Category Archives: Sylvia Boorstein

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!

Meta-Metta

Immense compassion springs forth spontaneously toward all sentient beings who suffer as prisoners of their illusions.
– Kalu Rinpoche

This political season is such an opportunity to actively send metta! When my students were talking about an upcoming debate last week, I challenged them to see if they could send metta (loving-kindness) to the candidate from the party they weren’t supporting.

I knew how challenging this assignment might be. When I was young and watching the Nixon-Kennedy debates on black and white television in my best friend’s living room, we threw ice at Nixon whenever he said something that drove us crazy. I’d like to say it was an act of kindness to cool his sweaty brow, but it was an act of violence plain and simple. We were lucky the TV screen didn’t break! So I understand how challenging this assignment might be. Many times over the course of the recent Bush presidency our class at Spirit Rock imagined him and his cabinet members in the center of our circle and sent them metta. What a challenge! But what an amazing practice. We’ll never know if our loving-kindness was felt by Bush, but sending it out certainly had an effect on us.

Naturally I was curious to see what my students experienced if they attempted to send metta during the debates.

One meditator said that she just couldn’t bring herself to send metta to someone who represented policies she abhorred. She didn’t want them to achieve their goals or be effective, so why would she wish them well? If she was supporting the other candidate’s success, then obviously she wanted the opposition to fail. So why would she send them good wishes?

What a great question! And it made for a very rich class. I so appreciated the opportunity to clarify what metta is and what it is not. I realize that if she, a very wise woman, was unclear about the nature of this loving-kindness we are sending then many others probably are as well. So I would like to explore the concept of metta more thoroughly, and hopefully make the purpose of sending metta to difficult people understandable and the practice more accessible.

First, sending metta is not wishing for everyone to succeed at getting everything they want. The human condition is to want. We want all manner of things all the time. Our desires are boundless. But, as we have discovered in our exploration of the Buddha’s Second Noble Truth and the causes of suffering, fulfilling our desires does not bring us the deep sense of joy we long to experience in life.

So when we wish someone happiness, we are not wishing for the fulfillment of a current desire. We are wishing them a much deeper sense of happiness, one that comes from a sense of completion, of being a valued expression of a vitally interconnected whole. We have been discussing this energetic interconnection over the past few weeks as we explored the Buddha’s Third Noble Truth. (Of course, if they are lacking in the basic needs of life, if they are going to bed hungry or have no bed to go to, for example, then out of a sense of caring connection we include that in our well wishing, and hopefully follow up with some material aid to whatever degree is possible, practicing generosity.)

But generally, we are sending a kind of meta-metta, an infinite permeable all encompassing blessing. If you missed the last few posts, please go back and read them. This sense of interconnection — the physical (subatomic particle – energy vibration) as well as spiritual truth of our being — is ever present but often overlooked in the busyness of our lives. It may be paved over with calcified constricting fear. So when we send metta to someone, we are sending this sense of a flow of loving energy to help soften that calcification and remind them that they are an intrinsic part of a complex whole, not an isolated disconnected soul struggling for survival, any more than a drop of water leaping above the rapids is alone.

Is there any person, regardless of their beliefs, behavior or desires, that we would not wish this kind of awakening? How does our withholding metta from anyone serve ourselves and our awakening? Withholding keeps us tight and constricted and feeling disconnected and at odds as well. So when we send metta to that most difficult person it is a deep awakening practice for us.

We are not sending metta to change people. We are not seeking results. We are sending metta because we are sensing in to the universal nature of loving kindness, we are accessing the boundless flow of metta, and that level of access is like being a conduit of energy. The conduit does not determine where the energy will go. When we send metta we feel the powerful flow filling us and overflowing. We allow ourselves to sense the boundless energy of being, the powerful love that can be talked about in so many ways but is fully present and accessible in every moment for those who pause and open to it.

Another meditator says that she sends metta at the end of her daily meditation practice, and she hoped that sending it out to ‘all beings’ was sufficient, because she’d really rather avoid having to think about any difficult people in the middle of a pleasant meditative experience.

I appreciate the practice of simply sending metta out to all beings, and we end our class by dedicating the merit of our practice to the benefit of all beings. I sometimes remind my students that there are probably people at this very moment sending metta out to all beings, and to remember that this includes us. We can take comfort in actively receiving that interconnected sense of well wishing.

But this one step ‘all beings’ well wishing doesn’t take the place of a full metta practice.
Traditional metta practice starts with sending loving-kindness to ourselves. Then we bring to mind an ‘easy’ person for whom we hold nothing but loving thoughts and send metta to them: May you be well, May you be at ease, and other such phrases of general well-wishing. Then we think of a ‘neutral’ person, someone we see in the course of our day but don’t really know like the bank teller or grocery clerk and send them metta. And then we think of a person for whom it may be very difficult to muster up kind thoughts at the moment. This could be someone in our personal life that is driving us crazy, but it could also be a public figure with whom we disagree about policy. And then finally we send metta to all beings.

When do we do full metta practice? For some people it is a regular part of their day, for others a more occasional group experience. But certainly, whenever we notice we are avoiding sending metta to certain people, then there’s a perfect opportunity for practice. Recognizing avoidance is a gift of awareness and an invitation to deepen our practice.

We noticed in class that a key thing about a ‘difficult person’ is the level of control they seem to have over things that affect our lives. This is a really valuable aspect to explore. I noticed that once Bush was no longer president, the challenge to send metta to him was absent. His power to harm me and those I love was gone. He was no longer ‘the difficult person’ of my metta practice. Whatever errors in judgment he might make once he was no longer in power would probably not gravely impact me the way they did when he was in the White House.

This power issue holds true also with people in our personal life, and is a valuable thing to look at. But when we send metta to them we are not wishing them success at driving us crazy! We are dropping to a deeper level than our personality-based interactions into a state of deep interconnection, where there is no distinction between us. By dropping to this level – the namaste level where ‘the god in me honors the god in you’ – we allow for the possibility of a softening of the constriction that keeps us at odds.

We ended our class by doing a metta practice to a difficult person we each brought to mind, and perhaps you might like to give it a try, imagining a person to whom it would be challenging for you to send loving kindness.

We wish them ease. We wish them healing. We wish them a release from the tight constriction of fear that holds them, that shuts them down, that shuts all of us down. We wish them the same in-depth understanding of the nature of our inter-connection that we wish for ourselves and all beings.

Since being constricted in fear is the major cause of all dis-ease and discomfort in the world, feeling threatened and reactive instead of loved and responsive, it only makes sense that we want loving release for anyone who is knotted up in fear and reactivity, anyone who sees themselves as isolated and the world as a threatening dangerous place that must be fought with violence.

Is there any person, no matter how wrong-headed or evil we believe them to be, from whom we would withhold that sense of deep connection? If everyone felt this opening and easing into the flow of the infinite energetic is-ness of being, would this not affect them in a way that would be beneficial to themselves and to all beings, including ourselves?

I leave you with a little treat: Sylvia Boorstein leading a brief metta meditation. Sylvia was my first Buddhist teacher who read my book and called it ‘jargon-free dharma.’ She is a treasure of compassionate wisdom to both Spirit Rock Meditation Center students and to the Jewish community in Santa Rosa.