The idea of retreat is really about less ‘doing’ and more ‘being’. Retreats provide a space for more intense practice and while it can be very challenging, the benefits I have experienced are described below.
We remember our inter-connectedness and common humanity. As we sit in stillness on our meditation mats and stop ourselves from fidgeting, falling over or asleep in someone’s lap, we develop respectful boundaries and self-determination. At many retreats we meditate, work, eat and move around each other in noble silence. We volunteer ourselves in daily work periods to ensure the retreat functions smoothly. Throughout the program, we gather and disperse on the sound of gentle bells. All of this reminds us of our connectedness. As things quieten in our minds, hearts and bodies, this thread of connection becomes more apparent. The small talk, different backgrounds and various wants and needs drop away. Without our usual day-to-day disruptions and roles, we can focus on the things that were deep enough to motivate us to retreat in the first place. We remember and feel that everyone is fighting some kind of battle and we co-create a space and environment to move around each other kindly and with love.
We have a wonderful opportunity to practice discomfort. Think about all the things we each might do to avoid discomfort. Often we ignore feelings or realities through a range of distractions such as food, the internet, over-activity, over-sleeping, non-prioritising of ‘me’ time etc. The simple fact is that the more we can get comfortable with discomfort, the better equipped we are to lower our reactivity to life’s unpredictable events and respond without fight-flight-freeze behaviours. We can explore, fine-tune and create new habits. As an example, at retreats over many years I had learnt how to eat mindfully without snacking throughout the day or evening because no other food is available (unless one comes with a secret stash). This lack of access to a food cupboard or local store turned out to be a blessing for me early last year when a doctor emphasised the inconvenient truth about a likely diabetes diagnosis if I kept shuffling from computer screen to kitchen during work breaks. After this skillful doctor got his message across, I found myself finally applying skills learnt on retreat and now more fully notice discomforts as they arise without entering the trance of comfort eating to minimise or numb the challenges or uncomfortable feelings.
We develop new skills through ongoing practice. You can be guaranteed that at a retreat there will be both opportunities and an environment to encourage, develop and consolidate new skills. While retreats aren’t as long as the ten thousand hours researchers say are required to master a brand new skill, we still have ample time and also guidance in how to develop our meditation practice and generally extend our ability to quietly and softly be with ourselves. A true mindfulness practice means being aware of our experiences at all times, not just on the cushion. On retreats there are often walking meditation sessions and this is certainly something we can integrate into our day-to-day post-retreat lives. Because at times there isn’t much else to do and since it is our nature to do so anyway, we start to more acutely observe how automatic it can be to judge others . At the end of my husband’s Vipassana retreat experience, one participant asked him if he was a builder as that was the assumption formed through observation (no, he isn’t). It is a curious thing why a participant’s occupation would even matter in this and other contexts. At the end of one of my retreats, a woman rushed to apologise to me as she was so sorry her allergic reactions to the blankets and cushions had disturbed my meditations. In fact, I had hardly noticed her apparent sneezing and coughing and it certainly had not disturbed me. We are not our thoughts. In fact, many are just mischievous or plain wrong. We are not our feelings either, as these constantly change.
We reconnect to the natural environment and thereby ourselves. Often, these retreats take place in natural settings and offer inspiring practice spaces and surroundings that have been cared for by others who also imagined and sought sanctuary. There is ample evidence that living in green spaces, forest bathing and walking lightly on the earth allow our nervous systems to be somewhat soothed. It doesn’t take long at all to slow down while retreating in natural environments. This is also assisted by less food and/or food without the usual stimulants of sugar, no alcohol, less talk and less rushing, no traffic… you get the idea! I have had the privilege to retreat in some stunning locations. While the accommodation and facilities are at times quite basic and some volunteer work periods are required, this allows many retreats to remain low-cost and accessible.
We schedule a future date for ourselves by planning a retreat. In fact, sometimes the greatest benefit of attending a retreat is achieved by clearing one’s diary in advance, even if it does take a lot of planning. As they say, if you’re too busy to meditate for twenty minutes a day, then you need to do it for an hour. Likewise, we owe it to ourselves sooner or later to clear a space in the calendar. If we can’t do it in other locations or on longer retreats, we can still do this nurturing at home in another room, in the corner of a shared room and in our walking and daily movements. Currently, my home practice involves a non-negotiable one hour Sunday meditation sit because on most other days my practice is shorter and often squeezed in around other commitments. When really pressed, I make sure I do some breathing practices in bed before I even get into the rush-rush of a new day, or it can be done late at night if you can stay awake a few minutes longer.
Equanimity and acceptance now! I certainly want more of this and, yes, I want it now. However, this takes practice. And even more practice, depending on your general temperament (yes, I teach what I regularly need to relearn). For me, I have found one way to find acceptance and open-heartedness is to remember our common humanity, how we are all inter-connected and the fact that we all have flaws, dreams, disappointments and responsibilities. The more we can develop compassion and care for ourselves and others, the more equanimity and acceptance can flow.
Equanimity does not mean indifference to circumstances. It is the practice of seeing things exactly as they are without reacting to them from a place of pain, anger, greed, aversion etc. In meditation, we can practice and nurture a state of equanimity or allowing by staying put on a cushion despite physical discomforts and ongoing thoughts and feelings. Being on retreat means added distractions and pressures such as phones and work deadlines drop away long enough for us to focus on what is really important and I can’t imagine anything more important than awareness from moment to moment about what our heart and minds are really experiencing.
I’m not going to hide the fact that in some instances the retreat experience can be very challenging. On a recent retreat I attended, I didn’t agree at all with the way a few things were structured. I was left wondering about the appropriateness and authenticity of some offerings. And yet, here was a wonderful opportunity to practice both acceptance and also self-care in choosing how I would participate. And mostly, it was an opportunity to practice non-judgement and letting go as I was not the one leading this retreat. And how am I to know that my views are right just because some things didn’t suit me.
So, have I mentioned teachers? By attending retreats, we can be blessed with the wonderful teachings many have dedicated their life and practice around. A retreat I attended last year was run by two teachers in their seventies who between them had many, many years of experience and wisdom. Both of them had started practice in their twenties and also explored different traditions. At Insight Meditation retreats there are also opportunities to talk one-to-one with a teacher and this guidance can be invaluable in order to manage things that arise on retreats and know how to integrate learning when home.
Retreating is a tradition across spiritual and other traditions, so there are a range of styles to suit everyone. My recent retreats have been completed in the Insight Meditation style and these are known as Vipassana in the Theravada Buddhist tradition (see: https://www.insightmeditationaustralia.org/). Also in the Buddhist tradition is the Goenka Vipassana 10-day silent retreat experience, which I have written about elsewhere (see: http://relaxcommunications.com.au/blog/?p=232).
Finally, I wish for you, however and wherever you might choose to retreat, that it be meaningful and helpful.
And in these terrible times of our recent bushfires across the country… May All Beings Be Safe.
© Suzanne Frydman / Relax Communications