by Dr. Jackie Gardner-Nix
Our new participants in our mindfulness classes are often grateful that we ease them into meditation by doing 5 minute formal meditation practices to begin with. So the idea of their teachers and MBCPM course alumni choosing to participate in even a 1 day silence (such as is built into the 6th week of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction [MBSR] courses, on which MBCPM is modeled), let alone a 3 or 7 day silent retreat, must seem like we’ve lost our marbles.
Sheree, an alumni of our courses, wrote movingly in the September edition of our Newsletter, of her first experience of a short silent retreat, with True North Insight (TNI), an organization we are lucky enough to have in Ontario which offers a variety of residential and non residential meditation retreats. Many retreat centres, including TNI, are based on Buddhism, yet the concepts of secular mindfulness and Buddhism are so aligned that it feels like a meeting of the minds to share their retreats. TNI often uses Christian facilities in beautiful wooded settings, such as The Galilee Centre in Arnprior near Ottawa and Loyola House in Guelph, supporting a theme of collaboration in promoting spiritual wellness across religions and healthcare.
My husband and I attended TNI’s 4 day New Year’s silent retreat at Arnprior for 2012/2013, with 38 other Canadian attendees, all of whom arrived, despite challenging snowy road conditions. Already late after an 8 hour drive from Toronto, we drove the last 40 km behind 2 snow plows at 40 km per hour, a wonderful opportunity to practice mindfulness!
So What Do You Do At Silent Retreats?
During silent retreats there is no reading, no listening to music, no writing and no eye or physical contact. Yet the connection between all of us seems palpable and full of kindness. For a typical fibromyalgic sufferer who is usually programmed, by habits long ago installed, to be agreeable at all times in public, no matter what the personal expense, this experience of being around others in silence might feel rude and odd. If they can adapt to it, it is a wonderful way of de-programming, learning to be around others without having to summon up socially expected, and often fatiguing, behaviours.
Formal meditation “sits” usually lasted 45 minutes, interspersed with walking meditation practice for 30 to 45 minutes, though some practiced yoga or Tai Chi in those times. Lying down to meditate is not encouraged though , of course, allowed if necessary. Food at retreats is usually vegetarian, and, in common with the Guelph Loyola House retreat, was excellent. We ate in silence, savouring every mouthful, together round the tables, in our own world and yet still in each others’ worlds, thankful for having every meal simply appear without having to prepare it ourselves.
I had attended a 7-day silent retreat with the same teachers before, in 2010 in Guelph. This shorter one proved easier. It was a little gentler, accommodation a little less spartan, I didn’t have to miss my husband as he came too, and the first meditation was at 7.15 am, compared with 6 am starts at other retreats I had attended. We were also not requested to do chores: commonly at retreats there is an hour daily of chores, selected from a list by retreat participants, which help to keep costs down. We had time set aside in the afternoons after lunch to go for walks or a cross country ski until 4 pm.
Our teachers were Norman Feldman and Molly Swan, a gentle couple who are experienced retreat leaders, and founding members of TNI.
Teachers do speak, while participants remain in silence. Each teacher gave a 45 minute talk each evening, after which meditation continued till 9.30 pm. There was an opportunity to meet with a teacher for an hour of small group work each day, or even for a one to one 10 minute chat, during which speaking is, of course, permitted.
Coping With The Unexpected
We were without heat for about 8 hours during the retreat, only 8 due to electricians being located and agreeable to come out late on a Sunday afternoon to fix the problem. No one complained—but then how could they—we were in silence! Some of us who were strictly observing the no reading policy didn’t know the heating system had broken as we didn’t read the noticeboard. Initially I thought we had all cooled down our bodies and thought processes so much in silence that we were no longer sharing body heat, until I saw people donning every piece of clothing they had brought and starting to wrap themselves in blankets from their beds. Another opportunity to practice mindfulness and be thankful for heating systems in North America.
New Year’s Eve
On New Years Eve, we gathered round a wood burning fire, while our teachers lead us in some thoughts about our resolves for the coming year. True, we saw the New Year in in silence, but there was warmth in being surrounded by the gentleness of the retreat participants, choosing to be there, together, in this way.
A Novice’s ExperienceThis was my husband’s first silent retreat, though he had taken the 7 day professional training in the US with Jon Kabat-Zinn in 2010 when I went back for a repeat course, and he has, since, had a consistent meditation practice. On our drive home he commented that he had not been expecting the meditations to be virtually all in silence with no guidance. He had therefore been more aware of the discomfort in various places in his body during these extended “sits” and in his feet during the extended “walks”. But he realized everyone around him was quietly doing the formal meditations too and were not pain-free either, and he decided there was no point in getting frustrated with his discomfort, and if they could do this, so could he. The Power of The Group!
Practicing formal meditation with the focus of the breath is known as insight (Vipissana) meditation. He asked: why insight? I replied that he had found it when deciding he could cope with the pain and not let it spiral. And, as the mind quiets down with extended meditation practice, important insights are easier to see. Thoughts and emotions, which inevitably surface in meditation, often result in, and from, bodily sensations, not usually detectable in the busyness of our mind and body outside of formal practice. For example, if our body feels cold, it cues the mind to wonder why—are the windows open, the radiators off? , an example of body-mind connection starting with the body’s perception first. Or a thought arises: I have to get that report done as soon as I get back—it’s due soon—and the stomach feels queasy with that momentary flash of fear, soon stilled by returning to the breath.
Coming Back from Silent Retreats
After longer retreats, such as 7 days and up, teachers may warn about being more careful driving, taking time to re integrate for an hour or two, chat with others perhaps, before starting back.
We returned to Toronto more serene than when we left, with faces less lined, having paid about the equivalent for the retreat as the cost of Botox. True our wrinkles would return faster—on our faces, but not internally. We felt renewed.
For Facilitators of Mindfulness Courses
The experience of attending retreats on a yearly or more frequent basis is important for keeping up our own practices, so we can help our own course participants better. We grow in our insights, empathy and resilience, and deepen our own mindfulness practice.
True North Insight and Costs
True North Insight (http://www.truenorthinsight.org) is entering its 7th year, and offering about 15 residential and non- residential retreats in 2013, with places for about 400 applicants. Due to donations, TNI never turns anyone away due to cost, scholarships and sliding scale fee scales are available. When you’re ready, you may want to check their website. Their administrator and retreat manager, Janet, is a jewel in the organization and always ready to help you enroll.
You haven’t lost your mind when you sign up for one of these retreats. More likely, you’re just about to get it back.