My second silent retreat of the year was in Asheville, North Carolina. The retreat started Tuesday evening with dinner, a talk and some meditation. There were fourteen attendees and our meditation teacher. We all began silence when we woke up Wednesday morning and we kept silence until Sunday after breakfast. Silence meant no talking, of course, but it also meant no communicating. So we were advised to avoid eye contact and not use any kind of sign language either. I didn’t know most of the people at the retreat, not even their names, and we weren’t talking and getting to know each other that way; but I felt I did get to know all of them by just being with them and going through this experience together.
We did many short meditations each day. Each meditation was just 24 minutes with a 6 minute break between sessions. We did sitting, walking and laying down meditation. The seated ones could be done on chairs or cushions on the floor. This variety in positions helped keep our backs, hips and knees from aching so much, which I much appreciated. The teacher stressed that the key to successful meditation was relaxation, we needed to keep our mind clear and focused, but deep relaxation was very important. It was a balancing act between clarity and relaxation – clarity on the in-breath and relaxation on the out-breath. We were to focus on the in-breath when feeling dull or drowsy and the out-breath when feeling agitated or mentally excited. This was a new approach to meditation for me and for most of the other participants and it was one that really seemed to work for everyone. For the first time, I was able to lie down and meditate and not fall asleep. I was deeply relaxed, but I learned how to separate relaxation from drowsiness or dullness – at least most of the time.
We used tactile sensations in our bodies as the object of our meditation. We began first with the whole body and what we felt – pressure, pain, itches, tension, tingling – any sensations we felt on the periphery or inside our bodies. We were just to keep our attention on those sensations. We then moved to feeling the sensations of the breath in our whole bodies, then in our abdomen and finally just at the tip of our nose, which is the most subtle. It takes a lot of work to keep your attention on the feeling of the breath at the tip of your nose. Of course, the attention would stray, so we learned techniques for keeping our focus on the object and we learned what to do when we became aware that our attention had wandered completely away from our object. Our teacher talked about when our attention had been shanghaied.
We learned, through experience, that the more you can keep your attention on your object, in this case the tip of the nose, the clearer and brighter your mind will become. After we got so that we could keep our attention on the sensation of the breath at the tip of the nose for longer periods of time, we moved the object of meditation to the “space of the mind.” So we just watched our mind and watched whatever appeared in our minds – any thoughts, images, whatever came up. We tried to remain impartial observers as we watched these appearances and to not judge or tell stories about any of them. This is also hard work to just watch and let these appearances come up, stay awhile and dissolve.
I found it quite amazing what I could do in 24 minutes, how deep I could get, how still I could become and how bright my mind would become, sometimes. I loved the feeling in the room when we were all meditating, a deep stillness seemed to settle in the room and support us all. It is hard to describe, but it was wonderful to experience. I know I will miss that feeling when I meditate alone.
We did between 60-70 meditation sessions during the retreat. For me, some were more successful than others. I did get drowsy and even fell asleep in some, although this happened less often than I would have thought, since I was pretty sleep deprived the first couple days of the retreat. But even in the meditations where I was completely off my object and asleep, I would wake up, realize I was off my object and bring my attention back. It was often after being asleep, that I would have 3 or 4 minutes of being really focused and bright. So no session was ever a waste of time. The teacher said we should think of each in-breath and out-breath as one meditation – which is a freeing concept. If I meditate for 24 minutes and breathe 10 times per minute, I can have 240 meditations within each larger session. Surely within those 240 meditations, I can have some that are really focused and clear and I can work towards making all 240 meditations that way.
We began talking again Sunday morning after breakfast. It almost felt like we were being naughty to talk at first, but it was also nice to talk to the people who I had spent so much silent time with. It was good to learn their names and to hear a little about their experiences in meditation. We left promising that we do another retreat together again next year. I hope we can keep this promise.