The Orlando Insight Meditation Group is producing our first nine-day retreat from March13 – 22 at Deerhaven, a retreat center in Lake County, on the southern border of the Ocala National Forest. During and after previous 7 day retreats, different participants approached me, expressing a wish for longer retreats, and this retreat is in response to those requests. I want to provide some insights as to the benefits that come from a long residential retreat.
My good friend Andy recently told me, “I find going on retreats a priceless opportunity, and when I leave a retreat I feel like big chunks of my pain have been left behind! I finished a one week retreat at IMS two months ago and the effects are still with me!”
My friend Mitch said about retreats: “I have difficulties in my life, suffering in my life, just like anyone else. Going on retreats allows me to leave all that behind…I’m able to let it all go in the practice of mindfulness of breathing. I’m looking forward to learning how to use full-body awareness to help me even more.”
Another friend, Daniel, said: “This promises to be a safe, nurturing opportunity to dive deeply into the dharma. We have the advantage of being in the presence of an advanced teacher who we know, love and trust. After the nine days we re-emerge from the retreat a new person. It gives us a kind of rebirth.”
My first retreat lasted 14 days in 1982. In 1981 I went through some significant life upheaval and I was ready for something that would change my life. I had just read “The Experience of Insight” by Joseph Goldstein, and it had a great impact. I went to the first available retreat and never considered the length of it or the cost—I knew deeply that this would be an important experience, and mindfulness practice has been a valuable part of my life ever since. Since then, I’ve been in so many long retreats, (including two 3 month retreats), that I can’t count them all–certainly more than 30. The last few years, I’ve been in two 2 week retreats a year, in the cottage in our back yard that doubles as the meeting site for Orlando Insight. I often tell people “I’m no longer warding off the demons; instead, I’m feeding the angels!”
Perhaps 15 years ago, I attended several 9 day retreats in the form established by the late S. N. Goenka, and found the vedanupassana (mindfulness of feelings, the second of the four foundations of mindfulness) practice, also called “body sweep”, he promoted to be valuable. Interestingly, my first teacher, Ruth Denison, was trained in vedanupassana, U Ba Khin, in Burma, so I was exposed to the practice from the onset.
The body sweep practice makes use of the concentration, tranquility and persistent effort cultivated during the first several days of the retreat when practicing mindfulness of breathing. These two practices decrease the interference of the five hindrances significantly. Shifting from breath awareness, we practice a systematic movement of investigation throughout the body, starting with noticing the sensations in the area of the head, a sort of tingling sensation similar to the experience we have when the foot “goes to sleep” (except the sensation is much milder and more pleasant). Once the sensations are noted all over the face, scalp, ears and neck, then the process proceeds to include the arms, hands, torso, legs and feet. The result is increasing awareness of a tingling, vibrating feeling throughout the body.
What’s the purpose of this? A benefit of body awareness, (including breath awareness), is that observed sensation doesn’t involve an internal commentary, a story. The stories we experience in life constitute a major element in what I call “selfing” that is, fabricating an identity that demands to be defended or gratified, which may or may not be adaptive to life circumstances. The vedanupassana experience significantly adds to the “power” of sensational awareness, channelling the energy of life away from an emerging selfing story, thereby contributing to the practice of awakening.
Of course, cultivating this takes time; therefore, there’s benefit in the retreat length increasing from 7 to 9 days. There’s no guarantee that you will experience the full body awareness, but it is definitely possible with diligent practice. However, whether full awareness is achieved, the practice of investigating various sections of the body during the retreat significantly enhances competency in vipassana, insight into the conditioned nature of our life experiences.
Many people are daunted by the prospect of such enduring meditation practice, particularly in silence. I can assure you it is worth the commitment and effort, and I have never regretted being on retreat. My long retreat experience suggests that just deciding to deal with each day and each meditation period as it is, without building a story about difficult sensations or projecting into the future makes the process much easier. A major benefit of body awareness is that attending to present sensations definitely minimizes the tendency to focus on the past or the future. I can also assure you that strong commitment to the practice during the retreat will open up new levels of experience—after a few days of concentration practice, colors are more vivid, sounds more pure—all the senses, including the mind, operate at a higher efficiency, and that, to me is well worth the effort.
I hope you can join us for this retreat, or at least commit to a residential retreat some time in your life. I wish you well.
Peter Carlson, founding teacher of the Orlando Insight Meditation Group.