So, how did I spend my semi-silent retreat? This one was a little unusual in that usually retreats either allow speaking, or they're conducted in silence. In this one, we were in silence from 9 p.m.- lunch the next day, with silence always maintained in the dormitories. Most people spoke during the non-silent times, but a few retreatants chose to maintain their silence and the group respected that. Here was our weekday schedule through lunch, with some explanation. The afternoon and evening schedule will be my next post.
6:00 a.m. Wake up: Because I was fighting for a spot amongst eight other women in a tiny bathroom, I roused myself around 5:45 a.m. to allow adequate time to use the bathroom, wash my face, and brush my teeth. I'd dress and mosey over to the main lodge, where all of our retreat activities took place. I had a couple of glasses of water and a cup of coffee, in silence, before I settled on my meditation cushion.
6:30 a.m. Meditation (aka "Sit"): This was seated meditation. Some people sat on cushions that they brought. Others fashioned impromptu meditation seating with pillows, blankets, towels and yoga mats. Some people always sat on chairs, and people who spoke with instructors about it first were allowed to meditate laying down, if appropriate. I had to do this, especially by the end of the day: my back isn't strong to begin with, and the 3-4 hours of seated meditation we did every day really took its toll on me. The first night I was there, I needed a narcotic to calm my pain enough to sleep. The original purpose of yoga asana, poses, is to give yogis the strength they need to sit in meditation for hours. I never really understood that until this retreat!
At one point I asked an instructor when would be a good time to leave programming to lay down on my heating pad to soothe my back and neck pain. He said, "What would keep you from bringing your heating pad to meditation and laying on your back?" I said, "Nothing!" As someone who has chronic pain, I have learned how to meditate laying down. I have tricks to ensure I don't fall asleep, like not practicing this way when I'm too sleepy, keeping my eyes only 3/4 of the way shut, putting my knees together, or holding my hands in such a way that if I fell asleep I would jerk to attention. I think I only came close to falling asleep once in this position. My preference is to sit on a meditation cushion with blankets supporting my knees, but I utilized the cushion, a chair, and laying on my yoga mat at different points in the day, depending on what my body needed. Usually, I started the day upright and ended up laying down late afternoon before returning to a chair or cushion again.
7:15 a.m. Chanting: One of the most amazing gifts that came to me from this retreat is the knowledge of how much chanting moves me. This is a common Eastern spiritual practice, but instead of Sanskrit, we chanted Hebrew. We did three chants from the morning blessings in the schacharit service (see below) every morning, and then did a few other chants based on other Jewish sources. There was something tremendously powerful about living in an intentional, albeit temporary, community, our voices joining together in praise of God. Four things resonated with me: the meaning of words we were chanting, the beautiful tones of the chants we were singing, the group nature of the activity, and the vibration of my voice inside my body. All of those elements combined to make it a powerful spiritual technique for me.
At home, I have continued my chanting practice after my morning meditation, and although it's not as potent as it is in a group, it's still useful. It's a meaningful way for me to give thanks to God and to set my intention for the day, and the verses have become mantras for me. Sometimes I'll find myself humming them throughout the day, which of course reminds me of their meaning. Verses from schacharit like, "My God, the soul You placed within me is pure," are things I need to remember, especially when I get drawn into the Trance of Unworthiness. Reminding myself that God made me in God's image is one antidote to the Trance.
7:30 a.m. Shacharit: This is the Jewish morning service. Other than on shabbat [sabbath], all of the prayer services were silent, so people could pray in the style most appropriate for them. We had a huge range of religiosity from people completely a-religious and Jewishly uneducated, to people who were Orthodox and had learned in yeshivot for years. I think it was easier to have unstructured prayer time than to try and conduct a service to make everyone happy, and that kept us in our silence, which was particularly nice after a night of silence and 30-45 minutes of seated meditation. During prayer time, some people prayed, some went to get cups of coffee, and others did yoga or meditated.
8:00 a.m. Breakfast (silent)
9:15 a.m. Sit & Instruction: The instruction was basically Vipassana (insight) meditation 101, where the instructors explained the basics of meditation. The first day they gave instructions on posture and using the breath as an anchor. Other days they talked about using alternate anchors (like sounds or sensations), how to handle emotions that came up during meditation, etc. We also had instruction on topics like the five hindrances to meditation, which will certainly come up in most people's meditation, and some of the antidotes to those hindrances. We covered the traditional Buddhist lovingkindness (metta) meditation; I didn't love the way the teachers taught that one, but since I was already familiar with it, I just practiced the form I'm more comfortable with.
When I went to Tara Brach's talk and guided meditation class the other night, I loved that she led us in a body scan and relaxation exercise before we started to meditate. It really provides a nice transition from "up and active, engaging with the world," to "on my cushion now, settle down." I need to start incorporating this in my home practice, and if I had experienced it before the retreat, I would've let the leaders know on my evaluation form that this would've been awesome.
9:45 a.m. Walk: this was walking meditation performed in the room we were using. It's just another form of mindfulness where instead of using breath or something else as an anchor, you are very focused on your feet hitting the floor. After 45 minutes on my butt on a cushion, I was always very eager to walk. I really zoned out and got into this, and I could see why Thich Nhat Hanh encourages this so enthusiastically (there are videos on You Tube of Hanh and others teaching this). I have tried to make one of my daily dog walks one where I practice walking meditation.
10:45 Yoga: The daily asana practice was so amazing it's getting it's own post later.
11:45 Sit + Group Interview: For more details on what transpires in group interviews, please see my earlier post.
12:30 Eating Instructions: This was only on the first day of retreat, but it was instruction in mindful eating. The teachers passed around a bowl of different foods, including different types of nuts, raisins, and granola. The guy with major food allergies practiced this with an apple. We were instructed to first smell the food; touch it to the lips; put it in our mouths and slowly move it around, seeing how it tastes and feels in different regions of our mouth. It was really enlightening for me to see how mindless my impulse to swallow is: the teacher said, "notice the impulse to swallow," after I had already swallowed my raisin. Oops! After mindful, deliberate chewing and experiencing all these bites of food had to offer, we were instructed to swallow in our own time.
I had heard of this "raisin meditation," and after hearing a friend's jeering review of it, I was skeptical. However, I liked it and found it put me in the right head space to both of my daily silent meals in mindfulness. After all, that was the point: not just not talking for the sake of not talking.
12:45 Lunch (silent)
After leaving dining hall, continue silence or enter speech.