Category Archives: Spirit Rock Meditation Center

On Retreat at Spirit Rock

I just returned from a week-long silent meditation retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Marin County, CA. Ah, bliss!

On the last day of the retreat I felt like my mind was a still clear pond. I wasn’t spaced out or off somewhere else, as you might expect, but, on the contrary, more fully present than I had ever been. I could see my life, my choices and if there were any decisions that needed making, this would be the ideal vantage point from which to make them.

I also felt such a tender heart, as if I had set all my barriers down – fears and judgments – leaving just an expansive sweet fondness for all beings, especially my sangha (community) of 80+ fellow retreatants. Over the course of days we had become a lovely organic entity, moving smoothly and with tender care for each other, honoring each other’s practice. So that the beautiful gate down at the road really meant something: That within this area, held in this silence we could totally relax, totally release our defenses.

The silent etiquette of the retreat was the only ‘communication’ between retreatants, but it was a deep one. In our daily lives out in the regular world, this same kind of silent etiquette would smooth many passages. I think especially about going through doors on the way in and out of the meditation hall and other buildings. At Spirit Rock the hall doors all close by themselves, so if there is someone behind you, you hold it long enough for them to take over. There is this sensing of a presence behind you, a slight turn of the head to acknowledge this shared task, a sense of giving, a sense of gratitude. All done without comment or eye contact.

What rose out of the fertile spaciousness, expansive sense of time and the silence was a relaxed presence, an inner focus supported by a gentle network of kind intention and conscious awareness.

For those of you who contemplate going on a retreat but aren’t sure if it’s for you, here is a general run down of a day on retreat.

All the days between the first day and the last day hare pretty much the same schedule, which is relaxing in itself. No decisions needed, just listen to the bells and do the next thing. Bells ring to let you know it’s time to wake up, time to sit, time to walk, time to eat. Things get very simple. You get very slow. You stop and smell the proverbial roses, which in mid-summer at Spirit Rock take the shape of delicate bright yellow flowers massing in the dried golden grasses glowing in the sunlight, lightly dancing in the breeze; the scrubby golden hills studded with deep green oaks casting changing shadows from first light to last light, and you follow them all.

And then of course there are the deer, lizards and wild turkeys all of whom have a very different view of what bipeds are like from their counterparts beyond Spirit Rock. Sometimes I imagine some county-wide deer conference, and the deer from the rest of the county are skittish when they even think about bipeds. “They are loud, fast, thoughtless, especially when they are in their hard shiny moving shells. Run when you see them coming!”

And the Spirit Rock deer might say, “Hmmm, haven’t seen much of those. We don’t run from our bipeds. Why would we? They are silent, slow, and stare deep into our eyes. They’re a little strange but harmless.”

On the bulletin board where retreatants post notes to teachers and staff with questions or requests, I saw a note “To the deer” – an enraptured love poem no doubt. To my knowledge the deer never got to read it. But I’m sure the sense of it was felt.

The schedule for this retreat was a little different from most because it was a yoga and meditation retreat, so some of the walking meditation periods were replaced by yoga. But other than that the following schedule, recorded to the best of my recollection, is not atypical of a day on retreat.

5:30 bell
6:00 meditation
6:45 breakfast
7:30 yogi job
9:00 meditation
9:45 walking meditation
10:30 yoga
12:00 meditation
12:30 lunch (a large meal)
2:30 meditation
3:15 walking meditation
4:00 yoga
4:45 meditation
5:30 tea (a lighter meal)
7:00 meditation
7:45 dharma talk
8:30 walking meditation
9:00 meditation & chanting

If you do not get to the first meditation, no one will come pull you out of bed, but it is highly recommended, in order to get the full benefit of the retreat experience.

Silence explained.
Retreatants are in silence all of the time except in interview with teachers. We meet in small groups twice over the course of the retreat so the teachers can check in with us, see how we are doing and answer any questions.

The teachers are not in silence but are respectful of the silence, as are the staff, so that you don’t hear talking very often. If you have a question or problem, you leave a note on a bulletin board for housekeeping, cooking staff or the teachers. You can’t leave notes for other retreatants.

No Reading and No Writing
Yes! I know, these are two activities that are so closely interwoven into my normal daily life and the lives of so many people I know, and never with any sense of them being activities one ought not to waste time on (like TV) that it comes as a shock to be asked to relinquish them. At dharma talks so much wonderful information is being so entertainingly shared, it is challenging not to want to make notes, but for the most part retreatants resist. The dharma talks are taped and made available on, so notes aren’t necessary. But no reading? Not even something at bedside? It really does seem like being requested to give up oxygen. But it’s surprisingly easy to do. And valuable to experience.

How’s the food? One word: delicious! Also nutritious and bountiful. You will not starve on a Spirit Rock retreat. The Buddha taught the Middle Way, so denial of simple pleasures is not one of the Buddhist tenets.

That said, if you are an avid meat eater, there will be an adjustment to a vegetarian diet. While you are allowed to bring your own cooked, canned meats, I recommend giving Spirit Rock cooks a chance to convince you that you can survive without it. There may be foods you haven’t tried before, but it’s all good. To calm the terror of people who are afraid they will not get enough food or enough protein in particular, the communal refrigerator is stocked with hard boiled eggs, nut butter and other goodies. And the cupboard has crackers and other fillers. You can stop in to the dining hall any time day or night and nibble or drink tea. But the meals are quite filling, and I found I never needed a second helping of anything, and in fact had to cut back to even smaller portions as my britches were getting tight!

Retreatants can bring their own special needs food as well, but it must be stored in the dining hall refrigerator and cupboard. No food is allowed in the rooms.

Special dietary requirements (gluten intolerance, allergies) are accommodated with substitutes for main dishes at a separate table. But the cooks request that these be actual physical necessities rather than preferences, as it is a challenge to create extra dishes when you are already feeding 80+ people three times a day!

The dining hall itself is an architectural delight and an acoustical disaster. On my previous retreat I wrote a poem on the fourth day that likened all the plate clatter and chair scraping to a symphony. This retreat I never quite got to that point of aural euphoria, but even so, there is a sweetness to it if you recognize that all the noises are products of the earnest efforts of mindful diners. For those who can’t take it, there are picnic tables outside and beautiful quiet views.

Sleeping Quarters

The four dormitory buildings at Spirit Rock are built in the same beautiful Japanese influenced architectural style as the rest of the retreat area. Each is named for one of the Four Brahmaviharas: Metta (loving-kindness), Karuna (compassion), Mudita (sympathetic joy), and Upekka (equilibrium). Each building is two stories with eleven rooms on each floor. Each room (many singles, some double) is simple white walled, with a single bed, bedside table, folding chair, small sink and storage for clothing and personal items. Each has a single window either looking out over the hills or into the woods.

You can bring your own sheets and towels or rent them from Spirit Rock ($10 for all).

Each floor has an ample bathroom with double sinks, two toilet stalls and two showers (one has a tub). I never had to wait for use of any of the above.

There are accommodations for special needs such as wheelchair access, chemical sensitivities and allergies.

Except for those kinds of special accommodations, retreatants are asked to have no preferences as to shared or solitary room. It is part of Buddhist practice to accept what is given without preference. Our preferences really just get in the way of being available to whatever experience arises. You may prefer a solitary room but discover a sweetness in sharing one with someone you never met. You just don’t know.

After meals there are free periods where you might take hikes around the land. Spirit Rock has lots of hiking trails, through the grassy hills, up onto ridges, or up into canyons. Most trails offer a little Buddhist treat of a stone Buddha statue, a platform to sit on and meditate on the glories of nature, or an altar on which you can place mementos of loved ones who have passed on.

Because Spirit Rock is truly out in the middle of open nature, if you have any issues about lizards, snakes, etc., this might not be the retreat center for you. However, it might be just the place to work through your issues. Your choice!

Yogi Jobs
At some point during your free periods, or possibly during a walking meditation period, you have your ‘yogi job’. Every retreatant signs up to participate in the loving care of Spirit Rock or the feeding of fellow retreatants. The daily jobs are simple kitchen or housekeeping tasks that are easy to fulfill. The retreatant who takes them on with a ‘chop wood, carry water’ meditative attitude can find insight in even the most mundane tasks. In general the kitchen jobs require some degree of coming out of silence, since some collaboration is required. The housekeeping jobs are more solitary and can usually be done completely in silence. Full training for all jobs is provided the first evening of the retreat.

The belle of the retreat ball is literally the Buddhist bell. And my greatest joy on retreat is to be a bell ringer. I wrote a poem after my last retreat about the joys of bell ringing, and how the bell bowl, shown at the top of this blog, was purchased at the end of the retreat as a result of this powerful emotional response I seem to have to the bells. On this retreat I was too late to sign up for bell ringing. I was disappointed, but the disappointment was just fodder for noticing preferences. But that first evening they announced that they still needed a 2:15 PM bell ringer, and my hand shot right up! That was the bell ringer I was last time, and it’s a wonderful two-fold task, where you take the portable bell through the dormitories to wake any nappers, and then go out and ring the big bell in front of the meditation hall.

On the last day that I would ring the bell, I was full of so much emotion at the thought of not being able to ring it again, and also the retreat coming to a close, that my eyes welled up with tears. Powerful stuff, these retreats.

I am one of the fortunate ones who is at Spirit Rock once a week all year long. So many people came from all over the country, all over the world even, to attend this retreat. But even I in my weekly visits don’t see the beauty of the early morning sun filtered through the fog, the last light in the afternoon casting great shadows and shimmering the tips of the golden grasses. Nor do I get to walk out, the chanting of Om Mani Padme Hum ringing in my head to lie on a bench and stare up at the stars – the same stars as every place else, but somehow richer and deeper in the light-free San Geronimo Valley where Spirit Rock is nestled.

I hope I have given you some feeling of what it is like to be on retreat. Everyone’s experience is different, but they are really just variations on a theme. Everyone struggles with their own thoughts and emotions, their own physical challenges with so much sitting, their own weight of expectations and judgments. But at the end of the retreat, you can see in the faces as we form a closing circles and the nameless fellow retreatants become named, that all have been touched, moved and changed by the richness of this very personal experience.

The Spirit Rock website is listed in my list of links on the right side of this blog. Check it out. See if there is a retreat for you!

Please feel free to ask questions by clicking on ‘comment’ below, in case there is something I haven’t addressed to your satisfaction.

Celebrating the Winter Solstice

(This is a pastel by my friend Wendy Goldberg, titled Twilight Tomales.)
Paying attention to the seasons and rhythms of the earth helps me to stay more present, so I enjoy celebrating the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. This year on December 21, 2008 at 4 :04 AM PST the earth is tipped on its axis to the greatest degree, so that in the northern hemisphere, the sun appears at its lowest point. (Those in the southern hemisphere are experiencing the summer solstice.)

Throughout the centuries in cultures around the world winter solstice riturals have been focused on the return of the light. I can certainly understand that, especially in times before electric lights and central heat, but I want my personal celebration to focus on what is in this present moment. And what is most present in this moment is the darkness.

So in 1992 I wrote the poem that follows. It has since been incorporated into solstice rituals around the world, including our Friday morning class at Spirit Rock Meditation Center.

For yesterday’s class I was again asked to read my poem, but our dharma teacher Dana de Palma added a new twist, asking me to create a solstice altar, something we have not done before.

Here is the altar:
I happened to have a black and white patterned shawl that I set in the middle of our circle. On it I placed a small low table. I covered the top with aluminum foil to protect it and to reflect the candle light, and filled it with candles, small decorative objects, some natural items I had gathered on recent hikes, and some inspirational phrases (see below). Around the table I took some upturned circular lids from big yogurt cartons and made a ring of twelve around the table, placing a candle in each one. My sangha sisters Patti and Alice brought additional candles, and together with sangha brother Bill, we prepared the altar, making sure each candle was secure and wouldn’t burn down the building! (If it had not been wet out, I might have added some evergreens as well.)

After a delicious hour of yoga led by Janice Gates, in which she encouraged us to feel our expansive hearts radiating out in all directions, even while feeling totally present in our bodies and in the room, and a lovely meditation by Dana in which we felt our inner light growing with each breath, I read my poem and we did a candle lighting ritual.

As I introduced the poem, I told the circle about my own personal difficulty with some of the wording over the years, and how just that morning I had found a different way of seeing it. The poem tells us “Do not be afraid…” Well, I object to anyone telling me how to feel or not to feel, even a poem that I wrote! As practitioners, we are instructed to be with what is, not try to change our feelings.

But now I can see that the poem is just offering an opportunity to question some long held assumptions and beliefs about darkness, to look more closely at this culturally inherited negative story about darkness and see something more there than previously thought. Looking more closely and finding a way to reframe the story is a very Buddhist practice indeed. Phew! It’s not a bossy poem after all.

Here is the poem:

In Celebration of the Winter Solstice

Do not be afraid of the darkness.
Dark is the rich fertile earth
that cradles the seed, nourishing growth.
Dark is the soft night that cradles us to rest.
Only in darkness
can stars shine across the vastness of space.
Only in darkness
is the moon’s dance so clear.
There is mystery woven in the dark quiet hours,
There is magic in the darkness.
Do not be afraid.
We are born of this magic.
It fills our dreams
that root, unravel and reweave themselves
in the shelter of the deep dark night.
The dark has its own hue,
its own resonance, its own breath.
It fills our soul,
not with despair, but with promise.
Dark is the gestation of our deep and knowing self.
Dark is the cave where we rest and renew our soul.
We are born of the darkness,
and each night we return
to the deep moist womb of our beginnings.
Do not be afraid of the darkness,
for in the depth of that very darkness
comes a first glimpse of our own light,
the pure inner light of love and knowing.
As it glows and grows, the darkness recedes.
As we shed our light, we shed our fear,
and revel in the wonder of all that is revealed.
So, do not rush the coming of the sun.
Do not crave the lengthening of the day.
Celebrate the darkness.
Here and now. A time of richness. A time of joy.

— Stephanie Noble copyright 1995

And here is the ritual we did:
Each person in turn lit a candle saying one of the following intentions or another intention that rose up naturally within them, with absolute permission to do so in silence:
May I be a lamp unto myself. (This was the Buddha’s last instruction to his students.)
May I be guided by my inner light.
May my practice bring awareness of my own inner light.
May I light the darkness with awareness.
May my inner light grow and glow.
May I sit and savor the darkness until I see the light.

Because we had about twice as many candles as people, I encouraged people to light a second candle to send metta to anyone they knew that was in need. Everyone did light a second candle, and that addition, though unplanned, sweetened the ceremony further. (My second candle was for my beloved sister-in-law Rose and niece Doris, mother and daughter, who are both in the (same) hospital right now. May they both be well.)

For lighting the candles, we had provided both lighters and matches. Some people had trouble with the lighter or just didn’t like it. People who used matches sometimes felt rushed in saying their intentions while the flame was headed straight for their tender fingers. For anyone wanting to create a ritual like this, I would suggest having a lit taper candle resting in a solid holder – a short glass or cup would do – that would make the lighting simply a matter of picking up that candle and lighting another. (Although I must say that each person’s way of dealing with the challenge was lovely to behold.)

At the end of Dana’s dharma talk about the solstice, after she dedicated the merits of our practice to all beings, we took turns blowing out the candles, saying ‘so be it’ or ‘may it be so.’

Later one sangha sister asked me if I thought she could get away with incorporating a ritual like this into a dinner party she was having with some people she didn’t know well enough to know how they felt about the solstice. Her question brought up such an interesting truth: That many people have resistance to acknowledging this natural annual event of the earth. There is a long history of seeing it as pagan ritual, and a long history of seeing pagans as anti-Christian, when they are just not necessarily Christians, which is quite a different (and totally non-threatening) thing. Even in our little Buddhist community, a significant number of people left before the ritual began, when usually everyone stays for the whole class.

So, with that in mind, I told my friend to celebrate the solstice with her guests by having the radiant heart of a hostess, offering a delicious meal, creating a candle-lit atmosphere, and by staying fully in the moment, allowing the conversation to grow rich and deep. And if, by chance, through that conversation she finds that her guests are interested in celebrating the solstice too, she could have extra candles to create a ceremony, or simply suggest they all bundle up and step out into her lovely garden on this cold clear night and take in the beauty of the star-studded darkness.

So however you celebrate the solstice over this weekend, whether with friends or family, or by adding a little ritual to your personal practice, or simply by giving yourself the gift of a little longer rest on these long winter nights, may you find a sense of joy and deep connection in being fully present in the darkness, present enough to sense your own inner light glowing and growing.

May it be so! Happy Solstice.