"...Your way begins on the other side. Become the sky. Take an axe to the prison wall. Escape. Walk out like someone suddenly born into color. Do it now. You're covered with thick cloud. Slide out the side. Die, and be quiet. Quietness is the surest sign that you've died. Your old life was a frantic running from silence..."
- Rumi, excerpted from the poem "Quietness",
translated by Coleman Barks in The Essential Rumi
Recently, I attended my first 10 day silent meditation retreat. I'd been wanting to do this for nearly 10 years, and either lack of internal readiness or external schedule demands had prevented me during all that time. This past summer, while in the midst of an intensive yoga teacher training (my second), I realized three things:
1) Every internal barrier to undertaking such an adventure had been removed or resolved. I was ready.
2) My own development as a teacher and guide to others necessitated a deepening of my meditation practice. On another level, again, it was time and I was ready.
3) If I were ever going to make this happen, I simply needed to commit, put it on the calendar, and make it a priority.
And so, commit I did, and in December I joined more than 120 people from around the world to spend Christmas, New Years and several other days in deep practice. We woke very early and began our days on the cushion. We spent 10 hours a day in focused meditation, either together in the group meditation hall or alone in our rooms. We learned to sit in silent observation of the moment-to-moment sensations rising up within these bodies we call home. We learned to set an intention to maintain complete stillness for 60 minutes at a time, regardless of what emergency the mind created to buck at our decision. We watched as these "emergencies" - in the form of intense bodily pains, fear-filled fantasies, or assurances of doom - all faded at some point and alas, an hour had passed and we were all in one piece and the world had not ended! Hmmm.
At breakfast and lunch, we were nourished by food provided by the donations of previous students and cooked by volunteers - those who had made this journey before us and wanted to support others in turn. We abstained from most of our daily habits and activities, including reading, writing, practicing yoga, using technology, communicating with or touching others, and eating dinner. We got to see our attachments to all these things clearly, to see the cravings that our minds insisted were necessity. And then we were able to see those thoughts and feeling pass. There was a coming to know in our own bodily experience that rising at 4 am and skipping dinner aren't torturous (or even particularly difficult) practices with the right support. The torture and difficulty really existed in the thoughts we'd had about what might happen, our assumptions about what it would be like. Hmmm.
Over the course of the retreat I experienced nearly every emotion on the feeling spectrum, in varying degrees of intensity. I also experienced an incredible diversity of bodily sensations, many I'd encountered previously and some I'd never experienced or even imagined before. For a gal who's spent many years in body/mind awareness practices, this was a real surprise! Over and over, whatever came up, I was guided to return to awareness of what was happening (if I could stay with the sensations in my body), or to return to simple awareness of my breath when the intensity of bodily sensations were too much for me to handle. Over and over, I was supported to practice noticing what was happening, without adding anything to it and without moving away from it.
Every person's experience of such a practice differs a bit, and indeed every meditative sit, even for the same person, will differ from the last. And my guess is that the results sprouting in the lives of the other meditators vary as well. In my own life since returning home, I've noticed that some previously difficult decisions became very clear, and thus easy to make. No fuss, no fanfare, just a clear realization of what must be done and the action to support it. Done. I've also noticed a deepened sensitivity to beauty, kindness, and especially to nature. My eyes and heart are captivated and nourished by ordinary life and everyday moments in a deeper way than I've experienced in life thus far. My feelings are flowing more freely and being recognized more fully, and therefore don't get stuck and lodged, causing ongoing pain. My appreciation of silence is even greater than before, and I'm finding myself able to enter deep silence more swiftly and easily. At times, at least!
Life has been lovely in offering me several tests since returning home, in the form of situations that previously would have created some degree of emotional upset for me. And in the majority of these moments, I had the experience of seeing and feeling clearly that I had a choice: to create suffering for myself by taking something personally, or to simply not do that. In the instance where I really fell into my old reactive habit, I was able to catch myself within a few moments and to notice how deeply painful that reaction felt in my body, which both allowed and inspired me to choose something else for myself. I was able to return to my breath for some moments, go for a walk outside and return with a clearer perspective on what had actually happened and a deeper understanding of myself and the old pattern. What a gift!
Upon returning, I've engaged in daily practice, that I may retain some of the understanding and discipline that opened to me through this experience. Even in a week, its clear to me that daily practice and intensive retreats each support and allow for very different experiences on the cushion. So for now I'll sit to practice noticing what is, to practice observing that without attaching to the sensations of any particular moment, any particular experience. Because I know I can use a lot of practice! One of the assistant instructors described what it feels like to leave an extended retreat this way:
"It's like you opened the door to your apartment and have realized its a complete disaster. It's filthy and full of junk and its hard to know where to start. So you start cleaning the kitchen. You scrub and scrub and clean and clean, and you look at every inch of the kitchen. And you stand up and look around at the sparkling kitchen and think "beautiful! Good work. This looks great!". And then you turn around to face the rest of the apartment, to see the enormity of the mess. And you realize how much work you have left to do."
Couldn't think of a better way to describe it myself! At any rate, I'm so grateful for the opportunity to have attended retreat. And I'm grateful for the time and the space and the energy with which to practice in regular old daily life. It's not possible or appropriate to share most of what I experienced, but I've attempted to share enough to answer your questions about what I was up to and what it was like for me. I'm happy to be home, back to work, and back in connection with all of you. Whatever you're practicing in this new year, I wish you the energy, commitment, time & space needed to do it, and I wish you joy in the doing.
As a seed of inspiration for your 2016 yoga and meditation practices, I offer you another gem by Rumi:
"Work in the invisible world at least as hard as you do in the visible."
Dana Wyss Healing Arts
Breathe deeply, practice often, be well.