How to choose your retreat
From Aymard’s journal..
“I had been wanting to go on a silent meditation retreat since I read my first book on Buddhism around a year ago. That book, Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright, explored and explained how modern psychology is coming to a lot of the same conclusions than Buddhism did over 2000 years ago.
I did apprehend it, however, since I wasn’t able to stay still for more than 15 minutes when I tried to meditate. Also the thought of being stuck in my mind, for a week and without any form of distraction sounded unpleasant, to say the least. I wanted the results without the journey to get there.
Over time what I wanted to get out of it (spiritual development, a deep check-in with myself and an enhanced meditation practice) started to outweigh the apprehension and I started to look for one.
Finding which retreat to pick is surprisingly difficult. There are so many available options and few give detailed explanations of the experience you sign up for. I saw options ranging from 3 days in luxury spa type complexes with eucalyptus-scented towels to 14 days sleeping on a wooden floor and with a hard start at 4:30 am every day.I ended up following a friend’s advice, to pick primarily based on the teacher that guides the retreat. I started to listen to different teacher’s interviews and talks until I found one whose message and phrasing resonated most with me. It was this talk by Adyashanti. I felt confident that I had found “my guy”. I booked a retreat with him to start in 6 months and kind of forgot about it.”
Here Aymard shares how to prepare for the retreat. The most important is to go with no expectations so you won’t be disappointed that it is not the way you imagined it to be. Aymard continues:
“Around a month before, I received an email with a list of what to bring, some ground rules and a request to come prepared with the phone numbers of two emergency contacts. Last time I was asked this was before skydiving. What did I get myself into?
I also went on a last-minute research and shopping frenzy to find the perfect meditation cushion. That frenzy was fueled by my chiropractor telling me, three days before my trip, that he had given up on a silent retreat day 2 because of back pain (and he is a chiropractor!).
For reference, I chose the crescent zafu format over the round zafu one since it offers better hip and legs support. For the filling, buckwheat provides sturdy but malleable support, like a bean bag and kapok a softer one, like a pillow. Both fillings have their pros and cons. A better-organized person would have tried both types ahead of time. I didn’t have that luxury, so when in doubt I bought one of each.
On the day, I packed my bag and left my phone and computer at home. I wanted to make sure that even in my weakest moment I couldn’t cave in and check my phone. I wrote the directions and my emergency contacts on a piece of paper, rented a car, and drove 200 miles to Lake Tahoe armed with my two freshly received meditation cushions.
Once arrived I finally received the full schedule. 6 hours of meditation per day, the first one starting every day at 7:30 am. Next to that, there was also a morning and evening talk by Adyashanti, plenty of breaks for meals or walking meditation in the woods and a daily Qigong session (a similar practice to Tai Chi).
Just before silence was inaugurated, we got to share a last social meal and the person sitting next to me turned out to have played an important role in the industry I work in. And just like that, as my mind was racing with who I wanted to tell about this encounter, and what other questions I wanted to ask that person, silence started and it dawned on me that this would have to wait for at least 6 days. We were 10 seconds into silence and I already felt tested.”
“The rules were very clear. No speaking, no gesturing, no passing notes, and no eye contact. Silence could only be broken for one very specific reason if one happened to run into a bear while walking in the woods. Great.
And so, as the switch got flipped the general introversion level got turned up to 11, and our group of 250 turned the big old wooden hotel we were occupying into a sort of respectful zombie land.
The first hours were hard, frustrating and mildly claustrophobic. But as I got to ease into the new state, to my surprise, it started to feel increasingly comfortable and effortless. An overall feeling of relief started to grow on me.
On the second day, that feeling of relief turned into a sort of uninterrupted flow state. And from that moment on, the next five days flew by. For the sake of this article, I divided it into three phases, but in reality, they were much more intertwined. “
Phase 1: Being Present
“For the most part, my mind reached a level of calmness, presence and focus that I didn’t know I was capable of. And as the retreat progressed I started to understand more and more of the “spiritual clichés” that I’ve seen over the years (thank you Instagram) but only understood on an intellectual level.
Take the sentence “In a moment of pause, everything that is non-essential fades away. That is what life without a narrative feels like”. Sounds poetic and spiritual right? At least that’s what I was thinking when I first read it. I also thought I understood what it meant, but I really didn’t. The glimpses I got at experiencing life without a narrative during this retreat made it pretty obvious.
Meditation is the key initiator since it helps you identify and then reduce mental chatter by disassociating with it. Teaching you how not to get sucked in every time our ego opens a new tab, to get back to my web browser analogy.
Most of us spend our life identifying with our mental chatter. And for a good reason, since it serves an evolutionary purpose. Our ego makes us plan for the future, worry what someone thinks of us or reminds us of awkward memories. And in most cases, it’s to make us more socially functional and socially integrated. But it’s also a constant source telling us we could be better, we could do more and that when we’ll finally have that one thing we always wanted we’ll finally be happy. The majority of our pain and suffering comes from when the outside world doesn’t recognize what the ego thinks of itself.
Pretty early into the retreat, this inner monologue moved from the center stage to the background. And sometimes it felt as if it was completely gone, taking away all the emotions attached to it. I was starting to have glimpses of life without a narrative. No more internal stories, social anxiety, worries about the future, pressure based on external expectations, ruminating the past, etc. To a certain extent, it (temporarily) freed me of the character I thought I was supposed to play in society, as weird as it sounds.
And once all of that has been tuned out, everything that is left is what is in front of you. It’s a pretty radical cure to compulsive multitasking. And somehow that made everything, food, nature, sun, movement, wind, etc. more tangible. It brings back a sense of wonder about the world. And since you then realize that you don’t need anything or anyone to feel at peace and complete, a sense of deep self-comfort starts to install itself. I could clearly feel heightened levels of gratefulness, compassion, kindness, and attentiveness. Having less but valuing more. And for the rest of the retreat, watching nature became my new Netflix, and it was the best show I had ever watched.
On a purely logistical basis, I meditated more during this retreat than I had in my whole life if I summed up all my sessions until then. The first days I had to take a couple of mini-breaks per session to move my legs and relieve the pain. By the end of the week, I was able to sit completely still for almost an hour. Both the meditation group setting, as well as the kapok meditation pillow, played an important part in it.”
Phase 2: Personal Inquiry
“Towards the middle of the retreat, a series of personal questions started to emerge. The type of questions that are so much easier to ignore, since facing the answers forces you to acknowledge any sort of internal dissonance that is present.
Questions like: What is the most important thing I could be doing with my life? What makes me most happy? Why don’t I do more of it? What do I care most about? What do I value most in others? In myself? If I met myself today would I be friends with myself? Am I proud of the person I am becoming? Do my choices reflect the person I want to become? And these questions go deeper and deeper by asking follow-up why/why not’s all the way down.
The retreat creates a sort of void that makes it much easier to sit with these ideas and feelings until they are resolved. Partly because mediation makes you much more aware of how you talk to yourself, and you can then modulate the tone. Moving from mainly judgmental to mainly compassionate. But also because being fully cut off from any external stimuli, it becomes much easier to listen to the inner voice, gut feeling, heart, intuition, or whatever else you want to call it. There is just no avoiding yourself here, and no distracting yourself from yourself. “
Phase 3: Spiritual Questioning
Aymard shares something that truly speaks to me, we are all “One”, there is no me or you, we mirror each other, we are all “One”. Hard to explain but so true. Listen to “Johnny Cash – “One””.
“From what I understood there are two main pillars to “conquer” to start the journey towards waking up. The first is to deeply realize that we don’t know what we are. That we are the passenger, not the driver. The talk I linked at the beginning of this article has been one of the best ones I’ve heard on the topic and I would highly recommend a listen if this topic is interesting to you. From a spiritual as much as from an intellectual perspective.
The second exercise, which I like to think I did slightly better at was the following. To observe our environment while suspending any labels we have learned about the different items or emotions we perceive. For example, let’s take a tree. Since we know intellectually what a tree is composed of we don’t spend any time trying to properly perceive it. We take the mental shortcuts our brain has put in place and for a good reason, the world would be way too overwhelming if the brain had to start from scratch for every single new object it saw. And as much as it’s great to navigate the world, it actually puts a certain distance between you and the object. The goal of the exercise is to reset this and bring back a complete beginner’s mind in observing the world. Similar to how we experienced the world as a kid. This, in turn, had the surprising effect of bringing me much closer to objects I was applying it to. It almost brought a form of intimacy. I imagine that this road leads to the “we are all one” conclusion.”
“I came into the retreat wanting three things: spiritual development, a deep check-in with myself and an enhanced meditation practice. I got a little bit of spiritual development, somewhat of a meditation practice (although only time will tell how long I will manage to keep it going) and much more personal inquiry than I bargained for.
This retreat was a pretty strong reminder that we now live in a world where we’re connected to everything except ourselves. It also gave an extra layer of meaning to this quote by Pascal “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
Being mindful and present during a retreat isn’t the challenge since everything there is set up to make it as easy as possible for you. It’s keeping it going once back in the world that is. In a way, it felt very similar to the post-Burning Man experience. The real work starts now.
There was this other quote that came back to me towards the end. “There are only two ways to live your life: as though nothing is a miracle, or as though everything is a miracle”. If you find yourself too deep on the former, a retreat might be exactly what you need to bring you back towards the latter.”
I have done a Vipassana silent retreat in summer 2017 and ran away from it on day 7. It was a 10 days retreat and I wish I completed it. But it is silly to have regrets. I still learnt so much about myself and am grateful for the experience. It makes me very happy that there are like minded people like Aymard who are not afraid to choose a challenge of 6 days in silence and alone. Thank you for sharing!