment. Pleasant or unpleasant we have the experience of being present.

In moments when our conditional gratitude falters, when we want things to be different from the way they are, or we want things to stay the same and we dread change, can we open to that infinite quality of gratitude for being present simply to experience it all? And in that way can we soften our tight clinging and our fear-based belief that without these things we could not go on?

The practice (for the retreat and perhaps for you if you choose to do it) is to notice both the finite gratitude for specific blessings we can name, and then expand into infinite gratitude for this very moment just as it is. There is room for it all if we are present and compassionate.
We feel gratitude for being conscious in each moment as it reveals itself. We learn the fine art of holding it lightly and savoring it. This devout gratitude sheds light on the darkest despair, allowing us to discern the treasure buried deep within. It allows us to experience pain as a symphony of passing sensations. Deep unconditional gratitude can be a constant companion that opens our eyes and our hearts. And ultimately, at the moment when we breathe our last precious breath, we are grateful even for this.

We can simply let the great gratitude breathe us, illuminating our lives.

Wise Speech arises out of silence

Wise Speech rests in and arises out of a spacious peaceful, deeply connected silence.


So I want to begin our exploration of of this aspect of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path with that silence. In class we rested in the silence of our meditation on a foggy morning that lent a cozy muffled silence to our practice.


What comes up for you when I say ‘silence’?


For many of us silence is not a welcoming, deepening sense of connection at all. Perhaps we are uncomfortable being left alone with our thoughts, so we fill our minds and our environment with noise to mask them.


We may have had to learn to navigate in a dangerous world of potentially violent silences, developing hyperactive skills on reading the body language of parents, boyfriends or spouses, in order to protect ourselves or our children. This is a sad skill that so many women, in particular, have had to develop. The CIA has found that women have the heightened ability to read men’s motivations, to read the silences and see beyond the words. So women make up 50% of the staff at the CIA and the majority of its leadership. Some pretty hard-earned early life training those women had, no doubt.


We may have been silenced, told to know our place, to stuff down our words, to hold our tongue, or to “stifle” ourselves, as TV character Archie Bunker so often said to his wife Edith on the sitcom ‘All in the Family’. More insidiously, we may have been asked to be silent and keep secrets we now know we should have reported to the nearest responsible adult. (If any of this brings up personal memories, please pause and send some metta, loving-kindness to that young person that was you, and to that aspect of self that may feel to blame. Then if you are able to do so, send loving-kindness to the person who put you in that position. May they be well. May they be at ease. May they be at peace. Metta practice is not always easy, but it is always powerful in its healing.)


Here are some traditional sayings from a variety of cultures that remind women to curb any inclination to speak up:


Women’s tongues are like lambs’ tails – they are never still. – English
A dog is wiser than a woman; it does not bark at its master. – Arabic
The tongue is the sword of a woman and she never lets it become rusty. – Chinese
Where there are women and geese, there’s noise. – Japanese
Nothing is so unnatural as a talkative man or a quiet woman. –Scottish
When both husband and wife wear pants it is not difficult to tell them apart – he is the one who is listening. – American
The woman with active hands and feet, marry her, but the woman with overactive mouth, leave well alone. – Maori


While a group of women together can certainly carry on a lively conversation, studies show that in social settings with both genders, women talk less. Women often hold back. Women often stifle themselves without men needing to request it. The culture has historically required it, and women, especially women of a certain age, still feel that unspoken demand to stifle ourselves.


Why does this matter? The person who holds the proverbial talking stick is the one who directs or at least influences the action of the group. To be quiet is to go along with the program. To speak up is to take charge, to be a leader. Women of the 21st Century have at last taken the reins of leadership to a much greater degree than women have for many millennia! Hooray! Given that newfound sense of expression, why would we want to be silent?


We can see why our attitude toward silence is plagued with distrust, discomfort and fear: Silence is repression. Silence is a scary emptiness that will let the inner demons out.


I understand this, believe me! And yet I keep championing silence, particularly a long silent retreat! Why? Because a silent retreat is a key part of the insight meditation experience. A daily meditation practice gives us a grounding in the skills to be present and to quiet the mind, but on a silent retreat, even the periods of not meditating are in silence and attentive to the present moment.


In those periods when we are not meditating but are still very much in silence, there is a unique opportunity to see the nature of our thinking mind, to see the thoughts that repeat themselves ad nauseum.


We can rail against the thoughts or we can develop a compassionate, curious but clear relationship. We might address a recurring thought with, ‘Oh you again! Haven’t heard from you in, gosh, twenty-two minutes!’ We can think about Siddhartha sitting under the Bodhi Tree greeting Mara again and again, saying, “I know you.” These recurring thoughts are Mara too. We can recognize them without going to battle with them. A simple noting is sufficient, and can short circuit the train of thought. If the thought is a plan, we note ‘planning’. Likewise, ‘memory’ or ‘regret’. We might develop our own little creative ways to cease struggling with thoughts and yet curtail them. For example, I sometimes think of the thought as a ribbon I tie into a bow that turns into a butterfly and flies away. This keeps the process light. We are so prone to being punitive, it helps to have a light-hearted method that keeps us from succumbing to antagonism.


Only when we give ourselves an extended state of silence without much external stimulation do we begin to really see clearly the nature of persistent thoughts. We see their associative connections. We might notice that a sight or smell or texture triggered a particular memory that brought forth an emotion that caused a physical manifestation, such as tension in a certain area of the body. What useful information! We can apply compassionate inquiry and discover we have been operating on a totally erroneous assumption. This can be big life changing news that can liberate us and end suffering.

Silence allows us the spaciousness of mind to see the weave in the fabric of our mental processes. That spaciousness in the environment, in the silence, the stillness of being, the easing of physical tension, the simple structure of the retreat schedule that takes away the constant need to make decisions or to get things done, all helps to settle our minds and open our hearts to the sweet rich quality of being. With that clarity of mind and compassion of heart, we are inclined to have insights that awaken us.


So as scary as silence may seem to us, in fact when we give ourselves to it in this way, it proves to be the greatest gift we have ever received.

Day Long Retreat

Last Thursday, instead of a 90-minute class, I led a day-long silent retreat at the guest house and gardens of one of my students. In the development of a meditation practice, a retreat of any length is so helpful. Coming into a seated meditation six or more times in the course of a day really instills a sensory recognition of that ‘just right position’ — a posture that relies on the spine and the sitz bones to support us, rather than on the muscles.

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!

The Sweet Silence of the Sangha on Retreat

In an August post I gave a pretty thorough accounting of the retreat experience at Spirit Rock. This late November retreat was ten nights instead of six in August, we had Teja Bell teaching Qi Gong instead of Janice Gates and Anne Cushman teaching yoga, it was a Thanksgiving retreat so we had a lovely celebration in silence, it was winter instead of summer, we had totally different teachers, and I cleaned toilets instead of vacuuming halls. Other than that it was very much the same! Okay, it was totally different!

But the main thing about any retreat I have attended was the same: the sweetness of the sangha in silence. Here are some thoughts I wrote down about that aspect of my experience:

The sweetest thing in all the world, besides babies and small children, is a sangha (community of retreatants) in silence. The quiet itself is delicious.

Internally the release from interaction is restful. I imagine it’s like the difference between a big box of 100 ping pong balls, bouncing off the walls and also bouncing off each other; and one ping pong ball in a small box, still bouncing off the walls (interior conversation) but able to come to rest more easily because there aren’t all the other surfaces to interact with.

The silence is like fine wine becoming more mellow as it ages. Each day of the retreat the sangha becomes more synchronized and sensate. No one bumps into anyone, as if the energy field around each person is more strongly sensed, and we all weave our way around each other, aware of each other without eye contact.

Slowing down in the silence, there’s presence, awareness and what arises out of that is a civility that feels incredibly loving and supportive. Doors are held for each other because we are aware of the others in a way that moving at a faster pace and in the blur of being caught up in conversation, we might not.

Silence is golden. And like gold, it’s value is determined by the collective. If people stop valuing it, it loses its value, because it can’t really be partially held in a close-knit sangha. It has to be universally valued and protected. Some people on this retreat were challenged in this regard. Once you start talking, it can be like starting back smoking or drinking for an addict. It’s impossible to have just one. And your behavior affects everyone, though you think you are being discreet. It’s like a small pin prick at first, but grows as more people succumb to the temptation. Still, for the most part, the sangha was in silence and it was magical.

Apparently not all retreats everywhere hold the same traditions around silence. My roommate Yun from LA had not been to Spirit Rock before and her experience of retreats was that you could have eye contact and use ‘functional talk.’ I told her that there were some yogi jobs in the kitchen, where functional talk might be necessary, but other than that, no. She was shocked! But at the end of the retreat, she was quite blissful and grateful for this stricter interpretation of silence.

On the last evening of the retreat we were told to experiment talking for the dinner hour. The first thing I noticed about talking is that the questions we ask each other automatically take us out of the moment. ‘How has the retreat been for you? Where do you head off to tomorrow?” Suddenly we’re in the past or the future instead of the present moment.

Released from the cocoon of the silence, I was amazed how incredibly unskillful I became in my actions, forgetting to do things like eat! like take my pills! like go to my room to get my coat because it was getting cold! I also noticed we all started bumping into each other. “Excuse me” and “Oh, sorry” were suddenly necessary. It became then even more clear that the silence had energetically connected us in a symbiotic union, like cells that know they are in the same body, not separate beings. And the talking made us think of ourselves as separate again.

In this state of symbiotic union it was easy to understand how birds fly en masse, turning all at the same time. Now this could be creepy (think of the Borg on Startrek Next Generation), but this was not a one-mind situation. We were all very much our own individual selves, making individual choices, but in our interactions things became very simple and slow.

Last night, a week after the retreat had ended, I went to my circle singing group taught by the extremely talented singer and gifted teacher Pollyanna Bush. When the time came for us to take turns singing impromptu solos, I created an ode to the sweet silence of the sangha. The others in the group were so grateful to have that glimpse into the restful quality of retreat life, they didn’t want to change the mood, so the next singer, the extremely talented painter Jane Wilson, asked for the same tune (Pollyanna plays the piano for us) and sang a thank you song. Lovely!

Often people who haven’t sat a retreat say they could never go that long without talking, especially people who consider themselves talkative. But surprisingly it is the people who are most talkative who find the greatest relief and release in the comfort of silence. I consider myself talkative, and that has certainly been the case for me. The silence is the absolutely best thing about a retreat, as wonderful as the teachings, the food, the setting and the care of the staff are, the silence is the greatest teacher, the softest comforter and the pure sweetness of any retreat.