What You Can Learn on a Silent Retreat
I recently returned from an 8-day silent retreat at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts (www.dharma.org). This is the center founded by Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg as a way to bring the teachings of Buddhism to the west.
All three had spent time in Southeast Asia studying in monasteries and immersing themselves in the practice and teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha. It was quite an endeavor 40 years ago to create IMS (the center celebrated its 40 year anniversary in 2016), as well as a labor of love. Today, the Insight Meditation Society offers many retreats annually and hosts renowned and beloved Buddhist teachers from around the world.
I had the good fortune to be on a retreat specifically for mindfulness professionals: those therapists, educators and other service individuals who teach mindfulness. I am a Clinical Psychologist and teach the 8 week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course (MBSR) as well as mindfulness meditation in my clinical psychology practice. The retreat, led by Akincano Marc Weber, a senior Buddhist teacher, scholar and Buddhist psychologist (www.akincano.net/english-intro.html), Chris Cullen (www.oxfordmindfulness.org/question/about-chris...),who teaches mindful interventions to members of the British Parliament and Jaya Rudgard (gomindfully.org/about/jaya-rudgard), was designed to deepen our mindfulness practice and perhaps “round out” some areas in mindfulness training that the recent “mindful revolution” has neglected, omitted or simply been unaware of. Legend has it that Jon Kabat-Zinn conceived of the MBSR course while on retreat at IMS.
People often say to me when they hear I’ve been silent for 8 days, “Oh, I could never go without talking for all that time. How do you do it?” My honest response is that being in silence is the easy part of the retreat. The harder, more challenging part, is that in silence I have only myself to turn toward, lean into and face. Without the usual distractions of social interaction, I learn to work with and cultivate a deeper awareness of the body, thoughts and emotions moment-by-moment.
In everyday life, in our interactions with others, pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, we are often on “automatic pilot.” This is a phrase used in Mindfulness Based Intervention courses (MBSR, MBCT) to describe our habitual, conditioned thinking, emotional patterns, and the responses that may or may not lead us to helpful and healthful actions. If we are on “automatic pilot,” we are not free to choose. In effect, thoughts, emotions or reactions choose us.
In the MBSR course, participants begin to understand the biological bases of stress reactivity and the automatic loop that is “hardwired” into our neurobiology. For many, it’s the first time they’ve heard about the “Fight, Flight or Freeze” response, and how it operates in our lives. One of the course intentions is to bring into awareness our personal, automatic tendencies. The intention of increasing awareness and settling the mind is greater understanding. Practicing sustained mindfulness allows us to respond versus react to the stuff that creates unhealthy patterns and unhappiness. Settling the mind through silence offers a real possibility of greater freedom in our choices.
All contemplative traditions understand the importance of silence in deepening our self understanding and awareness. In Buddhism, silence is referred to as “noble silence.” We become silent to find stillness and in finding stillness, we can allow a settling of the body, mind and heart. I find being in silence for extended periods of time a refreshing relief. Life is hectic, challenging and in the work I do as a psychologist, dialogue and conversation are key components. As the days on retreat move forward, the silence helps me settle my body, mind and heart in a way that’s nourishing and welcoming. Silence has become a valuable tool for my self-care and health.
If you have been considering attending a silent retreat, either to deepen your current mindfulness meditation practice or to begin one, don’t hesitate. Retreats vary in length and intention and these are clearly described on the websites listed below. I would highly recommend a silent retreat as a way to nourish and care for yourself and settle body, mind and heart.
The following are links to several retreat centers around the country:
Insight Meditation Center, Barre, MA www.dharma.org/
Upaya Zen Center, Santa Fe, NM www.upaya.org
Springwater Center for Meditative Inquiry, Springwater, NY www.springwatercenter.org/