Category Archives: Spirit Rock Meditation Center

Reflections on the Climate Crisis Summit at Spirit Rock

No Time to Lose: A Dharma Response to Climate Change
In the beautiful community hall of Spirit Rock Meditation Center over four hundred people gathered on Sunday, September 15, 2019, joined by many more live streaming. Led by Buddhist teacher and author James Baraz, the event was filled with the big names of insight meditation, including Buddhist teacher/authors Jack Kornfield, Tara Brach and Joanna Macy, who has for decades actively advocated for environmental responsibility.

The Great Hall at Spirit Rock Meditation Center holding our beloved planet

The event was a fundraiser for OneEarthSangha, a key player in the emergence of a Buddhist response to climate change, providing a hub for information, connection and organizing. Founded five years ago by a graduate of the dharma leadership program and a burned out executive from World Wildlife Fund who found sustenance and strength to renew his dedication to the environment through Buddhist practice, the 10,000 member organization offers EcoSattva training to anyone, or any group, interested in deepening their understanding of environmental issues and finding a way to help. They work in partnership with other Buddhist environmental organizations such as Earth Holder, Buddhist Climate Action Network and Global Buddhist Climate Change Collective.

A few environmental organizations had tables in the lobby to help attendees find other direct ways to get involved: Citizens Climate Lobby, Sustainable Fairfax, Marin350, and Pachmama Alliance.

There were in person presentations by James Baraz, Joanna Macy, Belvie Rooks, and others, as well as video-conferences with the co-founders of OneEarth Sangha and Tara Brach. There was a recorded interview with the revered Buddhist monk and scholar Analayo, a dharma talk by Jack Kornfield and a sharing of Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunburg’s talk to the United Nations.

We were offered several opportunities to actively participate. Canadian musician and environmental songwriter Jennifer Berezan and her group had us standing, singing and swaying with ‘Praises for the world’. The hall has amazing acoustics (funny for a room where a majority of time is spent in silence!) so when we were all standing and singing and swaying the words “praises for the world” was powerful.

We were offered the opportunity to write down on a piece of paper our personal intentions of how to use our gifts for the benefit of the earth. We were asked to make a copy for ourselves and put the other one in a basket. All the gathered intentions will be put into the dharma wheel at the entrance to the retreat area.

The effect of offering heartbreaking information, uplifting music, insights and the opportunity to express our own hopes and fears, made for an emotional roller coaster of an experience. We were allowed to crack open and encouraged to feel our sadness, but we were also given means to take care of ourselves and to use whatever gifts we have to help.

The key takeaways from the event are these:

This is no time to play small, asking ‘who am I to….’ make a difference.

Action absorbs anxiety.

“We’re like children playing with their toys in the attic while the house is burning down.” – Buddha

“Climate change is the most important topic for the dharma hall.” – Analayo

The dharma holds the key to sustainability.

Let go of the need to know how it will turn out. Just do what you are doing wholeheartedly.

The harm that has been and is being done to the earth is done out of ignorance and confusion. If we can understand that, we can let go of the anger and come from a more empowered place that can truly make a difference. Anger, even righteous anger, is poisonous and will not bring the desired results. It is a toxic fuel.

“You have no moral authority over those who can feel your underlying contempt.” – Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Othering (us against them, seeing people with different understanding as the ‘enemy’) is the primary disease of the world. Hatred ceases by love alone.

Greed, anger and delusion (which the Buddha called the Three Poisons) are the challenges we all face. We can see the greed embraced by our culture and inherent to our economic system. Joanna Macy said ‘The Industrial Growth Society’ thrives on these three poisons. You can see the greedy, ‘I’ve got mine and I want more’ mentality on which the whole system is built.

Delusion keeps people blind to what’s happening and the causes and effects of their actions and inactions. Resignation is also a part of delusion. The majority of us live in delusion about climate crisis, but we are waking up.

Part of the resistance to waking up to what is going on is the uncomfortable feeling of ‘I’m responsible’. It is far better to say ‘I am taking responsibility to change the situation.’

‘Just fall in love with what is.’ – Joanna Macy
Can we love the earth just as it is right now, wounds and all? Can we love the earth as it burns? We can never return to what was, but we can craft a life-sustaining society through the collapse by learning how to take care of each other.

Then Joanna led us in a dyad exercise where we took turns finishing the sentences:
“As the current world order collapses, I am grateful for___________________”
“As the current world order collapses, I fear ___________________________”
“As the current world order collapses, I want to remember _______________”

She said that the current order keeps power by pathologizing our disobedience and grief. Big Pharma has a pill for that, and others industries offer distractions from our grief. We need to allow ourselves to be sad!

She talked about the Great Unraveling. Since she was talking to a Buddhist group she didn’t need to educate us about the nature of impermanence, how things fall apart. This is the way of all life. Then she talked about the Great Turning, the welling up of consciousness to meet the challenges we face together to build a sustainable community of all beings.

Belvie Rooks’ presentation was profoundly touching as she shared her poetry and her personal process of grieving the loss of her husband. She is a cofounder of Growing a Global Heart.  She shared something her grandmother told her: “But for such a time as this that you were born.”

There was such a powerful sense that yes, we were born for this time. And it is not by accident that so many of us are waking up from the numbness of going along to get along, of reacting with greed, hatred and delusion to life; of feeling separate and lost. But for such a time as this that we were born. If a woman who was born into slavery could recognize her own purpose and power, then surely we can stop making excuses for our self-absorption and inaction. Yes, we need to take care of ourselves, and recognizing the Three Poisons active in us is an important part of that. Can we see greed, hatred and delusion at work in ourselves and in our world? And can we see ourselves as intrinsic and vital to what the earth and all life needs now?

Coming home

spirit-rockWhen I first arrived at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in the early 1990’s, it felt like a homecoming. Home to the lovely woodsy canyon surrounded by oak-studded hills. Home to the easy warmth and openness of the people — the teachers, staff and fellow students — the sweetness of sangha, the community of supportive fellow meditation practitioners. And home to the Buddha’s teachings that give me a framework to look at my own experience and insights. This was a place I could belong without ‘buying into’ some belief. Instead I was offered room to grow in my own way, at my own pace. It’s what teacher and Spirit Rock co-founder Jack Kornfield so aptly calls a path with heart.

So that’s what I want for my students when they come to my weekly class: To feel they have come home, and that there is room for them to grow into their true selves, aligned with their own inner wisdom. Together we cultivate spaciousness to be present with whatever arises in our moment by moment experience, and we meet it with friendliness, respect and curiosity. We learn that we have nothing to defend, nothing to hide and nothing to prove. We come home to ourselves as we come home to our breath in each moment.

Our purpose when we come together is not to learn about Buddhism, although we do become increasingly familiar with the teachings. We are not accumulating knowledge to become Buddhist scholars. We’re not here to accumulate anything. Instead we’re learning to gently let go of a lot of previously unexamined opinions, beliefs and judgments that cloud our view and keeps us from experiencing the joy and beauty of this life in every moment, no matter what our current experience. We are using the wise teachings of the Buddha as a framework, map or guide, so that our own individual explorations can be understood in greater context.

The Buddha told his students, ‘See for yourself.’ So that’s what we do here. If you give yourself the gift of meditation practice — on a daily basis, in a weekly class and in the extended silence of an occasional retreat — you can see for yourself how the practice benefits your life. All we are doing really is offering own inner wisdom what it needs in order to bloom within us. When that wisdom is heard and valued, there are gentle and sometimes remarkable internal shifts of perspective that are liberating.

Why Insight Meditation?
There are approximately 500 different schools of Buddhism. Not all of them have made their way to the US, but even here we have many choices, such as Zen, Tibetan, Shambhala and Vipassana/Insight Meditation. So how does one decide the one that’s a good fit? Since Spirit Rock was my first real experience of Buddhism, I can’t speak very knowledgeably about other traditions, but recently, at the Buddhist Insight Network conference I attended, Gil Fronsdal gave a dharma talk that included a helpful overview. He asked us to imagine a spectrum of Buddhist traditions ranging from very religious to totally secular. On the very religious end are deities, supernatural beings and ghosts, rituals, devotion, faith — all the makings of what we think of as religion.

Insight Meditation, especially as it is taught in the West, falls on the far other end of the spectrum. It is as secular as you can get and still follow the Buddha’s teachings. There are no deities, and the Buddha is not a god, but an enlightened teacher and inspiration. For those of us on this path, the more secular approach closely follows the Buddha’s own path 2600 years ago, since he kept it all very simple. He was an enlightened teacher generously sharing concepts that helped people to awaken to their own Buddha nature.

The Buddha’s interests were psychological rather than religious. Nothing that has been recorded of his teachings indicates any interest in whether there is a god — and if so how many — or what happens to us when we die. Those kinds of questions are at the heart of all religions, but the Buddha, the great investigator, seems to have had no interest in investigating such questions. He accepted reincarnation as true, it wasn’t the focus of his personal investigation or his teachings, and a Buddhist practitioner, at least in this tradition, can rest in the ‘I don’t know’ mind around that and pretty much anything, really. That resting in not knowing is at the heart of our practice. Like the Buddha. we can focus our interest on this life, right here, right now, and how to live it in a way that does not create suffering for ourselves and others.

As his wise teachings spread to different countries, they were incorporated into the already existing religious traditions, and became new schools of Buddhism. All forms of Buddhism adhere to the original teachings, but they emphasize different aspects and amalgamate the teachings into their cultural comfort zones. As Buddhism arrived in the West, the same thing is happening.

So we have a wide variety of traditions. Which one draws us? Which one, if any, feels like a homecoming?

The Insight Meditation tradition appeals to those who are not looking for God or a religion — either because they already have one or because they have no interest in one. Instead they are looking for ways to cope with life’s challenges. Even though we have a lot of fun in our class, nobody comes for the fun of it. The original impulse to find a meditation group comes more from heeding our own inner wisdom’s call to pay attention, and to develop the skills to do so.

You can see why this is the tradition that has been readily adopted by mental health professionals in the West. It has come to be taught in hospitals, schools, prisons, etc. without reference to the Buddha, just taught as Mindfulness.

There are scholars in this tradition, who study and translate the Pali Canon, the written record of the Buddha’s words as recorded 500 years after his death. (Before that it was an oral transmission down through generations of monks.) These scholars perform very important work. But this is a living tradition, and it is in the practice of meditation, in each of our own inner investigation and aha moments that the Buddha’s insights and wisdom lives on.

When I first ‘came home’ to Spirit Rock, I was already leading a meditation class a few miles away, having had my own deep experience of a series of insights that helped me recover from a debilitating illness. I had written a book and had been asked to teach. When my class went on a field trip to Spirit Rock, I had no idea it would change my life.

I really appreciated the way the Buddha’s mind worked, and how all the insights I’d had in my own practice fit so nicely within the framework he created. I could see how all that I had experienced was just a normal arising of a mind that has had the opportunity to quiet down and be present with compassion. What a relief! And what an inspiration! I decided to stop teaching for awhile and simply open myself to the teachings of the Buddha by attending a weekly class at Spirit Rock. Then about ten years ago, I was asked to teach, and I have been teaching ever since.

Rituals
I don’t want to give the impression that Vipassana has no rituals. It comes from the monasteries of southeast Asia, and if you go there, certain rituals will be very apparent. But at Spirit Rock, IMS in Barre, MS; and in the many other smaller sanghas throughout the US and beyond, you will probably find just a few:

  • In general, shoes are removed before entering the meditation hall.
  • Silence is maintained during meditation periods and may be requested by the teacher at other times.
  • Bells are rung to end the meditation, sometimes at the beginning, and on retreats as calls to practice. (My favorite of all rituals!)
  • There is usually some kind of altar with a statue of Buddha on it.
  • And there is bowing. At first it was difficult for me to be in a room with an altar and to bow to it. How is this not bowing to a god? I wondered. But then I heard somewhere that when we bow we put our head below our heart, and that helped me to recognize the benefit of releasing the churning patterns of the thinking mind and allow the heartspace to inform me.
    Mostly we are not bowing in this deep way. We simply press our hands together at the end of meditation, which I see as a way to acknowledge the experience, and to thank myself for taking the time to meditate.
    If we bow to the Buddha, it is out of deep respect and gratitude to a great enlightened teacher.
    And we may bow to our own teachers as well, not because they are ‘masters’ but because we are grateful for their taking the time to practice, to learn, to awaken to whatever degree they are able, and to generously share their wisdom.
  • On retreat, depending on the teachers, sometimes there is chanting, especially in the evening after the dharma talk. Very lovely and deep.

Gil’s talk about where our tradition fits on the spectrum from religious to secular was very freeing for me. Not only did I see that I was in the right place for me — no surprise there — but I realized that I had felt I should know all about the other traditions. For example, I had felt I should know the names of the deities represented in Tibetan Buddhist art. ‘I should, I should’ — that’s always a clue. That word ‘should’ comes from a place of fear, of insufficiency, not-enough-ness, of craving to be accepted, to shore up my identity as a ‘true Buddhist’ or whatever idea I might have had. But now I could see that feeling I need to name all the deities of another tradition makes as much sense as a Presbyterian thinking there is some failing in their not knowing all the Catholic saints!

The real key is to practice wholeheartedly in the path we have chosen, the one that feels aligned with our truest nature. And for me that is this very secular, very portable practice of Insight Meditation.  What about you?

A very different kind of retreat

spiritrockI have just returned from a three day conference/retreat of Intersangha, the annual meeting of the Buddhist Insight Network held this year at Spirit Rock Meditation Center.

It’s always wonderful to stay on retreat at Spirit Rock: to be there when the sun sets, to go to bed after an inspiring dharma talk and a walk under the stars, to wake to a bell, to walk in the still dark morning to meditate wrapped in a shawl or blanket, and then to walk together in silence down to the dining hall as the sun rises.

On this retreat we had the most crystal clear blue sky with the hills as green as I’ve ever seen them, especially appreciated after our years of drought. I wasn’t taking photos but this one is a near approximation of the green we experienced.

Every retreat is different, but this gathering was a conference, held in the envelope of a retreat. We went into silence after the evening dharma talk as we went into the last meditation sit, and we stayed in silence through breakfast in the dining hall, which was especially sweet for me. Years ago I wrote this poem about the symphony of eating breakfast on retreat at Spirit Rock:

Breakfast, Day Four

The dining hall clatter becomes symphonic.

The ecstasy of scraping chairs and utensils!

I have never heard anything so beautiful

as the sound of a sangha in silence

earnestly clearing their plates.

                                                 – SN, June  2006

Happily I was able to re-enter that state of awareness on the first morning since there was no ‘Day Four’ this time!

Just like every other retreat we all had our yogi jobs to help maintain the space and to help the seven cooks keep us well-fed. I try to have a different yogi-job on each retreat, so over the years I have vacuumed dormitory halls, scrubbed showers, swept decks, cleaned bathrooms, washed vegetables, and cleaned the Council House. This time I maintained the foyer of the main meditation hall, washed glasses and refilled water for the teacher-presenters. 

The Buddhist Insight Network is a community of mostly North American sanghas (communities of meditation practitioners) in the Vipassana/Insight tradition. (There are over 500 schools of Buddhism, all on a wide spectrum from religious to secular. Our tradition is the most secular.) Those attending were teachers, community leaders and board members of their local sanghas. Some of what was shared were the practical aspects of how to best manage the challenges of administration of these non-profit organizations, but the formal talks were deep sharings of Buddhist teachings to a group of advanced meditation practitioners. Dharma teachers Rick Hanson (for whom I guest teach), Gil Fronsdal (founder of Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City and Insight Retreat Center in Santa Cruz), Kevin Griffin, Matthew Brensilver (who ran the conference) and Lori Wong, among others, gave inspiring talks. To share them now would be to parrot what was taught. I’d prefer let the teachings percolate within me, then let them influence my own explorations and sharings over the coming weeks and months. Such a rich experience, I definitely need time to digest!

 

The Intersangha was a group of 65 people adept at practicing wise speech, so even though this was not a silent retreat, the talking was skillful, supportive and inspiring. Even so, after so many talks, discussions and conversations, I felt full to bursting, like I couldn’t take in one more drop of information. And when I got home, I took a long deep nap.

With my class the next day, I shared the experience of being on retreat and encouraged them to give it a try. I asked them, and now I’m asking you:

  • Have you been on a silent meditation retreat? If yes, take a moment to reflect on the value you received. Remind yourself of that value from time to time, so that you may be inspired to attend again, perhaps once a year as a regular part of your practice.
  • If you haven’t been on a retreat, is it something you consider but then reject? Reflect now on any thoughts that come up in considering going on retreat. ‘Can’t afford it.’ ‘Don’t have the time.’ ‘I have too many responsibilities I can’t hand off.’ Or something else. For each of them, ask yourself: Is this true?
  • Is there something else that keeps you from attending? Perhaps fear of what the experience might entail? Perhaps the belief that you couldn’t possibly maintain silence, or maybe you’re just unwilling to do so? Maybe you’re worried that it will be a bad experience and you’ll feel stuck there. These are all typical concerns. And I certainly can’t guarantee that you won’t have a bad time. But if you do, it’s another opportunity to explore the nature of mind, of expectation, of preferences. And you can always leave. (Just be sure to tell the retreat manager!) Most attendees have some moments of discomfort amidst many moments of delight, awe and contentment. I encourage you to explore the possibility of going on a retreat. Find out for yourself!

Spirit Rock Meditation Center is a main retreat center but there are others as well. If you prefer something on the East Coast of the US, then check out Insight Meditation Society in Barrre, MS. Other smaller retreat centers are also worth checking out. You can go to the Buddhist Insight Network listing of residential retreats.

My experience with retreats deepens more and more each time I return to the sweet silence. What a relief from all the talking I normally love to do! Like anything else, it is something that needs to be tried in order to be understood. Resistance is typical. But attendance is so fruitful!

I am happy to answer any questions you may have about the retreat experience at Spirit Rock. Although I have been on retreats elsewhere, that is the only one I feel I have sufficient knowledge of to be able to provide information.

I have promised my class that I will set up a time for us to go on a field trip to Spirit Rock when no retreat is in session. Sometimes just being able to see exactly where you will be sleeping, eating and sitting helps to motivate a meditator to sign up for a retreat. If you are in the Bay Area and would like to join in the field trip, contact me and I’ll let you know when it will be.

I occasionally offer daylong retreats here in my home in San Rafael. We are most fortunate to have a beautiful space with views of Mount Tamalpais and garden paths to wander. We maintain silence throughout, alternating between sitting, walking and eating meditations. It’s a very deep and transformative experience. If you are interested in attending a daylong with me, let me know.

—-

A final few words about yesterday’s class: For my students coming from one direction there was a challenge of a road closure. I had alerted them and offered alternate routes, one of which was quite a maze of small roads (It would have helped if I’d mentioned whether to turn right or left!) Everyone got there, but one student was late. At the end of class she shared that she did get utterly lost, but she remembered to stay fully present with the experience and had the most beautiful ride.

A beautiful example of one of the reasons we practice!

 

Fear, Metta and the Long Goodbye

Letting Go of Fear
At the heart of every difficulty of letting go of anything we find fear, nestled like a snake, always ready to strike or strangle. Whatever object, habit or hindrance we set the intention to release is held tight by our fears.

While fear serves us well in certain situations, alerting us to imminent danger, it can very easily take over. It becomes fear on overdrive, a hyper-fear that doesn’t serve us. We develop tight patterns of fear that lock us into escalating tension and potentially illness as the body struggles to cope with being ever on high alert.

In class last week I led an exploration exercise that the participants said had a profound effect on them, and prompted some valuable insights. Unfortunately, I can’t replicate it here. Perhaps it is something I can lead in a workshop if there is interest. Let me know!

Sharon Salzberg at Spirit Rock
On Saturday I attended a Sharon Salzberg day long at Spirit Rock. She is a gifted teacher and very funny. She has many books, podcasts, etc. so you can get the benefit of her teachings if you are interested. Her primary focus has always been metta, lovingkindness, and that was the theme of the day. Metta practice is a natural antidote to fear, so it seemed like a wonderful opportunity to spend a day with the ‘queen of metta.’ She, along with Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield, founded Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, taking over an old building that had been a Christian monastery. She told the story of how it came to pass that there is a ‘Metta’ sign above the door of the main building. Originally the letters read something like Brothers of the Testament. They asked if maybe the letters could be rearranged to say something about them in their new retreat venture. And voila! 

img_1760

The Long Goodbye
Sharon had been told she would be among the first teachers to teach in the new beautiful community hall at Spirit Rock. But that was not to be as it is still under construction in its final final final stages.

I trust this was the final class I will ever attend in the old hall. The opening date keeps being moved forward so that I have now attended a number of classes that I assumed were the last class I would spend in that sweet old dilapidated temporary structure that has been standing some thirty years, but is now truly looking like it will dismantle itself at any moment. Each time I say a fond farewell and thanks for the memories over the past twenty-two years of spending rich hours there doing meditation, yoga, listening to dharma talks, participating in discussions and on occasion teaching. This time it was like ‘Goodbye, already!’ Is that because I’ve been practicing letting go of late? Ha! Really just sensory desire rising up to experience sitting in that beautiful new building. But still, once again, and for the very last time, let me say thank you to the old hall that has undoubtedly ushered in more awakening than any other prefab structure in America.

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 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.

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.