So, I recently returned from a meditation retreat in upstate New York. The serene setting and wonderful teachings helped me unwind a little bit and learn more about the nature of the mind. My next few posts at UrbanMindfulness.org will include reflections based on the retreat and my reintegration into the city.
For starters, I thought folks might be interested in learning what happens during a meditation retreat. Not surprisingly, the focus is on meditation, though its structure and content will vary depending on the orientation of the center and teachers. This retreat was led by Buddhist teachers--Jack Kornfield, Trudy Goodman, and Shauna Shapiro--who focused on vipassana meditation. This meditation is cultivates mindfulness through awareness of the breath. They also taught us meditations to promote loving-kindness, joy, compassion, and equanimity (a.k.a., the Buddhist brahma-viharas). I estimate that there were about 200 participants.
Our daily schedule was as follows:
Before you get intimidated (or enticed) by the 9 hours of meditation time, I should mention that it includes explicit meditation (seated and walking), presentations by the teachers (sometimes with Q&A), and opportunities to meet in small groups. Typically, any particular hour would have 20 minutes of presentation or discussion, 20 minutes of seated meditation, and 20 minutes of walking meditation.
Personally, I welcomed the opportunity to rededicate myself more intensively to meditation, though it was certainly not easy. The first two days, my shoulders spasmed frequently as I slowly relaxed. My knees and back ached during the seated meditations. I used my own cushion (zafu) in order to sit on the floor, but others meditated by sitting in chairs or even lying down. Of course, my mind also took a couple days in order to quite down. Initially, I worried over the world that I left behind. This was the first time in 5 years that I truly "unplugged" by denying myself access to e-mail, computers, internet, and phone. And, I imagined what might be happening as I was away. Fortunately, these thoughts dissipated, and I had an opportunity to witness other aspects of my mind. I realized that-like most of us-my thoughts generally fell into a few categories, like different T.V. channels. There were a variety of shows and episodes, but thematically most of the "programs" were surprisingly consistent. So, I decided to group them, and gave them numbers. So far, I only have three mental channels, and I try to notice whenever my thoughts reflect them. Earlier today, I was immersed in thinking about something when suddenly I told myself: Channel One!
Jack Kornfield reflected on how boring it would be for others if they were privvy to most of our day-to-day thoughts. He wondered what would happen if tiny speakers were hooked into our brains, broadcasting our thoughts to the people around us. Can you imagine?
While there are many things that I learned from the retreat, I find myself needing more time for reflection. As an experience, the retreat was a little like Thanksgiving dinner. There are many different things to try--or experiences to be had--with little time to digest them fully. Given how fast things were moving (we were introduced to over a dozen different meditations over the 5 days), I felt myself getting a little woozy and logi. I wish that I could have paused the retreat at various points as I considered and immersed myself in different experiences. However, I now can return to the areas that were meaningful and important for me.
Overall, I would recommend a meditation retreat to people who are looking to deepen or reinvigorate their contemplative practice. Working with the mind and body through meditation is not particularly relaxing, so it's not for everyone. Visiting a spa or going on vacation are much more effective ways to unwind quickly, especially if you're simply looking to take a well-deserved break.