HEALTHY Mind Matters: Sometimes Unplugging From the World Helps You Connect With Yourself

July 31st, 2014 by

It’s always difficult to explain to friends and acquaintances why I go away each year for an extended silent meditation retreat. For the past five years I’ve traveled to Barre, Mass., home of the Insight Meditation Society (IMS), for 10 days of intensive mindfulness practice: sitting, walking, eating and yoga—all in an environment of silence. Approximately 100 other yogis (the word “yogi” is used generically to refer to both male and female practitioners of yoga and meditative practice) gather here from across the country and around the world to immerse themselves in this unique experience —to strengthen our capacity to be “present” with life, moment to moment.

Above the massive front door at IMS, the word “Metta” is inscribed. In Pali, the ancient language of the Buddha, this word is sometimes translated as “unconditional loving kindness” or “unconditional friendliness.” It’s an openhearted welcome. As I step into the foyer, I feel the unmistakable sense of coming home.

Settling In
Upon arrival, each yogi is invited to choose a space in the meditation hall—a huge, tranquil space with large windows, dozens of meditation cushions arranged in rows, and chairs for those with less-flexible limbs—where he or she will meditate during the five to six formal meditation sessions we will have over the next 10 days. I find my spot and arrange what I’ll need—a blanket and a “zafu” or meditation cushion that will become my home base or “mind central” during my stay. As a symbol of our “renunciation” of the complexities and trappings of modern, daily life, we’re invited to voluntarily relinquish our cell phones, which will be locked in the main office—safe from temptation—until the end of the retreat.

The retreat center is set up entirely to support the community of practitioners. In the large dining hall, we share our (amazing) all-vegetarian meals in silence, except for the occasional sound of a chair sliding across the floor, or footsteps. During the retreat, I completely slow down and begin to savor every meal. After all, there’s nothing else I need to do, and nowhere else I need to be. Good food is even more delicious when you slow down and pay attention.

Sharing Rituals
In addition, every person is given a “yogi job.” We all contribute to the operation of the center while on retreat as a practice of mindfulness, interdependence, and generosity. On this retreat a woman, who I subsequently learn is an attorney, runs load after load of dishes through the steamy dishwashing machine as silent yogis line up after lunch with their plates, bowls, and cups. A surgeon sweeps the floor and wipes-down tables after the dinner period. My yogi jobs over the years have included vegetable-chopper, pot-scrubber, and dining room-cleaner. Shared work creates a sense of community during the retreat. Everyone is equal.

For the first few days of silence, my mind/body system seem to be in withdrawal—from the usual bombardment of sensory input I occupy day after day. I notice my mind wanting to fill up the silence with many thoughts. As a regular meditation practitioner, I’m quite used to letting my thoughts go and returning my attention to the present moment by linking it to an “object of attention” such as the breath or sensations in the body. But now the barrage of thoughts seems unstoppable. I find myself annoyed, thinking, “These thoughts are interrupting my meditation!”

Over time, I realize it’s my relationship to my thoughts that is the problem. Once I begin to cultivate Metta—that is, an openhearted friendly relationship with the activity of my mind—the thoughts slow down. The space between thoughts expands. My mind becomes quiet and peaceful, for the most part.

Finding Peace
On retreat, my body and mind have the opportunity to process experiences and feelings that I never deal with in “normal” life. Most of us live largely unaware of what lies beneath the surface of the mind and heart, as we rush through the busy and distracting momentum of life. When you become still and receptive for a while, whether it’s a few days or a few months, in an environment of safety and tranquility, the mind and heart can begin to reveal things you haven’t looked at in your life—and process them with Metta, that loving kindness that we all need and all possess.

I wouldn’t describe a retreat as “fun,” but it’s definitely healing. I go on retreat to discover and become receptive to the truth of my human experience: the fear, joy, sorrow and awe lying just beneath the surface waiting for my kind and openhearted attention. My job is to stop and feel what’s really here. With each retreat, I become more comfortable with the peaks and valleys of my own inner landscape, and more at ease just being me. I depart knowing that this retreat has been time well spent.

photo credit Stuart Miles via FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

 

 

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