Taking what is Offered
To foster this spirit of simplicity and letting go, we ask retreatants to undertake the following traditional practices:
1. Taking Any Residence – Traditionally in the monastery, one takes whatever hut is offered. Most retreat locations have accommodations of mostly double rooms with shared baths, and we ask participants to take the accommodation assigned and practice with whatever situation they find themselves in.
2. Taking the Food that is Offered – The cooks lovingly prepare tasty and nutritious food with a vegetarian option at each meal. Cooking facilities are not available to guests, although there is usually an area stocked with a refrigerator, microwave, sink, and supplies for making coffee and tea. Food should not be taken into the bedrooms. Except for serious medical needs, the retreat practice is to take the food that is offered.
3. Noble Silence – In fostering an atmosphere of contemplation, retreatants commit to the general practice of Noble Silence. This is especially important in your commitment to no communication between retreatants, no cell phones, and no calls except for emergencies. There will be talking during practice meetings with teachers, and possibly retreat staff, when necessary. It also means refraining from physically touching or comforting someone if they seem upset. All yogis (including you) can ask for the support of the teachers and managers through written notes, so, it might be a relief to know that there’s really no need for yogis to take care of one another. If there are concerns that arise at any time, you may talk to the retreat manager or a teacher. If you find it necessary to talk with someone please do so in the garden away from the group. (more below)
4. Serving the Community – In order to learn the art of mindfulness and for the retreat to properly function as a collaborative, all retreatants are requested to help with the work such as cleaning up after meals, tidying up the dining room and hospitality room, and changing your bed linen. Your service is an important part of the training in mindfulness and generosity.
How can I be fragrance free at the retreat?
Since many people have allergies, asthma or other chemical sensitivity to common chemicals and fragrances, we ask that all participants who attend any program to please refrain from wearing scented products.
Your clothes should be washed with fragrance-free laundry detergent and laundry softeners/sheets. Use fragrance-free soap and shampoo and hair products. Avoid fragrance-free lotion and avoid cologne, aftershave lotion, perfume and essential oils.
The daily rhythm of a retreat usually involves alternating periods of sitting and walking meditation, eating and work meditations, as well as practice meetings, dharma talks and rest periods. The first sitting usually begins at about 6:00 am, and a typical day includes sitting and walking periods of 30-45 minutes apiece. Each morning the teachers offer continuing meditation instructions for the day and an evening dharma talk. The whole retreat is a succession of mindfulness training, breathing practices, deep awareness of the body and environment, meditations on the nature of feelings, and awareness of mind and the laws that govern it. These are the same fundamental teachings of insight meditation offered in the Buddhist tradition.
Sitting Meditation: Sitting meditation is a beautiful practice, at the heart of silent retreats. In sitting practice silence and stillness develop, concentration deepens, and awareness expands. The training of the heart brings kindness and compassion for all that arises. In sitting we can find for ourselves the wisdom and freedom discovered by the Buddha. Beginning meditators are encouraged to use the breath as a focus for mindfulness. The arising and passing of breath shows us in a direct way the universal truth of impermanence. After an inner calm and steadiness are established through breathing, the meditation is systematically opened to include mindfulness of all experiences, external and internal, of body sensations and emotions, of thoughts and the nature of mind itself.
Walking Meditation: Walking gracefully and wisely on the earth is also one of the great Buddhist meditative practices. Just as in sitting meditation, where attention is brought to the rhythmic pattern of breathing, in walking meditation, mindfulness is cultivated by resting the attention on sensations of the body as one walks. In walking meditation we become aware in the midst of activity. Sometimes a slow, careful, practice walk is taught. At other times retreatants are encouraged to walk more leisurely or move at whatever speed cultivates mindfulness for them.
Eating Meditation: An awareness of food, and the mindful understanding of the entire process of nourishment and eating is included in the practice at retreats. Retreatants are encouraged to bring the same calm, focused attention to eating as is brought to sitting and walking. Mindful eating is a wonderful context for the arising of insights. The simple, mindful eating of an apple connects us to the orchard far away from our dining table, to the sun and rain and earth that nurture the tree, to the grower, the picker, the trucker, the grocer, to the truth of the interconnectedness of all existence.
Work Meditation: Through it we learn how to bring the spirit of wakefulness to the activities of our life. Work meditation also supports the community and assures the smooth running of the retreat. At retreat check-in retreatants are offered a selection of work assignments to choose from for the course of the retreat (such as, tidying up the dining room after meals or ringing the bells). The daily completion of the task is understood to be part of the continuous cultivation of mindfulness.
Dharma Talks: Dharma talks are the vocal heart of a retreat. Each day, for about an hour, usually in the morning and again in the evening, the teachers present a different set of teachings from the central practices of Buddhism, offering ways to apply them to our own experience. Sometimes the talks focus on retreat practice, and sometimes they offer teachings for wise living in the world.
Practice Meetings: One of the most valued parts of intensive retreats is the opportunity to speak intimately with the teachers about one's own inner life. Teachers hold individual and small group meetings with retreatants on a regular basis to answer questions, discuss problems, give guidance and explain meditation practices more fully.
The Three Refuges: "I take refuge in: the Buddha, the Dharma, the Sangha."
Please note: If you are in the midst of a life trauma, emotional upheaval or instability that might require individual support beyond our scheduled meetings with teachers, the retreat format may not be a good match at this time. Should you have any questions about this, please contact the retreat manager listed.
What to Expect on a Retreat
Making the decision to enter an extended period of silence with others doing the same is a powerful commitment to yourself, your practice, and your life. To make the most of this precious time, it can be useful to know what you might find once you’re there, and what to bring along with you—including attitudes and expectations.
Taking an attitude of absolutely no expectations at all, and to greet whatever might present itself with as much kindness as you can muster—whether it’s an experience that might arise within you, an interaction with another, or circumstances you might find yourself in. With this in mind, you’ll find some suggestions that might serve as guides as you navigate your way through a silent retreat, with the idea that it’s useful when embarking on this journey.
You’re not only completely free but encouraged to use your own wise discernment: No one is asking you to believe anything, and it’s not necessary for you to “buy into” anything you hear that doesn’t seem to fit. This doesn’t mean that you go ahead and do things that might disturb others; it just means that you feel liberated to make your own judgment about what you take in.
Please also be assured that during a retreat, individual experiences can and will vary widely—and that you won’t be alone. Most retreats are inclusive to all levels of experience. So, as you look around the meditation hall, know that you’re likely looking at a real mix: veteran meditators, those very new to the practice, and others who are somewhere in between.
It might also be helpful to recognize that, while on the outside everyone might appear calm and serene, many may be deeply lost in thought, or encountering challenging emotions. And, no matter what you’re experiencing, know that you’ll be among generally warm and kind people, each of whom has a private reason for their presence, just as you do, and that each is searching for more happiness, peace, and freedom in their lives. Becoming aware that you’ve all chosen to do this together can often help you to feel more connected, and less alone in the silence.
A bit about Noble Silence
Perhaps the most common response heard when a silent retreat is suggested is "I don't think I could stay silent so long!"
There is a freedom that comes from having "non-attachment"; no attachment to self, family, social status, employment, address, etc. It is a rare period of quiet, giving your senses a rest so that you can spend precious time in communication with your own mind. When you agree to honor the practice of Noble Silence, you’re not only doing this for yourself, but for all the others who have signed up for the same.
We’re not practicing silence in an attempt to reach some advanced or ideal “state,” or to become the perfect meditator. These types of intentions can not only mask what’s actually present, but cause an inordinate amount of stress and frustration. We’re also not trying to clear our minds of all thought, or to solve some big issue that we’ve been struggling with either presently or in the past. Some of these issues will likely arise as you sit, but, if you can arrive and practice without expectation—with an open, curious mind—you’ll actually receive the best results.
Meditating in silence for an extended period is often referred to as practicing “the art of no escape,” meaning that, during a retreat, you aren’t allowed to fall back on your habitual ways of turning away from troubling thoughts and emotions. Whenever you encounter something unpleasant, you can’t automatically pick up a magazine, call a friend, or indulge in chocolate. As you may have guessed, then, what we end up experiencing while on retreat isn’t necessarily a state of calm, peaceful bliss but a whole range of sensations, thoughts, and emotions, some of which may have not been previously in consciousness.
It also means 'physical silence', refraining from physically touching or comforting someone if they seem upset. All yogis (including you) can ask for the support of the teachers and managers through written notes, so, it might be a relief to know that there’s really no need for yogis to take care of one another. If there are concerns that arise at any time, you may talk to the retreat manager or a teacher. It’s also important to remember that, no matter what happens, no matter what experience you or your fellow yogi's have, it’s paramount to hold all of it with as much kindness and compassion as you can.
You will often have the opportunity to meet with and ask questions of one or more of the teachers. These often occur in the afternoons, and schedules will be posted. With these interviews, it can be helpful to be mindful of time. Because it’s short and precious, and because others will be waiting their turn, you might want to spend a little time beforehand thinking of what’s truly important for you to ask about your practice, and then to ask as honestly and succinctly as possible. And please, don’t be afraid to look vulnerable in front of the teachers, who are admittedly imperfect beings themselves, yet committed to offering you their sincere compassion and experience. In fact, you’ll reap the most benefit from these interviews if you can allow yourself to be as open as you can.
It’s also useful to be mindful of how much time you spend talking as opposed to listening to what the teacher has to offer. You’re asked to wait outside an assigned room until it’s your turn to meet with the teacher, who will invite you in when he or she is ready.
Leaving the Retreat
Whatever you think a retreat is going to be like, it will probably be different. Most participants find it deeply refreshing and healing, often life-transforming. While spiritual truths can be seen every day of our ordinary life, the stillness and simplicity of retreat brings a wonderful and unique possibility for renewal. At the retreat's end, talks and instructions are given for wise ways to leave the retreat and continue the practice at home. Our task is to return to our communities and bring a reawakened spirit of awareness and compassion to all we touch.
Finally, as in the beginning of the retreat, as you’re leaving, let yourself release your expectations as much as possible, and simply allow the process to unfold naturally, holding all that arises with an abundance of kindness.