As the result of a slowly developing practice of mediation and mindfulness, I signed up for my first ever meditation retreat in 2018. Over the course of three blogs, I would like to share with you my journey: Silent Meditation Retreat (Before, During, After).
Silent Meditation Retreat: DURING
The day has finally come... My first silent mediation retreat is to begin in just a few hours! My friend picked me up from the airport and we went to lunch. I will be honest, I managed to freaked myself out and there were tears shed. But, I was talked off the proverbial ledge and the plan was outlined for transportation: I would be dropped off at the retreat center with an extra set of car keys and then the car would be left at the retreat center for me the last night so that I would be able to leave the retreat the next day.
Yep, I was dropped off - eliminating any way of escape
The friend who dropped me off, showed me her friend's house that is within a couple miles of the retreat center. We joked about me walking there if I "couldn't handle it" and needed to escape. I was definitely paying close attention to where that house was... just. in. case!
While I have nothing to compare with, Could Mountain as a location and retreat center is amazing. A beautiful setting engulfed with wildlife, an abundance of trails to explore and staff who function as a well oiled machine. Mornings and evenings, when the sun was low in the sky, was magical. Shining through the moss covered trees and casting imaginative shadows. Scroll to the bottom to see some pictures! The participants appear to range in age from mid-30's to late 60's or even 70's, with the male to female ration evenly split. Because there is a small participant size (23), everyone is able to have their own room; bathrooms/shower facilities are shared. Everyone seems pretty "normal" - whatever that means... I suppose the best description would be to go into Fred Meyer and randomly choose 23 people - that would be a pretty close match to my fellow participants. Meals are delicious! I don't normally eat vegetarian, but I don't miss the meat at all. Santikaro is the sole instructor for the duration of the retreat. His straight-forward approach, riddled with personal opinions was well received; my favorite part is when he makes a joke and cracks himself up more than anyone else in the meditation hall. He and his wife founded a retreat center in Wisconsin; here's a link to his website if you're interested in more information.
When it comes to the daily schedule... wash, rinse, repeat
Literally for five full days I have slept, meditated, ate, meditated some more and then went back to sleep. Five loud rings of the main bell signified movement from on task to the next. To see a larger version of the actual schedule, click here. I have been told that each retreat is formatted differently, based upon the instructor's preferences and the practices of the retreat center. As part of this retreat, each participant is assigned a working meditation to be completed daily. These tasks range from cleaning the bathrooms, chopping veggies for lunch to ringing the main bell. My working meditation has been washing pots & pans after dinner.
As I mentioned in the first blog in this series (Silent Meditation Retreat: BEFORE), as is common with insight oriented retreats, we are observing Noble Silence: "Once the retreat begins, retreatants agree to limit their talking solely to necessary speech, such as speaking to a teacher during an interview, or asking a question during work meditation. In addition, they have only a few occasions to hear anyone else speak. The result is a pervasive silence that serves as a foundation for the meditation practice and creates a palpable and nourishing atmosphere of stillness (The Silence of Silent Retreats by Gil Fronsdal)." If necessary, we communicate using written notes to/from the instructor, staff or participants that are pinned to a board in the dining hall. Noble Silence also means very little non-verbal communication (i.e. eye-contact or nods while passing someone on a path), encompasses technology items (phones, tablets, etc.) and even books. I am still amazed at how easy it is to not talk with the other participant for the duration of the retreat. Those who know me, are quick to say how much of a chatterbox I am and I agree with that description; however, there is an immense freedom from social pressures that I wasn't even aware of until exercising Nobel Silence.
We are required to meet with the instructor at least one interview. This is a 25 minute space of time in which to ask any questions of the instructor. My interview was in the afternoon of the second day. Anticipation of the upcoming interview was an excellent place for me to practice recognizing the subtle ways my perfectionism creeps in. Since I am still so new to the whole world of meditation, my questions primary surrounded proper form during sitting meditations, what it means to do a 'walking mediation' and recommendations for continued practice after the retreat ended. Toward the end of the interview time, the instructor asked if I'd hit a rough patch yet - if I'd had feelings of wanting to leave. At that point, I hadn't. He warned me that that time may come and to try and ride through it.
He was right. That moment of overwhelming boredom and asking, "What's the point?" hit me late in the morning on day four. Feeling restless and irritated, I took a walk around the retreat grounds and came upon a giant slug crawling across the gravel path, squatted down and watched him for four minutes - yep four whole minutes! Several thoughts ran through my head including, "There are very few places a person and crouch down in the middle of a trail and watch a slug for several minutes and no one will think anything about it." I also recognized that the slug was just going along, doing the best she can, and not worrying about what's next or even what the point is of right now. That's all I needed - a little perspective to remind me that the only thing I need to do is be mindful (present) the rest will take care of itself.
Mindfulness with Breathing In and Out (Anapanasati)
I'm not really sure how to explain my experience throughout the actual mediation process. Rest assured, it was amazing - but difficult to describe. Most of the sitting meditations and all of the walking meditations were done in silence. I have to say it's an interesting phenomenon to be in a room with 15-25 people and it's so quiet you can hear someone sitting on the other side of the room swallow! Usually, once per day (often the sitting session at 2:00pm), Santikaro would lead a guided meditation building upon the instructions he had given earlier in the day. I had a couple of experiences wherein my thinking/conscious brain relaxed control more than usual. I am still trying to process through the feelings and sensations that arose. I can say that as a result of these intensive days of sole focus on mediation, I am more confident in my ability to help others in the learning process of mediation. As I have said before, the practice of meditation has become an important part of my life.
In the last blog of this series (Silent Meditation Retreat: AFTER), I will share some wisdom bestowed to us from Santikaro in his closing talk about how to continue with an active practice of meditation. I will also share the goals I had outlined for myself and give an update on how my meditation practice has been since returning to the "real world."
Rachel Baker is a Spokane, Washington-based psychotherapist, helping driven and successful people who are overwhelmed and anxious create peace and purpose. Her goal is to connect individual client strengths and experiences with proven therapeutic approaches that increase skill and insight in order to create a life filled with peace and purpose. If you are interested in individual therapy to address worry, overwhelm or anxiety, please call: (509) 999-8696 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a free 15-minutes consultation.