by Peter Carlson

In the last issue of the Orlando Insight Meditation Group newsletter, I wrote an article on why I go on retreats; now it seems appropriate to share some insights on how I managed the retreat experience I just completed.  Let me first describe the context: I’ve been on dozens of long retreats, and over the last 10 years or so, they’ve been self retreats, which means that I was by myself, in silent seclusion for the duration, which as from one to two weeks.  I don’t recommend that anyone go on a self retreat lasting more than a weekend without the support of a qualified teacher, meaning someone who has a lot of personal retreat experience, as well as being quite familiar with the concepts essential to Buddhist practice.

The reasons for this include the practicality of how to set up your routine.  It’s one thing to conceptually understand how to pace your practice—the amount of time for each sitting, including walking practice, how to work through the varieties of mental turbulence that are part of the experience, and so on.  This last point about turbulence is quite important, as lack of experience with this issue leads to disappointment and a battle with the hindrance of skeptical doubt that can completely destroy your confidence.

Having explained the context, and with the hope that this account will serve to increase your confidence conceptually, here’s what I can share, having just completed the two week retreat last weekend:

Define your goals.

What this means is to commit to practicing the skills required, not necessarily the outcome.  Consider that meditation is a skill-set, a craft like archery.  If you go to archery camp for a week assuming that you’ll be able to hit the bullseye every time, then you’ll be disappointed.  However, when you commit to learning how to handle the bow and arrow, how to stand, how to coordinate the trajectory of the arrow and so on, then the issue of hitting the bullseye takes care of itself!  Remember, this a practice, not a test.

Be willing to follow the teacher’s instructions.

Remember, the teacher is the coach, that is, the one who has a lot of experience in firing arrows at a target.  This teaching has been successfully passed on through 25 centuries because the system works, provided you follow the instructions.  On my first retreat, which was for two weeks in 1982, I was determined to do what the teacher asked to the best of my naïve understanding.  It was a remarkable event in my life, and I attribute that to my willingness to follow her instructions with determination.  It wasn’t until years later, when I had a lot more experience under my belt, that I realized just how deeply I got into the practice that first time.

Realize that silence is a blessing.

There have been many times when I tell folks about retreat experience and they recoil in dismay, saying “I couldn’t be silent for that long!”  Those who know me know that I’m quite verbal; however, I can tell you that I love the silence, and disengagement from social chatting.  This silence sets the stage for the real accomplishment of a retreat, which is inner silence, which brings with it a peaceful expansiveness in the mind that’s quite restful.

Expect there to be many periods of mental turmoil.

Especially at the beginning of a longer retreat, it takes a few days to settle in and settle the mind down.  Subjectively, as the mind becomes less outwardly focused, and the skills of attentional training build stronger concentration, the mind becomes more sensitive to the emergence of mind-stuff that was already there, but was too distracted by external factors to come into awareness!  As the retreat progresses, the intrusive mind-chatter drops away (provided you maintain the practice discipline), and the expansive peacefulness becomes more predominant.  I believe that the mind is normally processing on many levels (even as I write this), and I know that during retreats I can become aware of these streams of inner commentary “off to the side” of awareness.

Use body awareness as a refuge from the ongoing internal commentary.

Of course, mindfulness of breathing is the standard body sensation focus of this meditation style, and it does provide a neutral, restful, non-commentarial refuge.  Additionally, I use awareness of other body sensations to rest the mind—to give attention a focus that’s organized around just being, not thinking about being.  For example, I often note the contact in my hands, as they press against each other or touch the thighs. I might also note the sensation of air entering, then leaving the nostrils, then briefly rest awareness on the general feeling of being in the body—posture, angles of the limbs, vibrations/pulsing sensations, and such.  Another strategy I use involves carefully listening to a repetitive sound, preferably rather complex, such as the sound of air moving through the A.C. vents, or the sounds of crickets or birds outside.  Just the sound, not thinking about the sound.  Do you know that if you’re attentive enough, you can hear several layers of sound in the larger context of a ceiling fan?  It becomes like listening to an orchestra!

Expect some physical discomfort.

First, let me refer back to the comment about silence.  Ironically, I can recall no one without meditation retreat experience saying to me “I couldn’t sit still for so long!  It would make my body stiff and aches and pains would visit!”  I’m a little reluctant to inform you of the inevitability of physical discomfort, because I fear it will stop you from going on a retreat.  I can assure you that I’ve never suffered any long lasting ill effect from the aching knees, neck, back, etc. that occur during the sitting meditation.  Quite the contrary, I’m probably healthier and more sturdy physically than I would have been had I not gone on retreat.  Here’s why I think the stiffness emerges:  similarly to the chatter turbulence I mentioned earlier, our bodies carry a lot of internal tension and stiffness that we’re quite unaware of.  When sitting in meditation for long periods of time, with the accumulation of stronger inner awareness, the already existing stiffness becomes more apparent.  This occurs whether you sit cross-legged on a cushion, kneel on a bench or sit in a chair.  I’ve done all three over the 30 years of my practice, and the pains come and go.  Another reason for the aches is that the tensions I just mentioned create a sort of mental rigidity reflected in the body, particularly in the neck, back , hips and knees.  As the mind becomes more open and relaxed, less turbulent, then the body opens up, relaxes, and the resulting decrease in tension decreases the pain significantly.

Turn the physical discomfort into mental strength.

I’m not suggesting that meditation practice is masochistic.  What I do know is that the mental pain we endure (Remember the First Noble Truth of suffering?) is reflected in body tension, and, as I just mentioned above, as the mind decreases in turbulence, the body follows along.  Additionally, and more importantly, the uncomfortable reactivity that comes with pain is an important touch point (pun intended…) for the practice.  Relating to my most recent meditation retreat, I can tell you that learning how to let go of my attempts to control or reject the pain (in my left ankle, if you want to know, in sittings lasting 2 hours or more on the cushion—I don’t set that long a time on the retreats I lead for others) was a very important insight for me.  I now know without doubt that the pain in my ankle was increased or decreased due to the amount of urgent mental rejection, not the pressure of my right leg.  I noticed that when I can accept the sensation of pain as just a sensation, then it’s just there, and quite tolerable.  Quite often, the pain becomes more like vibration or pulsing hot spots when I closely examine it.   It’s the mind that struggles! OK, so that might help me deal with chronic pain (a benefit there), but how does that relate to my daily life?  Once I know that relaxing the mind and just mindfully observing what’s arising and passing away, whether it’s physical or emotional pain, I can be at peace with life!

The practice essentially involves directing your attention to an object relentlessly.

The primary object is the touch sensation as the air enters and leaves the nostrils—mindfulness of breathing.  This involves what is called vitakka, directing awareness to the object, and vicara, examining the object to determine its characteristic, e.g., the breath is long or short in duration, rough or smooth.  This routine becomes very well established, repeated countless times during a sitting and over the course of a retreat in general.  In fact, you can say that the primary routine of every waking moment represents a chance to practice intentionally, mindfully, noting what is present in awareness, using breath awareness as the stabilizing, persistent point of reference.  Everything that happens in the mind during the retreat happens in the context of mindful breath awareness. The connection of mindful awareness and breath awareness gets transferred to whatever else arises in the mind, and sets the stage for deepening awareness of the condition of the mind at any given moment, and this is the essence of vipassana/insight knowledge.

Pacing your retreat is very important.

This is another reason to seek the support of an experienced teacher, who can help you regulate the balance of your practice—a balance between energy and tranquility.  There’s a tendency to become impatient and try to force results, whether it’s simply to stay with the breath, or to recapture an impactful event during the meditation sitting.  The process is truly impersonal, in that conditions determine results, not desire.  It is often surprising to folks to realize just how awake the mind has become during a retreat; inexperienced meditators often don’t realize this until after the retreat, when the mind reverts back to the normal jumble.  Meditation competency and the accompanying results are truly the work of a lifetime, in that it is a program of practice that grows through life, not just another project to be checked off the “to do list”.

Ongoing commitment to mindful presence is the goal.

The Buddha said that mindfulness can be practiced in all circumstances—sitting, standing, walking or reclining.  He also talked of satisampajanna, usually translated as mindful, clear awareness, practiced while eating, bathing, etc.  The structure of a retreat is organized to support the practice of satisampajanna during every waking moment—easier said than done!  During a retreat, I’ve found it to be helpful to be especially vigilant and mindful while making the transition from sitting to standing, then to walking.  At the end of a long sit, which may have shifted from being boring to painful, from interesting to dreadful, we tend to space out as the practice shifts from formal sitting to formal walking meditation.  Note what impulse arises that signals, just prior to standing, how your body will accomplish the task.  For example, if you’re sitting on a chair, notice how your body leans forward, then notice if your hands push on your thighs, or simply drop to your side.  Each of those movements requires an impulse, an intention to occur.  It’s quite useful in the practice to note these intentions, as it quickens attention and actions that are taken impulsively may produce unfortunate outcomes (for example, if you don’t notice that your intention to stand left out awareness of an important intention to pick your glasses up before walking away).  One of my favorite practices, both at home and on retreat, is to practice noting the intention to blink, which can be observed just a split second before the blink actually occurs!

After the retreat, life goes on.

Of course this is true; what is meant here is that, although there are changes in your experience of life, they occur gradually, not radically.  Unfortunately, much of common lore about spiritual practice implies that there are dramatic, enduring changes in personality.  Life goes back to normal, with some shifts in focus and changes in what you find valuable in life.  It’s also true that people who know you will ask you how the retreat went.  They aren’t really asking for a detailed recounting of the ups and downs of the retreat.  They’re simply being polite.  Unless the other person also is a meditator, they won’t understand and your comments will confuse or even irritate them.

There’s so much more that can be said about managing a retreat experience.  I hope that what I’ve shared with you will inspire you to find out for yourself what it’s like to dedicate a week of your life to understanding more deeply what a rich inner world is like!  In the next issue of the OIMG newsletter, I hope to have an article on pancabala, which is translated as The Five Powers. The powers are qualities or conditions of the mind that are important in increasing the power of insight meditation.  They are Mindfulness, Effort, Tranquility, Faith and Wisdom. I found them to be quite useful during this recent retreat, and want to share some of what I learned with you.  I wish you well.