What is a meditation retreat like anyway?
A friend asked me about the meditation retreat I just atteneed and I thought
that was probably a good topic for a blog. I’d been trying to learn to meditate since I was 15 (and
failing!). In 2004 I attended the first Meditating with the Body program with
Reggie Ray and actually started to learn to meditate in a way that works for
me. It’s different for everyone, but for me having a 6-month program with a
meditation instructor to ask questions and weekly assignments, plus a focus on
the body (including physically how to sit), really worked.
But enough backstory, what actually happens at a meditation
retreat? Well, we sit. And then we walk, really slowly, and then we sit again.
Sometimes we lie down.
The first five-and-a-half days of the program were held in
silence. This means there was no talking except when Reggie was teaching and
then it was mainly him talking, unless someone got up to ask a question. The
silence included evenings and I didn’t even open my computer most evenings.
If you had to communicate something, you wrote a note or did
your best with pantomime for items like, “Would you pass me a napkin?” Oh and
there was functional talking during ROTA (which is a volunteer work thing you
do for 30 min to an hour twice during the week), so when I was washing lunch
dishes in the kitchen on Thursday and Friday, I could say things like, “Where’s
the dish soap?” and “Why did it have to be hummus day?”
I was staying off site and still getting over the
flu/bronchitis so my day started a little later than most. I did not attend the
6:15 a.m. meditation session. I got up and had breakfast in my room, then drove
to the shrine building, which was about a 15-minute drive through some very
beautiful landscapes. Here’s what my drive looked like:
At 9 a.m., we started meditating. Usually we’d sit for 35-50
minutes. There was a senior student or meditation teacher who would sit at the
front of the room and ring the gong to indicate that meditation had begun and
then ring it again at the end of the session. After sitting meditation, we
would have walking meditation for 10-25 minutes. This involves walking very
slowly and thoughtfully around the room (and gracefully stepping out to use the
restroom if you have to—and in Colorado at 8000 feet when you’re drinking a ton
of water, you have to).
The funny thing about walking meditation is that because
you’re up and moving, even if your mind was pretty peaceful while you were
sitting, it’s likely that you’re going to start thinking again. Here’s what
that sounds like in my brain: “Oooh, I like her pants. Hey, is he wearing my
same brand of jeans? Wow those slippers look comfortable. Why does that guy
have that silly walk? Doesn’t he know he looks silly? Do I have a silly walk? I
don’t think so, but then how would I know? I hope my butt looks okay from
behind. I hope I didn’t sit in anything. What if I have something on my butt?
Then after walking meditation there was more sitting
meditation, then another walk, and then Reggie would come in and teach. The
whole morning session went from 9 a.m. to about 12:30 p.m. (later on some days
if Reggie wasn’t done). Then we had a break until 3 p.m. when meditation and
teaching resumed until 6:30 p.m.
But those are just the details – what’s it really like? This
is about my seventh meditation retreat over the last nine years, so let me
start by saying that the first few (maybe like five of them) involved me
spending a truly obscene amount of time thinking about how much my knees hurt
and wondering if I was doing it right.
After nine years that includes some home practice (but not
super-dedicated home practice), I can actually sit on my meditation cushion for
30-45 minutes without copious physical pain. This is only true for my cushion.
I tried sitting on another cushion in this program one night and my butt
literally fell asleep.
So without my knees or hips or back hurting, this is what
meditation is like: “Am I doing it right? What is he talking about? Does that
even make sense? What am I supposed to do? I’m not getting it … what am I … OH
And then in the middle of that, suddenly I think something
like, “Wow, I’m a total meditation ninja!”
And then I’m thinking again: “Oh
crap, I thought something. Dammit, stop thinking! Omg, why won’t I stop
thinking? Where did that peaceful thing go? …”
Imagine that happening two to four times a day, intermixed
with stretches of feeling peaceful and stretches of being bored or impatient or
neurotic or all three at the same time. That's basically what a meditation retreat is like.
Then at the end there's a big party. And then you drive home and look at all the stuff that was freaking you out before the retreat and wonder why you bothered to get so worked up about it.
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