By Sarah Roberts, Assistant Director of Numinus
Insight Meditation Society
Last week, I drove to Barre, Massachusetts with Numinus Clinic director Joe Flanders and Numinus Clinic teacher Julien Lacaille to attend a six-day silent meditation retreat at the Insight Meditation Society (IMS). Founded in the 1970s by American Buddhist teachers Sharon Salzberg, Jack Kornfield, and Joseph Goldstein, IMS is one of the oldest meditation retreat centres in the West. The centre is housed in a beautiful old mansion, and runs regular retreats dedicated to the cultivation of vipassana (insight) and metta (lovingkindness). Our retreat was run by Kittisaro and Thanissara, Buddhist teachers who live and teach primarily in the US and in South Africa.
On Monday evening, we gathered with one hundred retreatants from all over the United States and Canada for our orientation session. We were given a tour of the centre, and each retreatant was assigned a small dorm room (single bed, sink and mirror, wardrobe and chair) and a daily job that would contribute to the functioning of the centre. I was assigned to a team of after-lunch pot-washers; fellow retreatants were assigned various gardening, housekeeping, and food preparation jobs.
Following the orientation session, Thanissara and Kittisaro rang a bell and Noble Silence was officially in session. Noble Silence simply refers to a commitment to remain silent for a certain extended period; the silence is designed to still our mouths and therefore our minds; making it easier to sit calmly; observe the workings of our minds and bodies; and cultivate perception, clarity, and wisdom.
Starting Tuesday morning, the format of the retreat was as follows: at 5am, a bell-ringer walked through the halls of the dorms, ringing a bell to wake us and call us to gather in the meditation hall at 5:10 for chanting and sitting meditation. I usually took the opportunity to sit outside and enjoy the lightening sky instead, joining the group for the next meditation period at 6am. At 6:30, we ate breakfast. At 8:15am, we reconvened in the meditation hall for alternating periods of sitting meditation and walking meditation until lunch at noon. The afternoon schedule was very similar: alternating periods of sitting and walking meditation, until a light dinner (soup with crackers or bread) at 5:30pm. All meals were vegetarian, and each period of sitting, walking, or eating was indicated by bell-ringing. At any time, retreatants could choose to meditate in the meditation hall, in the dorm rooms, in alternate designated meditation areas, or outside; we were also free at any time to nap, take a walk, have a cup of tea, or otherwise rest or rejuvenate.
Every evening, Thanissara or Kittisaro gave a “dharma talk.” The word dharma refers to the underlying order of nature and human life, and to behaviour considered to be in accord with that order. The word is also often used to refer to the entirety of the teachings of the Buddha, and a “dharma talk” simply means a talk on Buddhism by a Buddhist teacher. Kittisaro and Thanissara’s dharma talks were excellent. Some referred to Buddhist teachings that were not familiar to me, but the underlying themes of compassion, acceptance, and non-striving were very familiar from my experience as an MBSR participant and teacher. The teachers were warm, engaging, and funny. In particular, Kittisaro’s description of his early life as an incorrigible striver (Rhodes’ Scholar, wrestling champion, medical student) made us laugh.
Buddhism and MBSR
For me, one of the pleasures of the retreat was hearing Thanissara and Kittisaro teach many of the concepts we teach in our mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program, but from their unique perspective. Mindfulness is a Buddhist concept only quite recently popularized and secularized in the West as a tool for physical and emotional health and well-being. Although Western mindfulness teachers are educated in Buddhist principles and cognizant of the roots of mindfulness, the MBSR curriculum is specifically designed to be secular, and does not explicitly refer to Buddhist teachings. Although the retreat teachers only used the word mindfulness a handful of times during the week, the themes of awareness via body sensations, allowing experience to be as it is, turning toward rather than away from pain, and cultivating compassion for personal and others’ suffering were unmistakable. Furthermore, many of the dharma talks touched upon the seven foundational attitudes to mindfulness practice (acceptance, non-judgment, non-striving, beginner’s mind, patience, trust, and letting go) identified by MBSR founder Jon Kabat-Zinn, and explicitly taught in MBSR.
Being on retreat is in some ways demanding (waking up at 5am, meditating for extending periods) and in some ways relaxing (no phones, internet, email, shopping, cooking, or demands on your time), but it’s above all interesting. Noticing what your mind does when the usual demands are absent is like sitting behind the window of a laboratory. I became extremely sensitive to the operations of my mind, immediately noticing each time a stray thought caused a twinge of anxiety or stab of fear; and acutely aware of the precise moment I became itchy, hungry, or otherwise physically uncomfortable. I had the space and time to observe my mental habits, noticing each time my mind latched onto one of its usual topics of rumination, or reacted to some nonverbal behaviour from a fellow retreatant. In some instances, the heightened awareness allowed me to behave more skillfully; in other instances, I observed myself repeating unhelpful patterns.
Now the retreat is over. I’m back in Montreal, back at work, and meeting with the usual demands and pleasures of my regular life. What’s different? First, I have retreat jet lag, which means that I’m going to bed and waking up about two hours earlier than usual. Second, I regularly stop and ask myself “How is it now?” This is a phrase Kittisaro and Thanissara encouraged us to use to check in with ourselves. Third, I’ve been speaking more slowly and less often, and listening more, realizing that everything that crosses my mind doesn’t need to be spoken out loud. Fourth, I’ve noticed that I’m more sensitive than usual to my own and others’ emotions, to the sounds in my environment and to the loveliness of nature.
I hope all of these changes last, but I’m prepared for them to fade or fluctuate. After all, if there’s any one lesson to take from Buddhist teachings, it’s the impermanence of all things.