The first two weeks of March this year I went on a silent retreat at Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Mass. Not my typical vacation to sunny Mexico or sea kayaking in Canada or skiing in Utah powder; this was a drop into doing nothing. Really...nothing.
Just sitting, walking, no talking or socializing, minimal reading and writing (related to the intention of my retreat), simple meals -- basically, no escape from the monkey-like antics of mind. This was to be a tough trek into the terrain of emptiness.
My path was to deepen my understanding via the teachings of Buddha and non-dualism on anatta, non-self. My guide was Rodney Smith, a Seattle teacher whom I have studied with for well over a decade. Rodney is practical and poetic and although trained as a monk, he steers clear of making Buddhism a religious institution. I had a 15 minute interview each week with him and a few dharma talks in the evening for support. I chose the Forest Refuge at IMS to avoid the scheduled format of typical retreats. My "sits" and "walks" were at my own discretion.
As I turned off my android phone I felt relief tinged with the anxiety of being out of touch. No calls, no email, virtually no communication for 15 days! Outside the ground was covered with snow and more was in the forecast, increasing the sense of isolation.
Hours passed, days passed and I relaxed into a routine:
-awaken about 5am, shower, sip a cup of tea in the rocking chair in the dining room while witnessing the tawny peach light of pre-dawn silhouette the trees.
-dawn meditation in the quiet and cozy sitting hall. Wake up! Some hauntingly beautiful chanting.
-breakfast of hot cereal or grains piled with raisins, nuts and yogurt. More tea.
-cleaning the bathroom with three toilet stalls, three shower stalls , and a bathtub and laundry room. This was my community chore which took a minimum of 45 minutes. Noticed myself thinking I should keep my house this clean!
-short brisk walk down and back up the hill, greeted by bird-call and breeze.
-mid-morning meditation. Attention to breath and attention to body, while letting memories of cleaning toilets, or hilarious chipmunk behavior during my walk, drop away.
-lunch, the main meal of the day. Eating mindfully and recognizing the remarkable inter-connections between plants, farmers, roads and trains and planes, grocery stores and the myriad beings involved in each fork load of food into my mouth!
-naptime, meditative rest which allowed me to enjoy a floating state of openness. Highly recommended.
-long walk. Every day I walked three miles along back-country roads. Ice, snow, and early spring hints -- the walk was an acceptance of the Eden this Earth offers us just for slowing down to watch and listen. The way childhood was (for some of us).
-afternoon meditation. Wake up! Mind usually most active during this time of day.
-yoga. Slow mindful movement priming the mind to release and relax.
-late afternoon meditation. Wake up!
-light supper. Crackers and nut butters, sometimes soup.
-standing meditation outside watching the moon wax or the clouds fly by.
-evening meditation, maybe a dharma talk. Wake up!
-spiritual reading before going to bed. Used my mala beads as I fell asleep. Deep dreams. Dying dreams. OK.
My steady intention with this routine was to release the thinking mind. Drop the musings on this and that of the past and all my planning for the future. Be in the present, here and now. Much like mud that settles to the bottom of the rain puddle after being stirred, revealing the clarity that is reflecting the world; I could see the cloudy nature of my views and opinions, my ideas about myself and my "should's" about so many things.
The delight of moving slowly in silence increased each day. Thoughts, feelings, body sensations would appear and disappear. A deeper silence between those blips would reveal itself, a silence that held everything within its very emptiness. Unable to describe those glimpses in words, I remember some lines from a William Stafford poem:
"...But it is Now;
It is what happens, the moment,
the stare of the moon, an
opening birds call out of,
anything true. We have it."
This retreat gave me a refuge for exploring and letting go the strongholds of my identity and my mind. A great gift. Perhaps more reminiscing on my experience there will happen in future posts...