A few months ago I talked about the meaning of meditation retreat on my Facebook page. “A movement away outwardly and inwardly to a place of calm, clarity and peace”. In other words, the opposite of everyday life. Most of us want to calm the constant chatter in our minds and the constant distractions of everyday life, but the thought of going away for days of silence, meditation, and inward reflection is too confronting.
Just recently, in order to get away from the busy-ness of my work, motherhood and technology, I went to Byron Bay for a 5 day mindfulness and insight meditation retreat. There was a 7 day option available but, to be truthful, I just didn’t have time, and 5 was better than none.
I was the last meditator of 30 to arrive on the first night of the retreat at the beautiful Sangsurya Retreat Centre on Old Bangalow Road in Byron Bay. I had missed dinner which was the last chance for anyone to talk. The rest of the retreat was to be held in silence. I hurried straight to the meditation hall where 30 people were sitting listening to the on site manager and organiser Alan explaining daily routines, housekeeping and expectations for the retreat. A wonderful sense of peacefulness had already been established in the packed hall. This was where everyone would spend much of the retreat sitting on cushions on the floor meditating, doing yoga and listening.
The days were to start at 5.45am with yoga, meditation with the facilitators Subhana and Liz, breakfast, more sitting and walking meditation and so on. All Buddhist Insight Meditation retreats have a tradition of mindfulness work periods every day, and I chose to do weeding and digging in the garden. This was no pampering retreat.
Western Insight Meditation retreats differ from their Eastern counterparts in that there is time to explore and express emotions. This is done in smaller groups in a process called ‘inquiry’. These sessions are a daily exception to the silence rule. In groups of 6 we had the chance to sit with Subhana, Liz or Alan and talk about whatever emotions had come up. When you are silent for days on end and reflecting inwards, believe me, a LOT comes up. In my case, anger at some situations in my life. Anger is a very difficult emotion to explore because no-one wants to admit to being angry. Subhana and Liz are both highly skilled psychotherapists, and both compassionately helped me explore my anger and view it as a message that needed my attention.
Many people reading this will have done a 10 day Vipassana retreat somewhere in Australia. These are more Eastern style retreats and involve observing silence everyday, walking and sitting meditation, body scanning, chanting, work periods and a video talk every day by an Indian guru called Goenka (Goenka died late September 2013 but his videos are still used at 10 day Vipassana retreats). There is no opportunity to fully explore emotions in the way a Western style retreat would.
Both Eastern and Western Buddhist meditation retreats have ‘Dharma’ or wisdom talks at the end of the day. The Buddha called Dharma teachings the Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness. Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention in the present moment, and observing body sensations, feelings and thoughts without judging. There are mindfulness based practices that don’t involve any Dharma teachings, such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). However, Buddhist teachers don’t talk about mindfulness without Dharma teachings because their intention is to help cultivate compassion and relieve suffering. There is a potential for mindfulness to be used for harmful means. During World War 2 the Japanese Imperial Army used Zazen, or mindfulness, to enhance concentration in order to kill and act serenely without question. Hogen Yamahata who is a Japanese Zen Buddhist teacher now living in Australia, said “meditation is not sufficient, it can also make very good killers”.
It can be so difficult to see the need to retreat to find calm, clarity and peace. It seems to be easier to work on exercising our bodies where we can see the physical benefits. However, a meditation retreat exercises the mind and is just as important. With meditation, ‘inquiry’, Dharma talks, healthy food and silence, I am recharged mentally and spiritually. I wish I had finished the 7 days. It’s worth taking the time.
For information about meditation retreats, go to dharma.org.au or insightmeditationaustralia.org.
Image courtesy www.calmerclass.com.au.