The perfect conditions for training your mind, for gaining a new perspective
On a crystalline winter day last week, I traveled to the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts. I had planned this trip a few months ago, and as it approached I felt a growing sense of urgency to get there. I had no particular plan, nothing specific to work on, but a sense that I needed to retreat from my daily busyness and into myself to deepen my practice.
I had arrived for my second 5 day silent meditation retreat. The first time was 4 years ago.
I had come with this sense of urgency, but well into the first day, as my mind was still whirling with the energy I brought with me, I thought to myself: ”wait…why was it I wanted to come here so badly??”
A few hours later I had my answer. I came for the reminder about the power of the practice, the new perspective meditation offers, and why I need to get on my meditation cushion every day, even if it’s just for a few minutes.
Meditation is personal transformation. It helps us to sharpen our concentration and to clear our minds of unhelpful thoughts, emotions and habits, to create the right conditions for cultivating clarity, compassion (for ourselves and others) and sustained joy. A meditation retreat is the opportunity to get up close and personal with our thinking patterns, emotions and feelings, to explore them and understand them. Through meditation and other mindfulness practices, we are training ourselves to become more deeply aware of our thoughts, words and actions. With better awareness and understanding of all this, the mind becomes still and calm, it smooths out. We become better prepared to meet the challenges of our lives. Life becomes easier, like a glide instead of a struggle. We find our way to more balance, wellness and happiness.
I also realized that I had come for the training.
Meditation is training for your mind. And like anyone in training of any kind, we all need coaching and periods of intense practice, even if we practice regularly on our own. A silent meditation retreat is like boot-camp training for your mind. All the conditions are there to allow you to fully immerse yourself into mindfulness for 5 days, to practice being in the present moment through seated meditation, walking meditation, mindful eating, incorporating mindfulness into every day tasks. There’s nowhere to go, nothing to do, everything is provided for you.
There are many reasons you may wish to try a silent meditation retreat:
It's incredibly refreshing to truly disconnect. In our busy lives, filled with jobs, families, commitments, connections, all threaded together by our multiple digital screens, we are always “on”, constantly buzzing. But there is a real power to switching completely “off”, of having no distractions, even if it’s just for a few days.
Here is what this amazing 5 day experience felt like to me.
The silence and the safe, peaceful environment helped me to enhance my concentration on my practice, and to develop my awareness of each moment, of my surroundings, of my mind workings, and of each sensation. It gave me a totally different perspective and a vivid connection with my thoughts and emotions. I absolutely loved this experience.
Most people have never tried a silent retreat or understand what it’s all about. When I talk about going to a silent retreat, people ask: Meditation ALL DAY? No talking? No books? No computer? No phones???!! Why would you want to do that? What are you going to do all day?
I had these questions myself, more than a little trepidation and absolutely no idea of what to expect the first time I went to IMS for a silent meditation retreat. So I hope this information, based on my experiences at IMS, will give you a good idea of what to expect from a silent meditation retreat. And I hope it will inspire you to try one, wherever works best for you. A silent meditation retreat is an incredible experience.
You could start with 3 days. I found that 5 days was not quite enough so my next retreat will be 7 days long.
HERE’S WHAT YOU CAN EXPECT FROM A SILENT MEDITATION RETREAT
Complete disconnection: The retreat centre requests that you leave your computers, books, even journals at home. Of course there is no TV or music available. There is even an opportunity to ceremonially relinquish your devices for safe keeping in the office for the duration of the retreat, to help you to remove any possible temptations for distraction. There’s a real power to switching completely “off”, of having no distractions, even if it’s just for a few days. Removing these distractions gives you the chance to fully retreat into your practice, into yourself, and to focus on building the awareness of each and every moment. It’s so unusual for anyone these days to be truly able to disconnect, and it’s completely refreshing.
Noble silence: From the first evening, everyone at the retreat is asked to practice “noble silence”. It’s a Buddhist concept that means no speaking to each other, and also no other forms of communication such as eye contact, gestures. There is no obligation to greet people, to make small talk at meals. None of this “noble silence” is meant to be unfriendly or rude. On the contrary, it’s meant to help us respect each other’s practice space, allowing each person to move the focus inside. You are free to focus solely on your own mindfulness practice and your own present moment.
A friendly, supportive atmosphere: One thing that is quite different at IMS from other retreat centres I have visited is that there is only one retreat at a time, so everyone (about 100 people) is in the same boat, following the same program and the same routine. There may be no communication between the retreatants, but there is a real sense of support and care. Like we are all holding the practice space for each other. It is somehow reassuring to sit beside/behind/in front of the same people every day, each of us working through the challenges of the practice. And there were lots of hugs and laughs at the end when the silence was broken.
Light but comprehensive coaching: Each morning there is a meditation with instructions, which is good for everyone, and great for newbies. On the first day, there is also help with finding the right sitting posture, explanation of walking meditation and mindfulness practices. Plus, each retreat at IMS (and probably other places) offer a small-group meeting with a teacher and possibly a 15 minute one to one interview with a different teacher, all designed to help you with your practice. Yes, you are allowed to talk during these sessions! But most of the time is for practice on your own.
A full day: The day is punctuated by the ringing of gongs, signalling the transition from one activity to the next. The first gong wakes us up at 5:30 for 6:00am meditation. The day is a succession of sitting meditation and walking meditation sessions (generally 45 minutes long), inspirational talks, yummy meals, yogi job. The last sitting meditation is at 9:00pm, then off to bed. You may fall asleep the moment your head hits the pillow, even if 9:30 is far earlier than your usual bedtime! In fact I slept better and longer during those 5 days than I had in a long while. The program and the theme of the talks will vary from retreat to retreat, but essentially the routine will remain the same.
No worries: Everything is provided for you, it’s very secure. There’s no need to carry anything around with you. There’s nowhere to go, nothing to do but follow the routine, no decisions to make. Nobody is looking for you. Nobody cares what you are wearing. It’s a safe environment with all the right conditions to focus on the mindfulness and meditation practices, to explore your mind or your questions, or just to be peaceful within yourself.
The same spot in the meditation hall for the entire retreat: One of the first things you do upon arrival is to choose your spot in the meditation hall, which will be your spot for the duration of the retreat. Choose a floor cushion or a chair, there are lots of extra cushions and props available to make you as comfortable as possible. I love this - no need to find a new spot each day, you know exactly where you will be sitting each time. I brought my own meditation cushion of course (HUM Crescent Cushion), for optimal comfort and to take home the wonderful energy of my 5 days of meditation.
Comfortable quarters: While a retreat of this sort is not a holiday and I did not expect hotel-like accommodations, when I first came to IMS 4 years ago I was a little concerned about where I would be sleeping. I was quite pleasantly surprised when I discovered how homey and happy my room was. Each person has their own room, they are all the same, simply but very comfortably furnished with a single bed, chair, and wardrobe. There is a sink in each room, and shared bathrooms on each floor. There are several interconnected, 2 story buildings, and you can choose from an all women, all men or no-preference (mixed) floors.
A yogi job: Part of keeping the cost of the retreats accessible to as many people as possible means everybody contributes to the running of the retreat through their daily job, called a yogi Job (yogi is their term for meditator). It’s also part of the experience of bringing mindfulness into everyday tasks, “work as practice”. These yogi jobs are assigned to you when you arrive. It could be washing or chopping vegetables, sweeping the floor, washing the dishes, cleaning the bathrooms - they take about 45 minutes to do each day.
Buddhist meditation techniques: If you are going on retreat at a place that focuses on Buddhist-style meditation, you can expect instruction and guidance in Insight (Vipassana) and Loving Kindness (Metta Bhavana) meditation techniques as well as mindfulness practices, all of which are integral to the Buddhist philosophy and practice. My feeling is that these practices are the easiest to learn and to stick with. Insight meditation helps to develop mindfulness, and Loving Kindness helps to develop friendliness and compassion for ourselves and for others. You will also have the opportunity to listen to inspirational talks that are called dharma talks, based on Buddhist teachings and helping us to be the best human beings we can be. PLEASE NOTE! You do not have to be a Buddhist to come to IMS, I’m not, and I don’t think anyone would feel out of place or uncomfortable. And everything is optional anyway.
Dana practice: In the Buddhist tradition, teachers offer the teachings freely. It is an ancient tradition dating from the time of the Buddha himself. The teachings are offered to take care of and to enlighten the community, and so in return the community takes care of the teachers through the practice of offering “dana”. “Dana” a Sanskrit word for generosity, for giving a gift from the heart. You should know that the teachers are not paid by the retreat centre, the cost of your retreat does not cover the costs of the teachers. They rely on the generosity of the community to earn a sustainable salary. And so you will be invited, at the end of the retreat, to offer your gift of payment to the teachers who have guided your retreat. Nobody mentioned an amount. You give what you can, in the spirit of generosity. I had a figure in mind when I came, but at the end of the retreat, I was so impressed with the quality of the teachings and the support that I gave triple the amount I had originally intended.
WHAT TO BRING (AND NOT TO BRING)
Bring: your own meditation cushion if you wish, a yoga mat, a cozy warm shawl, slippers or soft-soles inside shoes, unscented personal hygiene products, walking shoes if you’d like to take walks in the countryside on the break, they ask that you bring bedsheet and towels, I drove so I brought my own comfy duvet and pillows
Don’t bring: computers or tablets, books, journal, candles, incense, scented personal hygiene products
WHERE TO GO FOR A SILENT MEDITATION RETREAT
It’s definitely worth looking into Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA, dharma.org, where their mission for the past 44 years has been to offer a “spiritual refuge for all who seek freedom of mind and heart, offering meditation retreats rooted in the Early Buddhist teachings of ethics, concentration and wisdom. These practices help develop awareness and compassion in ourselves, giving rise to greater peace and happiness in the world.” Once again, you absolutely do not need to be a part of the Buddhist tradition to come here or to reap the many benefits of meditation and mindfulness. It’s not at all “preachy”. It's just a very wonderful and caring place to go to practice mindfulness and meditation in the way it was originally taught.
Here are some other places you can go to for a silent meditation retreat (note that this is just for your information, I haven’t visited any of them):
Please note that is not a "review" of Insight Meditation Society. This information is based solely on my own personal experiences and opinions, with the intention to inspire you to choose a silent meditation retreat for yourself. In other words nobody has paid me or given me anything to write about them.
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